What should we think of a community of slaves,
who betrayed each other’s interest? Of a little band
of shipwrecked mariners upon a friendless shore,
who were false to each other?
-Sarah Ellis, The Daughters of England (1845)
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donaghue
Do you like historical fiction? How about a hint of camp a la Ryan Murphy? Did the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal really get you going? Are your favorite heroes anti-heroes? Then The Sealed Letter by Emma Donaghue is for you. Based on a salacious divorce case that the entirety of England spent rubbernecking in 1864, Donoghue fills gaps in the historical record with an uncanny eye for detail and seamless characterization.
Emily Faithfull (tellingly nicknamed “Fido”) and Helen Codrington have a chance run-in on the streets of London, seven years after a misunderstanding that led Fido to believe their friendship was severed. The women are complete opposites: Helen a light froth, frivolous and unambitious; while Emily reminds one of heavy mahogany, steadfast and true, working diligently on the behalf of the British Women’s Movement. Helen is unhappily married, Fido is peering spinsterhood in the face. Fido is colored a Victorian shade of shocked when she learns of Helen’s affair with a young army officer. What begins as a private endeavor to help her friend (“One may have a single bad dinner on a Sunday, without deciding to scrap the whole institution of Sunday dinner.” Helen responds: “I’ve been choking down this particular dinner for fifteen years.”) soon becomes an explosive public courtroom drama, replete with tawdry counterclaims, accusations, and witness testimony.
I Know The Librarians Hate It When I Turn Down The Pages
In my opinion, Emma Donaghue is underrated. Have you read The Room or The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits? Both are amazing. Emma is such a versatile writer: she can write skillfully about contemporary or historical times; she can just as deftly use the voice of a middle-aged woman or a young boy. Donaghue has a way of imbuing her characters into the text. It is the small ways that they observe and interact with their world that tells you the secrets of their inner workings. Emma lays bare the contradicting and hypocritical natures of all her characters, encouraging us to explore these aspects of ourselves as well. Donghue writes:
The woman’s solid arms wrap around her, and for a moment Helen feels dizzy, because both versions are true: in the back of her head she’s laughing at the spinster’s naivete, and yet she’d like nothing better than for Fido to sort out her life for, somehow.
I love when authors use a common phrase such as “in the back of her head” in a grammatically complicated/multi-clause sentence. Like a good street style blogger, Donaghue seamlessly blends high and low in her prose. No spoiler alert, but: Emma Shyamalan’s this book. And not the shitty late-aughts Shyamalan. She Six Sense‘s us. The plot twist isn’t revealed until the end; so deliciously sprinkled throughout the book that I’d been marking down the pages it reared on, thinking, “hmmmm, that’s weird.” This book is much more than an examination of Victorian mores. The Sealed Letter explores the complicated nature of female friendships, marriage, the nature and consequences of hearsay, and making the personal political.
Have you read Emma Donaghue? Do you like her? Have you read The Sealed Letter? What’s your favorite historical fiction? Comment below! Share this article, let’s not hog all the Emma for ourselves.