Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter is another example of a subgenre I adore: historical fiction based around actual historical events with incomplete documentation. There are some facts that can’t be changed, but the author has room to connect up the dots in anyway they see fit. In this novel, Donoghue uses the Codrington divorce scandal to give us a portrait of a narcissist, an overly devoted friend, and an oblivious man. After reading The Sealed Letter, I can only conclude that there’s nothing in today’s tabloids that the Victorians haven’t already beaten us to.
Most of The Sealed Letter is presented by Emily Faithfull, called Fido by her friends. In 1864, Fido is running her own press, co-editing a women’s rights newspaper, and helping other women to get paid employment. While out running errands, Fido bumps into an old friend, Helen Codrington. Helen has just returned from Malta with her husband, Henry, and soon embroils Fido in her affair with another naval officer. Fido tries her best to help her friend as Helen gets caught committing adultery and is sued for divorce. It takes her an astonishingly long time to figure out that Helen never wanted Fido’s help ending the affair—Helen just wanted an accomplice.
Henry Codrington is the other major narrator for The Sealed Letter. The man comes across as a dupe, unfortunately. He worked hard to climb through the ranks and had too little time for his volatile, demanding wife. When he catches Helen out in her lies, he reluctantly sues her for divorce. In 1864, only a few years after an act of Parliament made it easier to get a divorce, Henry knew that he was going to see the details of his marriage made public in the scandal sheets.
The scandal sheets and the newspapers (some of which have been digitized) are Donoghue’s primary sources for this book. While Faithfull and Henry Codrington are fairly well documented through other sources—Faithfull through her work as an early feminist and Codrington because of his naval career—Helen remains a cipher, historically speaking. Donoghue has the most room to play in recreating Helen. Through Fido and Henry’s eyes, we see a woman who fits the textbook definition of narcissistic personality disorder. Some of the characters can see through Helen almost from their first meeting. Others, like Fido and Henry, take a long time to figure out how self-absorbed she is. Charisma is hard to portray in books, but Helen must have had it in spades to keep people under her spell for years.
My sympathies throughout this book were with Fido. It was a lucky coincidence that her last name is Faithfull; she earned her nickname over and over again. In Donoghue’s version of events, it’s clear that Fido loves Helen in a more than friendly way. (The historical record would back this up. In her later life, Fido lived with women and left all her worldly goods to her last partner when she died.) One cannot help who one falls in love with and poor Fido’s love means that she’s Helen’s victim for post of The Sealed Letter.
The only problem with historical fiction that closely follows actual history is that, sometimes, events ended anticlimactically. That is not the case with The Sealed Letter. The actual history and the novel keep raising the stakes. The story gets more and more lurid. At times, it reads almost like something Wilkie Collins or Mary Braddon might have cooked up in their fevered brains (though with less thematically moody weather and murder). Donoghue admits in her afterword that she compressed some of the history to fit her timeline, but all the major events really happened. Readers will not be disappointed.