The Sealed Letter is the second book that I’ve read by wide-ranging lesbian writer, Emma Donoghue. While I enjoyed the romance of Landing, the historical fiction of The Sealed Letter is more my speed – Victorians! Repressed lesbians! Sex scandals! The early British women’s movement! … what’s not to like?
The Sealed Letter is a fictional reconstruction of the scandalous Codrington divorce case of 1864, focussing particularly on the part played by Miss Emily “Fido” Faithful, a pioneer of the British women’s movement who became involved in the case.
The narrative begins in London with Fido surprised to meet up with an old friend, Helen Codrington, who she assumed had dropped her years previously when she and her husband moved abroad. Fido is wary, but Helen soon seduces her back into a close friendship, telling her that her letters must have gone awry. Fido’s relationship with the Codringtons is complex: as a young woman she was invited to stay at their home as Helen’s companion and witnessed the disintegration of the couple’s marriage. She adored Helen, but had sympathy for her husband as well, regarding them as a tragically mismatched couple. On Helen’s return to England, Fido is keen to offer emotional support to her old friend, but slowly discovers that Helen has her own agenda. As the story progresses, Fido finds herself unwillingly implicated in the increasingly messy and lurid divorce which may have serious consequences for her own professional life as the owner of the Victoria printing press.
We can never really know what happened between Fido and the Codringtons, or what was in the sealed letter of the title, so Donoghue uses her reimagining of the case to explore the changes that the 1857 Marriage and Divorce Act wrought on British society. By making divorce a somewhat easier, but far more public affair, the Act undermined the Victorian myth of family as the nasty secrets contained within apparently respectable families were brought out into the light by the public divorce courts. The Codrington case is the kind of scandal that inspired sensation novels like Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859) and Mary E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862).
The Sealed Letter is an enjoyable read with some compelling characters. Fido’s trusting naivety is endearing rather than annoying, and the kind of relationship she gets into with Helen will probably still be recognizable to a lot of lesbian readers. Helen is represented as narcissistic as hell, but you can’t help having some sympathy for her as a woman trapped in a miserable marriage and punished by the sexual double-standard of the time. As a historian herself, Donoghue is good at constructing believable subjectivities for these women, avoiding the weakness you find in the kind of historical fiction that presents you with twenty-first century women in fancy dress.
Perhaps the most painful part of the narrative is the representation of Fido’s treatment by her friends in the women’s movement. It’s interesting, as well as sad, to see that the phenomenon which Jo Freeman called Trashing was already alive and well in the 1860s, because Emily Faithful basically got “trashed”. Donoghue uses her story to say something about tensions between heterosexual and lesbian feminists, as Fido’s sexuality comes under scrutiny by the other movement women and is found wanting. These tensions have by no means been resolved within contemporary feminism.
I feel a little bad for Emily in this photograph. The fashions of the period really didn’t serve butch lesbians very well did they? I think she’d look a lot more comfortable today in a nice tailored suit and proper butch haircut. But you’ll be glad to know Emily was nothing if not resilient and bounced back from her horrible experiences, going on to become an active journalist, writing a novel, giving lectures and living with her “beloved friend”, Charlotte Robinson.