Having read some pretty strange books recently (The Unconsoled and The Unbearable Lightness of Being spring to mind), I really wanted to read something that was based upon some good old-fashioned story-telling and a linear plot. On one hand, I wanted a book that wasn’t too taxing on the brain. On the other hand, I wanted a book that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to read in public on a train. ‘The Sealed Letter’ by Emma Donoghue was just what I needed.
Donoghue is the author of ‘Room‘ which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2010. I read it earlier this year (one of my very first reviews for this blog in fact) and it’s a story that really did stay with me. Of course, ‘Room’ is very much a one-off book in terms of its themes, characters and events and so it was only natural that Donoghue’s other work would be completely different – and ‘The Sealed Letter’ certainly is. The book is based on the true story of the Codrington v. Codrington divorce case in the mid nineteenth century in London. A chance encounter between Helen Codrington and her old friend Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull is the catalyst of events. It soon transpires that Helen is having an affair with her ‘close friend’ Colonel Anderson while her husband, Vice-Admiral Henry Codrington, quickly develops his own suspicions.
The depth of historical detail, particularly regarding the position of women in the Victorian era, is exceptional and easily comparable to the novels of Sarah Waters. Donoghue truly brings the setting and especially her characters to life. She very cleverly elicits sympathy from the reader towards all three main characters in spite of their contradictory positions in the case. Even though the blurb of the book implies scandal, I would say it is the intrigue which carries the plot along and gives the characters their multiple layers. The courtroom drama in the second half of the book is lengthy yet it still completely held my attention throughout and the author’s note at the end about the context of the real case and what happened afterwards is also fascinating.
‘The Sealed Letter’ is so different from ‘Room’ that you would hardly know it is written by the same author. Highly recommended all the same.