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3.6 out of 5 stars
The Sealed Letter
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 October 2014
I’m really not sure where I stand with Emma Donoghue, I loved Slammerkin and Room but really didn’t enjoy Frog Music. I haven’t read any of her others but I thought I’d give The Sealed Letter a go as I’d seen some great reviews.

The story is set in London in 1864 and we follow Helen Codrington (a wife and mother, born and bred abroad, who craves some excitement in her life) and Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull (a crusader for women’s rights and an unlikely friend for Helen) as they navigate through the fallout of Helen’s affairs in a very public way. It’s really difficult for us to imagine today but divorce was much more scandalous and socially crippling in 1864 and it’s strange that the two people divorcing were not actually allowed to give evidence in court.

The characters in the book were well written and the storyline was easy to follow but my only negative comment would really be that it was a bit slow and boring. I felt like the whole book was dragged out a lot longer than it needed to be and I found myself getting a bit bored with some of the situations and conversations.

I didn’t love this book but I didn’t hate it, I just ended up feeling a bit ‘meh’ about it and it’s not convinced me to read any other of Emma Donoghue’s books.
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38 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on 19 October 2011
I loved 'Room' for the unique way in which Donaghue managed to convey the enclosed world of its victims, and their eventual escape, with such aplomb, but felt it was a novel of two halves, flagging somewhat in its second section. Not so with 'The Sealed Letter', written before 'Room' I believe and published in Canada, a number of years ago. This is, in my opinion, the more accomplished of the two recent releases by the author, and, like 'Room' is based on real-life, actual events, this time drawn from a scandalous court case of the Victorian era. The characters and setting are brought to life with such assuredness, I found myself drawn into the intriguing tale from the outset and could not rest until the novel reached its impeccably-handled conclusion. Most effective of all is the way in which Donaghue elicits sympathy for all three of her central protagonists, using the third person to present each competing perspective on the matters and particulars of the trial itself. Cannot recommend this tome highly enough.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 20 February 2013
I very, very rarely give up on a book but I only got 35% of the way through this one. I almost gave up after 20% but plodded along with it out of hope - much like it reads. It is far too slow and by the time I gave up I honestly could not care less about what happens to the characters or where the story goes. Very disappointed after I was gripped by Room.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 30 December 2012
Set in London in the 19th Century, this is a book inspired by the real life divorce of a Victorian Admiral and the involvement of a leading figure in the Women's Movement of the time. Divorce was rare - it was a time when the issue of "women's rights" was beginning to flourish, wives and offspring were the husband's property both in practice and in law. The real life case caused quite a scandal including revelations of a stained dress (sound familiar?) implications of lesbianism and betrayal. An interesting read in terms of the historical background but not a book I'd want to read again. I would rate this 3 out of 5...which is perhaps quite generous.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 1 August 2014
Very disappointed with this. But I persevered. The first few chapters were very slow, and even at the end I wasn't enthralled. My daughter read it and felt the same. Sorry Emma Donoghue, but I do not want to read this again - it is going to a charity shop.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 12 October 2013
I thought the overall pace of the book was slow, possibly due to the 'victorianese' style in which it was written. I found this unconvincing and the way historical facts were inserted into the text in an attempt to give authenticity and colour only added to this. I also found it difficult to engage with the characters, particularly the two women, although Fido had more substance than Helen, perhaps as more details of her life exist. Emma Donoghue can write well, but there are only glimpses of her skills in this book. I would not have finished it if I had not been reading the book for my reading class.
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Based very closely on a case that went to the Divorce Courts in the mid 1800s, this novel explores the beginning of the women’s movement using a case that caused an outrageous scandal, wrecked a marriage and brought to notoriety a young woman and her husband and the feminist leader of the burgeoning women’s movement. Emily “Fido” Faithfull was a close friend of the beautiful Helen Codrington and owned a press through which she fed her pamphlets and magazines furthering “The Cause” – that of women’s emancipation. But when the headstrong Helen dragged her friend Fido into a courtroom to try to defend herself against her husband’s accusation of adultery, Helen lied through her teeth and got more than she bargained for. The Lesbian sub-text is not explored, merely mentioned and I felt that the reveals were played down in this regard.

The newspapers of the time had a field day, with the story of Helen’s exploits in Venice attended by one or other of her young “attendants”. And later in London, as her current beau the gorgeously accoutred red jacketed army officer, David Anderson, continued to pursue the wilful Helen. Married to a Colonel, later promoted to a Rear Admiral, Helen’s scandalous exploits were reported in all their delicious impropriety.

This is an attempt to rescue the reputation of the plain but energetic feminist Fido Faithfull, whose testimony in court was no doubt strenuously accurate. But what was in the sealed letter that the case hinged upon? We cannot know, but I do like her solution to this mystery. It’s quite the best book about the early feminists I can recall reading, even if it does play to the hilt the scandal of divorce, when women were considered chattals of their husbands. The sadness really hits one when considering the two little girls who were never reunited with their mother.
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on 3 February 2014
The three central characters in this book were all real historical people: Harry Codrington, a senior officer in the British navy; his wife Helen; and Helen's friend Emily (`Fido') Faithfull, an early campaigner for women's rights. The novel tells the story of how Harry divorced Helen in a bitterly contested 1864 court case in which Fido's evidence, and her ambiguous relationship with Helen, played a central role. The court case attracted substantial publicity and was deeply painful for all three of the leading participants.

