Sealed Letter

Sealed Letter

3.6 9
by Emma Donoghue

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Miss Emily "Fido" Faithfull is a "woman of business" and a spinster pioneer in the British women’s movement, independent of mind but naively trusting of heart. Distracted from her cause by the sudden return of a once-dear friend, the unhappily wed Helen Codrington, Fido is swept up in the intimate details of


Miss Emily "Fido" Faithfull is a "woman of business" and a spinster pioneer in the British women’s movement, independent of mind but naively trusting of heart. Distracted from her cause by the sudden return of a once-dear friend, the unhappily wed Helen Codrington, Fido is swept up in the intimate details of Helen’s failing marriage and obsessive affair with a young army officer. What begins as a loyal effort to help a friend explodes into an intriguing courtroom drama complete with accusations of adultery, counterclaims of rape, and a mysterious letter that could destroy more than one life.

Based on a scandalous divorce case that gripped England in 1864, The Sealed Letter is a riveting, provocative drama of friends, lovers, and divorce, Victorian-style.


Editorial Reviews

Sophie Gee
Donoghue has written two other successful historical novels—the critically acclaimed Life Mask and Slammerkin—and it shows. She knows her way around a period drama. A ride on London's new underground railway, a visit to Fido's printing presses, descriptions of Victorian interiors, shops and streetscapes, all these details are absorbed into the narrative, and you barely notice they're there, except that mid-Victorian London feels so real you can almost taste it…Donoghue is masterful in handling the theme of Fido's possible erotic desire for Helen and Helen's manipulation of same. She depicts female sexual attraction as a complex threat, both enthralling and taboo.
—The Washington Post
Susann Cokal
As with Donoghue's previous novels Slammerkin and Life Mask, the plot is psychologically informed, fast paced and eminently readable…And in the end, The Sealed Letter provides both the titillating entertainment readers like Helen and Fido crave and the more sober exploration of truth, commitment and betrayal Harry might appreciate. Donoghue's sympathy for all three of her central characters emerges through intimate narration and lifts the novel out of the tabloid muck, despite the public shaming Harry, Helen and Fido experience. There is, as Fido puts it, "so much to say, and little of it speakable."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In 1864 London, after a separation of seven years, Helen, now the wife of Vice-Admiral Codrington, bumps into her old friend Emily Faithful, now a well-known feminist and independent printer. As Donoghue (Slammerkin) deliciously unspools the twisted roots of their intimacy, Emily soon finds herself party to Helen's clandestine affair and snared in the sensational divorce proceedings that ensue (and which are based on an actual case from the period). Donoghue's elegantly styled, richly woven tale absorbs the everyday lives of Victorian women (rich, poor, working, home-bound, feminist, adulteress) and men (officer, lawyer, minister, adulterer, even an amateur detective) in a colorful tapestry of spiraling intrigue, innuendo, speculation and mystery. Characters indulge in pleasures at which Victorian novels could only hint, and which Donoghue renders with aplomb. Period details-etiquette, typesetting, dress, medical treatments, public amusements, shipping and jurisprudence-are rendered with a spare exactitude organic to the story. Donoghue's latest has style and scandal to burn. (Sept.)

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Library Journal

In Victorian England, spinster Emily "Fido" Faithfull is earnestly engaged in the emerging women's movement. But her orderly life is disrupted when she becomes reacquainted with Helen, a former friend just returning from Malta, where her admiral husband has been posted for seven years. Though Helen is Fido's polar opposite in temperament and approach to life, they quickly reestablish a close friendship. Helen-selfish, manipulative, and thoroughly disenchanted with her husband-engages in risky behavior that results in a scandalous divorce trial, and Fido is caught in the middle of a struggle between the friend she so blindly believes in and the admiral, whom she respects. Donoghue's (Slammerkin) new historical novel brings alive events unfamiliar to most American readers. Though many of the legal details of the actual 1864 divorce case on which this story is based are on record, this more personal account results from the author's "connecting the dots" of her research with her own interpretation of likely events. It's an engrossing tale, and Donoghue's ability to steep the reader in the realities of the time makes her story ring true. Recommended for all public libraries as well as academic libraries serving women's studies programs. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/1/08.]
—Caroline Mann

