I loved the controversial Room, which is why I picked up The Sealed Letter to read – again it’s a story inspired by real-life events, but totally different in style. It’s the tale of a Victorian divorce, replete with scandal, duplicity and betrayal. Fido Faithfull is a successful independent businesswoman in a man’s world; Helen Codrington, her best friend, is by contrast a pampered “man’s woman” always on the lookout for her main chance. When Helen’s affair with an army officer is revealed to her husband, Vice-Admiral Henry Codrington applies for a divorce – a very shocking action in Victorian Britain, where they were fewer than two divorces a year – and the intimate details of their marriage are made public in the papers, to the titillation of society. Helen implores Fido to help her restore her reputation, but to do so Fido must lie in court – will she place her best friend above her principles?
It’s always bizarre to read how strictly controlled polite Victorian society was, at the same time a dark underbelly was scratching just underneath; the speech and actions of the characters are in many ways alien to a 21st century reader, but no less compelling for this. The convoluted nature of a marriage in crisis, whilst the details are strange, the emotions and manipulations are very much not. Friendship is revealed to be as much a deception as marriage in this world where propriety is more important than honesty. Women’s place in society is depicted as precarious, and the infighting between the members of the women’s movement to which Fido belongs is frustrating yet so believable. I like the way this novel takes what is essentially a small event – one marriage – and turns it into a microcosm of Victorian society as a whole. Rating: ***
Picador, 2011, ISBN 9781447205982