It’s nice, when the Giller longlist comes out, to find a few books you genuinely like on there — or, a few books you haven’t read yet but know you will like. Such was my reaction on seeing Emma Donoghue’s latest make the list. I loved her earlier historical novel, Slammerkin, and while I didn’t love Life Mask quite as much, I certainly found it engaging, so I looked forward to picking up The Sealed Letter.
I absolutely devoured this book. It was a genuine could-not-put-down. This is some of the best historical fiction — or best fiction of any kind — that I’ve read in a long time.
There are several types of historical fiction, and here on Compulsive Overreader I often promote the “epic” kind — the Margaret George/Sharon Kay Penman/Philippa Gregory genre of big blockbusters based on big stories — the lives of kings, queens and the like. But another excellent path for the historical fiction writer to take is to tell a “small” story — whether completely fictional or, as in the case of Emma Donoghue’s novels, fictionalized versions of real events — that captures, like a snapshot, the essence of a time and place.
The Sealed Letter is a snapshot of middle-class life in Victorian England, and specifically, of the process of getting a divorce in that era. Divorce laws had just been liberalized, though they were still draconian by our standards; a woman whose husband petitioned for divorce had a bleak future ahead, with no hope for an income, status in society, or any access to her children. Such is the fate that awaits Helen Codrington, one of the main characters in this novel.
It was also an era when some women (and men) were beginning to look for new and more just ways to do things, and Helen’s friend Emily “Fido” Faithfull is one such, an early feminist devoted to the cause of women’s rights, though still championing many traditional values. Those values of home and hearth in their most extreme form are represented in the novel by Helen’s wronged husband Henry.
For someone like me, who often laments the ease and frequency with which people break up marriages these days, it was an eye-opener to get this glimpse into the past and realize how hopeless a woman’s situation was when divorce was much harder to obtain, and the divorce laws heavily biased in favour of the husband.
The boldest move Donoghue makes in this novel is to make Helen an almost completely unlikeable and unsympathetic character. It would have been so much easier to tug on the heartstrings by making her sweet and tragic, but Helen is a hard-hearted little manipulator and the reader (at least, this reader) feels far more sympathy with her husband and with her loyal friend, the aptly named Fido. Yet even while we recognize that Helen is a selfish schemer, we can’t help seeing that she’s caught in a system that gives her few options. Surely that’s the true test of injustice — that we can recognize it’s unjust even to people we don’t like or admire. Helen’s not a nice person, but even she deserves far better choices than the England of 1864 offers to women.
The book is deliciously written, with every word, every description, every turn of phrase suiting the story perfectly. Emma Donoghue is a perfect example of a writer who is “popular” and eminently readable but also deserves literary acclaim, and I’m glad to see she’s getting it. So far hers is the only book from the Giller longlist that I’ve read, but I’d be happy to see her win for The Sealed Letter.