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The Sealed Letter (2008)

The Sealed Letter (2008)

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3.3 of 5 Votes: 4
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1554680360 (ISBN13: 9781554680368)
harpercollins canada

About book The Sealed Letter (2008)

Emma Donoghue is an Irish-Canadian playwright, novelist and literary historian with a gift for immersing herself in the past and presenting it for modern readers in the form of well-crafted stories. Her bestselling, award-winning novel Slammerkin (2000) captures the underworld of prostitution in 18th-century London while seducing the reader into caring about an actual teenage girl who was hanged for murder. In The Sealed Letter, Donoghue takes on the real lives behind a scandalous English divorce case of the 1860s, a time when divorce was rare and shocking by definition.Donoghue's fiction, both historically-based and contemporary, usually features primary relationships between women, some of which are explicitly lesbian. Even in the absence of clearly-expressed sexual attraction, these relationships are intimate, important, life-saving and in some cases, life-destroying. This author offers us the missing link, the interaction between women which has been below the radar of male-centered accounts of history. In the opening scene of The Sealed Letter, Emily Faithfull, self-employed feminist printer, is accosted on the street by a former bosom friend, Helen Codrington, who has returned to London with her husband, an Admiral in the Royal Navy, after seven years in Malta. Emily believes that Helen deliberately stopped writing to her, and the unexpected reappearance of her old friend almost shatters Emily's habitual self-control. The drama is all in the details:"A hand lights on her [Emily's:] arm, a small, ungloved hand; the brown silk of her sleeve is caught between plump pink fingertips. She staggers, clamps her pocketbook to her ribs, but even as she's jerking away she can't help recognizing that hand.'Fido?'One syllable dipping down, the next swooping up, a familiar and jaunty music; the word skips across the years like a skimmed stone. Almost everyone calls her that now, but Helen was the first. Fido's eyes flick up to Helen's face: sharp cheekbones, chignon still copper. An acid lemon dress, white lace gloves scrunched in the other hand, the one that's not gripping Fido's sleeve. The human river has washed Fido sideways, now, into a scarlet-chested, brass-buttoned officer, who begs her pardon."As "Fido" (Emily) is drawn into Helen's messy life (including her affair with the brass-buttoned officer), the women's revived friendship is tested to its limits, and the reputations of all the major characters are tarnished.The reader learns that "Fido" once lived with the Codringtons and even shared a bed with Helen, usually when her husband was away. Admiral Codrington, despite his conservative values, accepted this arrangement. Since their first meeting, he has liked "Fido" and hoped she would have a steadying effect on his flighty wife. Even after the Admiral hires an investigator to collect evidence to use against his wife in court, "Fido" cannot see him as a monster, and he never completely loses his respect for her.The real villain, as "Fido" sees clearly, is the law that gives almost unlimited power to husbands over their wives and children.The "sealed letter" of the title is a ploy devised by the Admiral's lawyer to discredit his wife and her friend by innuendo. The reader knows that in the first phase of the women's friendship, the Admiral didn't suspect anything "unnatural" between them and probably wouldn't have speculated about it in a letter, even to a trusted relative. But what is the truth of the relationship between Helen and "Fido"? In an era when sentimental friendships between women could include displays of devotion that would embarrass post-Freudian heterosexual women, the line between sexual and asexual feminine bonding could be very thin.When the contents of the "sealed letter" are revealed, they are almost anti-climactic. The author's use of suspense and dramatic revelations is worthy of Dickens, whose own messy marriage is mentioned in passing. The actual case on which this book is based is a tragedy, and the author gives it the operatic treatment it deserves in a big novel told from multiple viewpoints in numerous chapters with titles such as "Prima Facie, "Feme Covert" [a reference to the law that defined every wife as a perpetual minor whose legal identity was subsumed by that of her husband:], "Reasonable Suspicion," "Engagement," and on to "Verdict" and "Feme Sole." For anyone with an interest in the early feminist movement, in Victorian literature or in "women's fiction" in the broadest sense, this book is not to be missed. ------------------------

Just OK. Confession - I didn't even realize that the Emma Donoghue of "The Sealed Letter" and "Slammerkin" was the same Emma Donoghue who wrote "Room"! The first two books obviously belong to the same writer and genre. "Room" is a completely different story, setting, writing I didn't even connect them - I somehow thought there must be two different Emmas! The Sealed Letter is a novel based on a true story of a divorce case in Victorian England. As I pointed out in my review of "Room", I don't have a problem with writers basing works of fiction on items ripped from the headlines - of any era. In this case, I think I might have enjoyed reading a true life account better. I found Donoghue's writing, in this novel, flat and uninteresting. I wonder if she was not as interested in writing it as she first set out to be! The blurb on the front cover says it's a "deliciously wicked little romp". Gotta disagree with that. Delicious, no. A little sordid, yes. If someone in this book had seemed to be having fun, that might have been delicious. Maybe this should have been written in the voice of "Helen", the woman who is being divorced. She supplies the wickedness. She's selfish, manipulative, passionate - so she could have been a lot of fun as a character - that whole "root for the bad girl" thing. But she doesn't seem like she's having fun, except perhaps once. She's also, dare I say it, stupid. As for the romping, there's not much of it. Seriously, "The Forsyte Saga" has more sex in it than this does. As well as a depiction of Victorian England, written by someone who was there! The other character I was really disappointed with was Emily "Fido" Faithfull. ("Fido"?! Really?!) She was, in real life & the novel, a leading light of the first wave of a "women's movement"; a reformer; a writer and editor and working woman in an age where women didn't Do That. Sounds great, right? In the novel she's prudish, fearful, stupid and can't figure out what's she doing from one moment to the next. I can't even believe in her as a character. What would have been cool - for a third woman to show up for some naughty & fun sex scenes with Helen & perhaps Harry (the husband) too; said wicked woman would then drown Helen, Harry & Fido in the Thames. Good riddance.