Kirkus Reviews
In her third historical novel, Donoghue (Landing, 2007, etc.) portrays a sordid Victorian divorce that roiled the women's suffrage movement. Emily Faithfull, known to her friends as "Fido," thinks she's comfortably settled as the proprietor of the Victoria Press, which trains women as typesetters and printers, and as a respected member of England's nascent feminist leadership. But back into her life in the stifling London summer of 1864 comes the disruptive Helen Codrington, once Fido's most intimate friend, but absent for seven years in Malta, where Helen's husband was posted with the Royal Navy. The faltering Codrington marriage created an awkward breach in their friendship, and Helen claims never to have received the letters Fido sent her in Malta. Readers, however, will know this is a crock long before embittered Vice-Admiral Harry Codrington tells her that Helen mockingly tossed aside the missives with a wisecrack about lonely spinsters. The fact that Fido is oblivious to her beloved friend's manipulative, scheming ways is only the most obvious problem with a sluggish tale possessing little of the deeply imagined period atmosphere of Life Mask (2004) and Slammerkin (2001), let alone the author's usual sharp observations. The carefully drawn characters are dreary, as is the narrative, despite Helen's adulterous trysts and Fido's unjust ostracism by her feminist comrades. Even the climactic trial, complete with sleazy lawyers making insinuations about lesbian amour, is curiously flat. We would feel sorrier for Fido if she weren't so clearly self-deluded, and the adulterous Helen is a particularly uninteresting villain. A last-minute revelation, apparently meant to be a bombshell, willcome as no surprise to anyone who's been reading carefully, and the sealed letter of the title proves to be an irritating red herring. Taking off from real-life characters and actual historical events has energized the author in the past, but Donoghue is just going through the motions here. Uncharacteristically dull work from one of contemporary literature's most interesting and entertaining writers. Agent: Caroline Davidson/Caroline Davidson Literary Agency
Curled Up with a Good

A fascinating tour de force, a brilliant unraveling of closely held secrets and brutal betrayals...A case of Dangerous Liaisons with yet another layer of Victorian outrage.

The Seattle Times - Mary Brennan

"...A deliciously wicked little romp, complete with a clever twist at the end."

From the Publisher


"Either Emma Donoghue spends most of her waking hours in musty library stacks or she lives a previous life in 18th-century England. She seems to inhabit the place. This is wonderful, soapy entertainment, but Donoghue infuses it with something more."—Houston Chronicle

"Superb . . . Donoghue uses both the color of the period and its literary devices to create a rich, complex, and remarkably powerful story."—Elle

The Seattle Times

"...A deliciously wicked little romp, complete with a clever twist at the end."

— Mary Brennan

The International Herald Tribune

[A] cozily lurid new novel.
The New York Times Book Review

Good lines there are in abundance. And in the end, “The Sealed Letter” provides both the titillating entertainment readers like Helen and Fido crave and the more sober exploration of truth, commitment and betrayal Harry might appreciate. Donoghue’s sympathy for all three of her central characters emerges through intimate narration and lifts the novel out of the tabloid muck, despite the public shaming Harry, Helen and Fido experience. There is, as Fido puts it, “so much to say, and little of it speakable.”

The Oregonian

Donoghue blends a true case and period detail into an intriguing tale of mystery and passion.

Product Details

Picador USA
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

Sealed Letter

By Emma Donoghue Harcourt Books
Copyright © 2008
Emma Donoghue
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-15-101549-8

Chapter One The last day of August, and the sky is the colour of hot ash. Something rancid wafts on the air from Smithfield Market; the air glitters with stone dust. She's swept down Farringdon Street in the slipstream of bowlers, top hats, baskets on porters' heads. A hand lights on her arm, a small, ungloved hand; the brown silk of her sleeve is caught between plump pink fingertips. She staggers, clamps her pocketbook to her ribs, but even as she's jerking away she can't help recognizing that hand.


One syllable dipping down, the next swooping up, a familiar and jaunty music; the word skips across the years like a skimmed stone. Almost everyone calls her that now, but Helen was the first. Fido's eyes flick up to Helen's face: sharp cheekbones, chignon still copper. An acid lemon dress, white lace gloves scrunched in the other hand, the one that's not gripping Fido's sleeve. The human river has washed Fido sideways, now, into a scarlet-chested, brass-buttoned officer, who begs her pardon.

"I knew it was you," cries Helen, holding her emerald parasol up to block the terrible sun. "Did you take me for a pickpocket?" she asks, a giggle in her throat.

"Only for half a moment, Mrs. Codrington," she manages to say, licking her gritty lips.

A flicker of pain across the pointed face. "Oh, Fido. Has it come to that?""Helen, then," says Fido, and smiles despite herself. Despite the skin- tightening sensation of encountering a friend who is no longer one. Despite the memories that are billowing up like genii from smashed bottles. She wrenches a handkerchief from her jacket pocket and dabs at her forehead. The two women are blocking the traffic; an old man swerves around them, under a sandwich board that reads No Home Should Be Without One.

