The Sealed Letter: deception and divorce in Victorian England

Emma Donoghue skilfully exhumes the true-life cast of a scandal to conduct a gripping examination of manipulation and malice.

Reflection, a 19th-century painting by the Belgian artist Eugene Verdyen. In the novel, Helen, "an enjoyable monster", exploits her initial resemblance to the suffering heroines of Victorian novels. Fine Art Photographic / Getty Images
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Room was a star-making breakthrough for Emma Donoghue, but if you had put me to a blind test and asked which contemporary Irish author wrote it, I would have guessed the dramatist Enda Walsh. Donoghue was responding loosely to the Josef Fritzl case, in which an Austrian woman spent 24 years locked in the basement of her rapist father, whom she bore seven children. The spin that Donoghue put on this rather stomach-turning material was straight out of Walsh's The Walworth Farce, or perhaps Bedbound, both of which seemed to anticipate the Fritzl story. Room slimmed down the cast, sharing Walsh's interest in the power of very claustrophobic relationships to generate their own fairy-tale mythologies, and of confined spaces to become theatres for the imagination. It tapped into a vein of mordant abstraction that runs deep in Irish writing, all the way back to Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien.

What makes it surprising that Donoghue should have written it is the fact that her earlier work consists largely of historical dramatisations and studies of female companionship. Room made it to the shortlist for the 2010 Man Booker prize, of course, and won Donoghue an army of new admirers, which will be why Picador has decided to issue her previous novel in an overdue British edition. The move may yet backfire given Room's atypicality, but here's hoping it doesn't.

The Sealed Letter was first published in Canada in 2008. It is neither as bold nor as interesting as Room, but it is still a thoroughly enjoyable novel, skilfully constructed, gripping and thoughtful.

The plot is based on a scandalous English divorce trial of the 1860s. Really based on it, rather than just echoing it, à la Room: we find Donoghue reanimating genuine historical personages, sticking close to the record and, in a few places, visibly puzzling over what the given facts might mean (her deference to the documents doesn't preclude occasional distracting lapses into modern colloquialism, with references to "teamwork" and "real life" creeping in amongst the tarradiddle and rodomontade). Her heroine is Emily "Fido" Faithfull, stocky proprietress of a radical women's press. Unmarried at 29, Fido lacks "the part of a woman's heart that, in the presence of the right man, melts and runs like ore from the rock". She is devoted to "the Cause", her English Woman's Journal and her Society for the Promotion of Employment of Women, which sounds like a Hysterical Realist acronym joke - along the lines of Zadie Smith's Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation - but which is gratifyingly real.

The novel opens when Fido bumps into a long-estranged friend in Farringdon, London's traditional printing district. Seven years earlier she had lived with Helen Codrington and her naval husband Harry at their house in Kent. The marriage had already turned sour - "nothing to bind them except two small daughters, and the full force of law" - but Fido had taken it upon herself to try to mediate between the Captain and his leisured, not to say bored and capricious, younger wife. She liked them both: was drawn to Helen, significantly, "by instinct, as a bloom opens to a bee", but also admired the tall and black-bearded Harry, "his earnestness, his zeal for the Navy, his tenderness with the children"; she found him "manly in the best sense". Nevertheless, whatever good qualities Fido could see in each spouse proved invisible to the other and the marriage degenerated to such an extent that Harry asked the guest to leave the house, to shield her from unpleasant scenes. Shortly afterwards, Captain Codrington got the first of his overseas administrative postings and Fido and Helen lost touch, apparently owing to the vicissitudes of the Maltese postal service.

In the years that followed Fido reinvented herself as Emily Faithfull, champion of the "womanist" movement. She surrounded herself with feminist heroines such as Bessie Parkes and Emily Davies, proto-bluestockings very unlike the hedonistic Helen, who is "always striking some arch pose from one of her yellow-jacketed [ie licentious] French novels". Yet when Mrs Codrington breezes back into Fido's life, dragging a certain handsome Captain Anderson on her arm, Fido is powerless to resist her allure; she is once again, Donoghue writes, "sucked into this woman's orbit; the festive whims and whirls of it", and the reader isn't far behind.

