On with the Orange Prize long-list! The Sealed Letter is a work of historical fiction based around the real-life sensational divorce trial between Admiral and Helen Codrington in 1864. When Helen's affair with Colonel Anderson comes to light, Henry initiates divorce proceedings, setting off a chain of accusations and counter-accusations. Caught in the middle of all of this is Helen's close friend, Emily 'Fido' Faithfull, an unconventional woman at the heart of the fight for women's rights in Victorian times.
I haven't read Donoghue's most famous book, Room, but I know enough about it to know that The Sealed Letter is a very different kind of novel. It's rich with historical detail, slow burning and requires a fair amount of uninterrupted reading time. The first section of the book, leading up to the start of the trial, is very slow paced indeed and contains a lot of background information about Fido's role in the struggle for women's rights and Helen's marriage in Malta. It was all interesting stuff, and the characters were distinct and well-written, but I was impatient for the main action to start.
The sections of the novel involving the trial itself were delightful reading. I think everyone can relate to how love can be twisted into hate and how easy it is to get caught up in cycles of accusations. Donoghue shows how slanted the whole proceedings were in favour of men and how the public lapped up any hint of scandal, meaning that neither Helen or the Admiral could come out unscathed. I also enjoyed watching the lawyers at work, twisting everything to suit their interpretation of the marriage and prodding their respective clients into ever more serious accusations - rape, lesbianism, violence.
Even though Helen was clearly the 'bad guy' and in the wrong in her actions, I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. The terms of her marriage meant that if her husband was granted a divorce, she would be penniless (wives had no property rights) and would additionally be unable to see her two children ever again. In those circumstances, who wouldn't fight with everything in them, even if it meant stretching the truth? Helen was a bit of a Madam Bovary character, she was listless and led easily by her emotions without thinking of the consequences. She was also the most honest character in the book, in her own way.
The revelations on the final page were partly a shock to me (I had guessed about the sealed letter, but not the other) and made me look at the book in a different light. Fido's motivations suddenly became a lot clearer, so all credit to Donoghue for pulling that off.
The Sealed Letter was an enjoyable piece of historical fiction that did suffer a bit from a slow pace at the beginning of the novel. I would say it has a decent chance of being short-listed, but would be surprised if it won the prize.
First Published: 2008 (Canada), 2011 (UK)
Score: 4 out of 5
I've heard mixed things about this one. Whilst I'd quite like to read some more of her writing after reading Room I'm not sure this one appeals to me.ReplyDelete
The mixed reviews I have read have tended to be along the lines of 'but this is nothing like Room!'. As I haven't read Room, this didn't bother me but I think it would if someone started reading it without being aware the books are very different. Apparently Slammerkin is very good?Delete
I've had a copy of The Sealed Letter for a little while but haven't gotten to it yet. Nice review - I'll move it up in the pile! It seems to have taken a little time to make it to the UK... maybe it took Room to be a huge success first?ReplyDelete
I believe it was republished in the UK only after the massive success of Room. If so, I'm grateful for Room as it meant I got to read this one. I'll look forward to your thoughts on it, Sarah.Delete
I enjoyed Room but this does sound completely different. I love historical fiction though, so this is one of the books from the Orange Prize long-list that I'm most interested in reading. I'm glad you enjoyed it despite the slow start!ReplyDelete
I'm going to read Room soon after reading this one - I've had it since the hype last year but not read it. I was ambivalent about reading this one but it was a pleasant surprise :)Delete
Hmm, sounds more like Slammerkin, her book earlier than Room that I've never been able to get into. It is still on my shelf waiting for the right time....ReplyDelete
Yes, apparently it is quite a lot like Slammerkin (which I also want to read). Maybe The Sealed Letter isn't the book for you then?Delete
I am kicking myself because this was available on the NEW SHELF at the library and I didn't check it out and now there's a waiting list. UGHHH. I didn't know much about it but your thoughts make me think I gotta get it now! Can't wait to share!ReplyDelete
I do this all the time at the library, I deliberate for too long and then all the good books have gone! Hope you don't spend too long on the waiting list :PDelete
So I finished this one pretty quickly-- like a day and a half. I loved it. It was a breeze and very interesting. I agree that I came to feel sorry for Helen, but was so happy when Fido finally opened her eyes. The language between all the ladies is still very strange to me, but I think that Donoghue did a fabulous job creating the Victorian scene. So glad I followed your recommendation! Thanks :)Delete
This sounds very interesting. I thought Room was well-written, but I'm even more excited to discover that Donoghue is one of those authors who can write wildly different books well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sam!ReplyDelete
I must read Room, I've had it since all of the hype last year but never picked it up. This was actually written before Room, but reissued because of all the hype around that title. I think she was more of a historical fiction writer before Room.Delete
I'm intrigued by this one. I adored Room and have been excited to see more of Donoghue's 'usual' work. I hope to get to this one soon, although I think Foreign Bodies is up next!ReplyDelete
Look forward to your thoughts on it then :)Delete
And I really must read Room soon!
Thanks for reviewing this one Sam, it sounds like something that I would enjoy!! Have you read "The Life Mask" by the same author? It is also historical fiction, set in London and full of interesting stories. I also read "Slammerkin" but was as keen on that one as I was on "Life Mask".ReplyDelete
Willa, I've heard lots about Slammerkin but nothing about Life Mask - I will keep a look-out for it. Thanks for the recommendation :)Delete
Ive heard mixed things but some of the reviewers have been the complete opposite to you and loved the first half and then hated the trial!ReplyDelete
That is definitely the complete opposite to me! Why haven't people liked the trial? It was the best bit!Delete
I read it last Christmas and it was great. Lately, I've been very interested in the psychology behind certain relationships, but especially between couples. When I read this book I found myself gravitating between Helen and her husband, although throught the book I realized how cruel he could be. Not funny, but it was for real, it happened to many wives and it is enriching to see how things are slowly changing (sadly, they have not changed that much yet):ReplyDelete
I've been interested to know more about this novel and haven't seen it around very much. Very glad to read your review, Sam!ReplyDelete
Although I didn't love Room as much as I wanted to, I did really like her other book Slammerkin. So thanks for letting me know she has yet another one for me to read!ReplyDelete