"But how you've grown," Helen is marvelling.

Fido looks down at the brown bulge of her bodice. "Too true."

Pink fingers clap to the coral mouth. "You monster! Still the same talent for mistaking my meaning, or letting on that you do. Of course I meant you've grown up so."

"It has been, what, seven years?" Her words are as stiff as tin soldiers. Checking her bonnet is straight, she becomes belatedly aware that the scarlet uniform she bumped into a minute ago is hovering, so she turns to see him off.

"Oh, my manners," says Helen. "Miss Emily Faithfull-if I may-Colonel David Anderson, a friend of the family's from Malta." The colonel has dangling blond whiskers. Fido lets his fingers enclose hers. "Delighted," she says distractedly. "The Miss Faithfull?" She winces at the phrase. By his accent, he's a Scot. "Printer and Publisher to the Queen?"

The man's well informed. Fido concedes a nod. "Her Majesty's been gracious enough to lend her name to our enterprise at the Victoria Press." She turns back to Helen. So much to say, and little of it speakable; words log-jam in her throat. "Are you and Captain Codrington home on leave, or-"

"Forever and ever, amen," says Helen.

That little twisted smile is so familiar to Fido that the years fall away like planks splintering under her feet. She feels dizzy; she fears she'll have to sink to her knees, right here in all the dusty clamour of London's City district.

"Matter of fact, it's Vice-Admiral Codrington now," remarks Colonel Anderson.

"Of course, of course, forgive me," Fido tells Helen. "I can't help thinking of him by the name he bore in the days ..." The days when I knew him? When I knew you? But she's not that girl anymore. It's 1864: I'm almost thirty years old, she scolds herself.

"Harry's been immured in paperwork for weeks, ever since our vile crossing from Malta," complains Helen, "so I've press-ganged the colonel into service as my parcel carrier today."

"A keen volunteer, Mrs. C.," he corrects her, swinging two small packages on their strings. "I'll just pop across the road to pick up your whatsits, shall I?"

"Curtain tassels, a dozen of the magenta," she reminds him.

"That's the ticket."

Tactful of the officer to absent himself, Fido thinks. But once she and Helen are alone, the discomfort rises between them like a paper screen. "Such heat" is all she manages. "It takes me back," says Helen pleasurably, twirling her fringed green parasol and tipping her chin up to catch the merciless light. Watching that face, Fido finds it hard to believe that this woman must be-count the years-thirty-six. "To Italy? Or do you mean India?"

"Oh, both: my whole torrid youth!"

"Was it ... was it generally hot in Malta?"

Helen's laugh comes out startlingly deep, like a sob. "So we're reduced to discussing the weather." Irritation boils in Fido's veins. "As it happens, I'm pressed for time today-" "Oh, yes, I was almost forgetting what a very important person you've become. The Miss Faithfull, philanthropist, pioneer!" Fido wants to take her by the lemon-lace-edged shoulders and shake her like a doll. "I prefer to call myself a woman of business."

"I can quite see why I was dropped the moment I left the country," Helen rattles on, "considering how pressed for time you've been, what with all your valiant efforts on behalf of our downtrodden sex."

Her mouth, Fido finds, is hanging open. "Whatever can you mean, dropped?"

A pretty shrug. "It needn't have been done with such brutal efficiency, need it?" Helen's dropped the mocking tone. "Friendships have their seasons, that's understood. But you might have let me down rather more gently, I suppose, after all we'd been through."

Fido blinks dust out of her eyes. "It wasn't kind, that's all I'll say. Or womanly. It wasn't like you, like what I knew of your heart, or thought I did." "Stop." She holds up her white-gloved hand till it almost touches those rapid lips. Helen only speeds up. "You'd had your fill of me and Harry by the time we embarked for Malta, was that it? All at once sick to death of us and our bickerings?" Her eyes have the wet blue sheen of rain. "I know, I know, I quite see that we'd worn you out between us. But I must confess, when I found myself tossed aside like yesterday's newspaper-"

"My dear." Fido almost barks it. "I find these accusations incongruous." Helen stares at her like a baby. "Must I remind you, I wrote twice to Admiralty House in Valetta and got not a word of reply to either?" "Nonsense!" Fido is bewildered. This is like one of those dreams in which one is caught up in an endless, illogical series of tasks.

"Of course I wrote back," cries Helen.

"From Malta?"

"Of course from Malta! I was a stranger in a strange land; I needed a bosom friend more than ever. Why ever would I have left off writing? I poured out all my worries-" Fido breaks in. "When was this? What month?"