After some rather heavy-handed historical set-dressing (a ride on the newly opened London Underground, gossip about Charles Dickens' marriage), Helen confesses that she might have been leading Captain Anderson on a bit. Fido is chastely horrified and urges Helen to end the flirtation before her "self-respect" is compromised. In return, Helen persuades Fido to offer up her own house for the purpose. Listening at the door of her drawing-room, Fido discovers Mrs Codrington breaking it off with Captain Anderson in something closer to the Rihanna-endorsed sense than previously agreed. Fido is now an accomplice in Helen's adultery, and the stage is set for an interesting literary thought-experiment: what might have happened if a tender-hearted lesbian version of Middlemarch's Dorothea had tried to take Madame Bovary under her wing?

For a while, the answer actually resembles Swann's affair with Odette in Swann's Way (and this profusion of literary echoes is very much to the point). Fido allows wishful thinking to blind her to the vulgar and blowsy Helen's increasingly ominous appetites. Her taste alone should set alarm bells ringing: Fido visits a home crammed with "Bengal shawls and gilt-eyed wally dogs", every "high-shelved whatnot or occasional table, every chair leg or handle, is bronzed or scalloped or carved with flowers and animals ...". "I'd have everything up-to-date if Harry would only loosen the purse strings," Helen remarks, in one of her defining gripes. The English novel has of course associated voguish interior design with female infidelity at least since A Handful of Dust.

Helen proceeds through the following stages of "fallenness" at a pace: she starts turning up at Fido's offices and making scenes. Further attempts to break with Anderson are no more conclusive than the first and it emerges that Helen and Anderson were in cahoots from the start, conspiring around Fido rather than the other way around. Old associates from her time in Malta emerge with stories of still more abandoned carry-on. Finally Harry, by now a vice-admiral with time on his hands, begins to brood on some strange aspects of his wife's behaviour. At last he files for divorce, learning too late what a prohibitively difficult and controversial business it is.

The remainder of the novel becomes a diverting Victorian courtroom drama, complete with daring legal gambits and interjections of smut from the gallery. It would give too much away to explain the significance of the title, which is a pity because it is both an intriguing metaphor and rather an opaque plot point. While much of the Codrington affair feels remarkably like ready-made fiction, reality didn't supply a denouement that makes a huge amount of sense, and in Donoghue's hands it feels more like a muddle than a mystery. In particular, Fido loses definition as she is forced to take one leap out of character after another, finding and losing buried memories, now falling for her disreputable old friend, now chickening out and living in disguise to dodge her court date.

On the other hand, the Codringtons are very convincingly drawn throughout. Harry is a stiff old thing, bitterly ashamed of his own cuckolding yet miserable at the pageantry and hypocrisy and irresistible momentum of the judicial process. For all his evident weakness and hesitancy, the reader is never really forced to revise Fido's judgement of him as "manly in the best sense". His story might have been spun as a fable about the misogyny of Victorian divorce procedure; Donoghue gives him enough wounded dignity and forbearance to complicate the moral in a satisfying way. He's no Karenin, and Anderson is certainly no Veronsky.

Helen, meanwhile, is a very enjoyable monster, the wife of Bath in Anna Karenina's clothing. Indeed she actively exploits her initial resemblance to the suffering heroines of innumerable 19th-century adultery novels, chatting to Fido about the imitators of Madame Bovary while privately heaping scorn on her friend's naively potboilerish ideas about life. The reader learns the extent of her manipulativeness and malice roughly in time with Fido; by the end of the book, one is cheering the court on to do its worst. It's a discomfiting place to end up, especially if one doesn't much care for the Victorian view of divorce in the first place.

Ed Lake is the former deputy editor of The Review.