THE SEALED LETTER by Emma Donoghue (HarperCollins), 397 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Emma Donoghue’s gone back to her bread and butter, historical fiction, and the result sure is tasty.
As she’s done in her excellent novels Slammerkin and Life Mask, Donoghue seizes on a real-life figure, does deep research and then imagines a potboiler of a tale, this one about friendship and betrayal in 1850s London.
Emily Faithfull, a feminist and groundbreaking businesswoman running her own press, rekindles her friendship with Helen Codrington after seven years. The married Helen, privileged and undisciplined, proceeds to use Emily in order to further an affair with a young colonel that leads to a messy and very public divorce court case.
The aptly named Faithfull, who goes by the also apt nickname Fido, is wholly receptive to Helen’s complaints about the perils of marriage, and besides is a little in love with Helen. So we get passionate letters, vows of never-ending fealty and Fido living vicariously through Helen’s complex love life.
Donoghue mines Victorian repression to fashion a very pleasurable read, creating the same kind of paradox that’s made Sarah Waters so successful.
That paradox is missing from Donoghue’s previous novel, Landing, which has a contemporary setting. It’s as if Donogue needs the historical context – where the repression factor kicks in and she can manipulate the emotions from a distance – to do her best work.
The writing here is terrific – a sky is as blue as a vein, a silence clots like blood – and the characters are complex. Helen’s not all evil. She’s a hot-blooded woman constrained by the times and her prig of a husband, Harry. Harry’s not a tyrant; he’s simply duty-bound and not quite sure what to do with his wild wife, the mother of his two children.
Make sure to read the Author’s Note at the end to find out what really happened to these terrific characters.
Donoghue appears at a high tea event at the King Edward on Sunday (April 20). See Readings.