To the marketing department at Picador, The Sealed Letter must have seemed one of those rare things in publishing – a sure thing. Building upon author Emma Donoghue’s critical and financial success with Room, The Sealed Letter purports to take the idea of ‘high concept’ fiction to the next level, with the premise of a sealed letter containing all number of scandalous secrets.
The trouble is, the novel is nothing of the sort. Tracing the ins and outs of a particularly infamous Victorian divorce, The Sealed Letter reads more like run-of-the-mill historical fiction than a bodice-ripping thriller, with the titular correspondence only coming into play very late in the narrative.
Before the trump card is even wafted about teasingly however, the reader must slog through several hundred pages on the intricacies of Victorian divorce proceedings. At the heart of the dispute is the gregarious Helen Codrington, whose loveless marriage has driven her to besmirch her womanly virtues with a string of extra-marital affairs. Between her and her understandably peeved husband stands her staunch feminist ally Emily ‘Fido’ Faithful, who is ultimately unsure of where her loyalties lie.
As fireworks predictably ensue, Donoghue paints a vivid picture of life for women in the Victorian age. But as she does so, it’s hard to escape the notion that this is little more than a book from someone on their soapbox. As the author intimates, the consequences of divorce on Victorian women were undeniably harsh, ranging from the complete destruction of the woman’s social standing to the removal of any children of the marriage.
But while it may sound misogynist to say so, Donoghue’s portrayal of the gender makes it hard to feel sympathy for the woman she ultimately puts in this position. However, Contrary to what the blurb will have you believe, Helen Codrington is not a woman caught up in the throes of a forbidden passion, but rather a manipulative and selfish harridan who cares little for anyone but herself – even her own children matter little until her husband threatens to take them away. Consequently, with such two dimensional characterisation, it’s hard not to feel she deserves everything the divorce will throw into her path.
Such a critique may seem unduly harsh, but these elements really defined the story for me, reducing the book from a fast-paced period romp to an irritation of a novel which was nearly thrown across the room several times. Like its fictional counterpart, The Sealed Letter should remain well and truly closed.