Do You like book The Sealed Letter (2008)?

Before this month, I’d never heard of the Reform Firm. That was the name of a group of women in the Victorian era who fought to improve women’s education, among other feminist causes. During this time when all women were supposed to be married and the property of their husbands, those who couldn’t marry had very few choices. One of those few choices was becoming a governess. The English Woman’s Journal was founded by two members of the Reform Firm, Barbara Leigh Smith and Bessie Rayner Parkes; they were hoping to influence old legislation that prevented women from owning property after marriage and kept women and girls from attending public schools. The Journal was published by the Victoria Press, which was run by Emily Faithfull; through the journal and the press, the women were able to employ many women to prove their theories by putting them into action. Coincidentally, the last two books I’ve read involved these interesting women. Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres, Ruth Brandon includes a chapter on the women of the Reform Firm. Actually, the book takes up with governesses much earlier. Brandon, analyzing journals, letters and literature of the time, recreates the sad lives most governesses led. She begins with Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, who actually spent a short time as a governess before her writing career took off, and includes Claire Clairmont (Lord Byron’s mistress); Anna Leonowens, the model for The King and I, among others. Brandon shows how precarious governesses’ lives were; always at the whim of their employers, they could be fired for any reason - getting on the wrong side of the mother, for example. As the middle class grew in the Industrial Revolution, more families were able to hire governesses to educate their girls, but they didn’t have the large estates that the wealthy did. As a result, governesses were forced to live intimately with the families, causing much strife. And wages dropped to unliveable levels. The final chapter tells how the Reform Firm began to work at challenging the social mores regarding women’s education, though it was still many years before schools allowed girls in.The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue is a novel based on an illustrious divorce case in 1864. Helen Smith, British, but raised in Italy and India, captured the heart of a much older man, the Vice-Admiral Henry Codrington. They have a few good years of marriage and have two daughters. The Admiral is often away for long periods of time at sea. During one of those absences, Helen invites a good friend of the family, Emily Faithfull!! (she of the Victoria Press above), to live with her and keep her company. By the time Henry comes back Helen is tired of her husband and when the arguments ensue, Emily is asked to leave. Eventually the family is off to Malta on assignment, where Helen begins to “befriend,” if you know what I mean, a few of the officers. When the family eventually returns to London, one of the officers follows, and Helen is caught. The divorce was an incredible scandal, the trial sensational with accusations of rape and a lesbian affair. Though Emily remained a force in the feminist movement until her death, her name was always associated with the scandal.Both books were incredibly good. Brandon writes a remarkably interesting and readable social history of a small aspect of the lives of Victorian women. Donoghue captures Victorian England so well, fitting in period details without interrupting the flow of the story. All three of her characters have been perfectly rendered; no one is the victim or the victor, each is a unique individual with a complex personality. For those as interested as I am in the Victorian age, add these to your list.
—Lisa Mettauer

This is an excellent bit of history. This is the true story of a famous divorce case in London in 1864, Codrington vs Codrington. It also involves Emily "Fido" Faithfull, "a spinster pioneer in the British women's movement". This was a slow read for me but only because of the dense history. The writing is beautiful and so evocative of the time period. I can't seem to get enough of English history. I would definitely recommend if you enjoy historical fiction. I also highly recommend Emma Donoghue, she also wrote one of my all time favorite books, Slammerkin.

If my 1 and 5-star reviews are rumoured to be entertaining, this one is likely to be quite lackluster. Mostly because I found neither nothing spectacularly bad not spectacularly good to say about the book. It sits squarely within that tier of book you can read on a plane comfortably, but that you won't be tossing away or giving to a charity bin. It's okay, really.It was in places trite, in places allowed its characters to be idiots far more than would be reasonable, in places went so much into the "things are not what they seem" realm that it fell straight into the absurd. I felt the ending - though I was expecting something of that sort all along, really - was rather unnecessary, and that the portrayal of the characters suffered because of some sort of bias, I am not quite sure what.Still and all, it was not boring, and the writing style was light and well-executed, though I suppose one could expect no less of Emma Donoghue. The book tackled issues of equality in marriage and divorce, a topic always close to my heart, and that, too, wins it points in my account.
—Genia Lukin

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