"How should I recall, all these years later?" asks Helen reasonably. "But I know I replied as soon as I got your letter-the one and only letter I received from you when I was in Malta. I sent several long screeds, but on your side the correspondence simply dried up. You can't imagine my nervous excitement when a packet of post would arrive from England, and I'd rip it open-"

Fido's chewing her lip; she tastes blood. "I did change my lodgings, that autumn," she concedes. "But still, your letters ought to have been sent on directly by the post office."

"Lost at sea?" suggests Helen, frowning.

"One of them, perhaps, but could the Continental mail really be so-"

"Things do go astray."

"What a very absurd-" Fido hears her voice rise pitifully, and breaks off. Scalding water behind her eyes. "I don't know what to say."

Helen's smile is miserable. "Oh heavens, I see it all now. I should have tried again; I should have kept on writing, despite my mortified feelings."

"No, I should! I thought-" She tries now to remember what she'd thought; what sense she'd made of it when Helen hadn't written back, that strange year when the Codringtons were posted abroad and Fido stayed alone in London, wondering what to make of herself. "I suppose I supposed ... a chapter in your life had drawn to a close."

"Dearest Fido! You're not the stuff of a chapter," Helen protests. "Several volumes, at least."

Her brain's whirling under the hot, powdery sky. She doesn't want to cry, here on Farringdon Street, a matter of yards from her steam-printing office, where any passing clerk or hand might spot her. So Fido laughs instead. "Such an idiotic misunderstanding, like something out of Mozart. I couldn't be sorrier."

"Nor I. These seven years have been an eternity!"

What in another woman would strike Fido as hyperbole has in Helen Codrington always charmed her, somehow. The phrases are delivered with a sort of rueful merriment, as if by an actress who knows herself to be better than her part.

She seizes Fido's wrists, squeezing tight enough that her bones shift under the humid cotton gloves. "And what are the odds that I'd happen across you again, not a fortnight after my return? Like a rose in this urban wilderness," she cries, dropping Fido's wrists to gesture across the crowded City.


Excerpted from Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
Copyright © 2008 by Emma Donoghue. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
<%TOC%> Contents i Prima Facie....................1
ii Feme Covert....................55
iii Reasonable Suspicion....................89
iv Engagement....................105
v Surveillance....................123
vi Actus Reus....................149
vii Desertion....................163
viii Mutatis Mutandis....................197
ix Counterclaim....................219
x Subpoena....................233
xi Trial....................247
xii Evidence....................285
xiii Sabotage....................307
xiv Contempt....................317
xv Charge....................329
xvi Witness....................337
xvii Verdict....................363
xviii Feme Sole....................371
Author's Note....................391

Meet the Author

Born in Ireland, Emma Donoghue spent many years in England and now lives in Canada. She is the author of Slammerkin as well as two other novels, a collection of short stories, and a collection of fairy tales. Her novels have been translated into eight languages.

Brief Biography

London, England and Ontario, Canada
Date of Birth:
October 24, 1969
Place of Birth:
Dublin, Ireland
B.A. in English and French, University College Dublin, 1990; Ph.D. in English, University of Cambridge, 1998

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The Sealed Letter 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I first discovered Donoghue back in 2000 when I read one of her best selling novels, Slammerkin. I was struck then by the richness of her characters, so well written that the reader develops strong emotions towards them. Most impressive however is Donoghue's historical research. The fabric, mores, culture and so much more of Victorian England are brilliantly and accurately portrayed. So is the case with The Sealed Letter. As in previous novels, the story is based upon actual historical facts and persons. We meet 'Fido' Faithfull, a liberal thinking spinster who runs her own printing press espousing her 'Cause'- Women's Rights. She meets up with an old friend Helen Codrington, who detests her older husband Admiral Codrington, and the restrictions society puts upon 'correct' female behaviour. Fido is drawn into Helen's world, but is naive and trusting. She offers true friendship, but due to Helen's machinations, is instead thrust unwillingly into the public eye in Helen's very messy divorce. This divorce case takes place in 1864, but believe it or not features a stained dress (sound familiar?), accusations of rape and a mysterious sealed letter that could decide the case. Donoghue captures the language, the emotions and the time period eloquently. The Sealed Letter is the third of a loose trilogy exploring Victorian society and life through the eyes of the different classes. Slammerkin explores the poor, Life Mask the very rich and The Sealed Letter the middle class. All are extremely enjoyable reads.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I discovered Emma Donoghue after reading Room, which I loved. I purchased both The Sealed Letter and Slammerkin. The Sealed Letter was a delight. Completely engrossing historical fiction based on a true divorce case of the 1860s. Juicy, gossipy, and a fun read.
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A littlw slow but interesting.
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