On the face of it, this isn't very promising material for a novel, but Emma Donoghue does a first-rate job of turning it into a thoughtful and exciting story. I hadn't previously heard of the Codrington case, so I didn't know how it turned out, and I found myself increasingly drawn into the story and eager to see how it developed. I also appreciated Donoghue's careful and detailed research into both the case itself, and many relevant background details such as the contemporary feminist campaigns of Fido and her fellow campaigners, and the nature of the contemporary British laws governing marriage and divorce. Although I already knew about the deeply unequal legal status of husbands and wives in 19th century England, I hadn't fully appreciated until I read this book how completely the law discriminated against divorced former wives.

The characters of Harry and Helen are skilfully drawn, and we gradually learn more about each, and about the reasons why their marriage is so dysfunctional, as the novel progresses. Without giving away any details of the plot, it can be said that initial impressions about who is to blame for their marital problems don't necessarily hold up as you get further into the story.

My only significant reservation about this book is the treatment of Fido. In the novel she is presented as a rather superficial person who is easily influenced by Helen. After finishing the novel I did a little background reading about her, and the impression I obtained from this was of a very different person - highly intelligent, capable of pursuing a successful career despite all the obstacles then placed in the path of women, and well able to stand up for herself in challenging circumstances. In the light of this, I'm not really convinced that Donoghue's portrait of her is entirely fair.

This is my only reservation; in all other respects I found the novel excellent, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes well-researched and well-written historical fiction. I hadn't previously read any of Donoghue's work, but I'm certainly going to now: her novel Room is next on my to-read list.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 September 2013
The author's Man Booker Prize-shortlisted book, "Room", is very different to this absorbing story, based on fact, about an 1864 divorce scandal. The warring couple are Vice-Admiral Henry Codrington and his wife, Helen.

The book opens with a meeting on a London street between Helen and her friend, Emily "Fido" Faithfull, who have not seen one another for 7 years. In that time, Helen has been in Malta with her husband whilst Fido has become a key figure of the woman's movement and owner of a printing press that she uses to publish pamphlets and the not-very-successful English Woman's Journal in support of the movement. Helen is accompanied by Captain Farrington and, before too long, we find out that they are not just acquaintances and indeed know one another rather well.

Donoghue has a very good eye for character and in bored Helen and enthusiastic Fido she is able to excel herself. The novel paces itself very well, starting rather slowly as the Codrington family and Fido's family of fellow thinkers are presented. When matters come to a head and the law becomes involved, and Helen is denied contact with her children, the pace quickens and we meet others caught up in the lawsuit, witnesses, solicitors, learned counsel who all help to bring the novel to a very believable ending.

We find Helen's husband agonising over whether to fabricate evidence that will strengthen his case, Fido torn between her distaste for the situation and her friendship for Helen. Helen seems ready to alter her story without consideration of where it will lead and who it will hurt.

Contemporary London is well described without it seeming that we are being given the fruits of the author's detailed research. In an interesting Author's Note we are told about the `real' characters and how their lives were changed by the events described in the novel. Donoghue's handling of dialogue is exemplary, reaching its climax in the court scenes where question and answer, and the leading characters' responses to the information revealed are all very skillfully handled. The eponymous letter emerges late on in the story, is flourished and may or may influence the jury's decision when it is opened.

Fido's two worlds collide when she expects her colleagues at the feminist publishing venture to stand by her during the trial, but they are concerned lest the negative publicity attached to her will adversely affect their readership and circulation.

The emotionally-repressed Vice-Admiral, the lily-livered Farrington and some of the women do not emerge from this novel terribly well, but they are drawn with such force and psychological insight that, even after completing the book and reading about the real people around whom the story was based, I kept returning to their fictional representations.

It may be that readers enthralled by "Room" will be disappointed by this book, its historical subject and its rather leisurely initial pace. However, it is much to the credit of Donoghue that she can write two such different novels. Whilst the position of women in mid-Victorian society was terrible, it was only able to be changed through the dedication of women like Fido who had to give up some of the accepted values of a happy and fulfilled life in order to improve the lives of the many.

It was not until 1923 that the Divorce Laws were changed to allow a woman in England and Wales to seek a divorce on the basis of her husband's adultery alone; something that had been possible under Scottish Law since the 16th century!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 29 November 2012
I was brought this as a present, having immensely enjoyed reading Room. It is one of the best books I have read in a while, and I found that once I started reading it, it was hard to put down. It wasn't until I'd finished that I discovered it is based largely upon a real Victorian divorce case, which made it even more interesting and compelling to read. it is also full of twists and turns, none of which I was expecting, which made it even more entertaining. I thoroughly recommend reading this novel.
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