Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Sealed Letter, by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue based The Sealed Letter on a real divorce case in 19th-century London, and the information the novel presents about the early British feminists and the grossly sexist marriage and divorce laws is all that is interesting about the book. The story centers on two characters--the unmarried Emily "Fido" Faithfull, who owns a printing company and is an active participate in the Reform Firm, a group of women seeking to change gender dynamics in Britain and (2) Emily's beloved friend Helen Codrington, who has just returned from Malta, where her Admiral husband Henry was stationed. After a seven-year break, the two women rekindle their relationship; although Emily is delighted at first (she is clearly in love with Helen), Helen's behavior soon begins to cause concern. Helen is cavorting with another Navy man, sometimes using Emily's house as a trysting spot. When Henry becomes aware of Helen's faithlessness, he files for divorce, a rare (but becoming less rare) action in the mid-1860s. Soon, Emily is drawn into the case, much to the chagrin of her fellow reformers. The sealed letter of the title is a letter that Henry supposedly wrote (the reader knows it is a fake, written during the divorce trial) to document his concerns about the possible nature of Emily and Helen's relationship in the years before he was stationed at Malta. The "twists" at the end of the book come as no surprise to readers with even a soupcon of perception.

The subject matter could be the basis for a fascinating novel, but The Sealed Letter is tedious. Too much of the action is conveyed through dialogue, which is by turns stiff, couched in arcane vocabulary, and anachronistic. The characters are one-dimensional and unlikeable. While I was reading (the times I wasn't falling asleep three pages in), I had the random thought that Donoghue's book was like a Jane Austen novel set 50 years later--but without the wit, intelligence, and basic goodness of her central characters and Austen's careful writing. Donoghue, too,  is commenting on social class and gender relations, but she just doesn't do it very well.

For those who have read Donoghue's Room, The Sealed Letter bears no resemblance to that contemporary novel, other than that both have female characters trapped by men. If this hadn't been our Novel Conversations book for January, I wouldn't have gotten past the first couple chapters (and, I must admit, I did resort to skimming).

So not recommended.

Favorite passage:
Strange how a few years can reduce humiliation to an anecdote.

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