Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Title: The Sealed Letter
Author: Emma Donoghue
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Mariner Books
Published: 2009
Pages: 416

Rating: 5 out of 10

In Victorian London, Emily "Fido" Faithfull randomly runs into Helen Codrington on the street one day. Years before, the two were inseparable best friends, but their close relationship faded away when Helen's military husband was deployed overseas, and Fido's letters were met with no answer. Now, Fido has grown up into a respected female publisher, and Helen is still the same married woman. After their chance encounter, the two begin their friendship where it left off, which had Helen unhappily married and Fido caught in the middle of the distressed couple.
Things turn out not to have changed much, because soon enough Helen reveals that she has a lover and is still unhappy with her husband. When Helen begins drawing Fido into the affair, Fido struggles between being a good friend and with doing the right thing. Eventually, things culminate into a messy, very public divorce proceeding, which Fido is also unwillingly drawn into when Helen reveals a devastating secret.

A snippet review I found online said that this book was about "British Law in the 1800's." For some reason, I thought that that sounded fascinating. I pictured musty courtrooms and piles of papers piled on desks, about to fall over. It made me think of meticulous detail and political maneuvering.
However, this book was much more lightly written than I anticipated, and while it isn't chick-lit, it can get 'fluffy' at times.

Within the first few pages, I was struck by the immaturity of the characters. Two grown women meet on the street after years of separation, and Fido snottily asks Helen who has "taken her place" as a best friend. This feeling continued through-out the book. I cannot recall exactly how old the characters were, but I know that it was closer to 25 than 15. That didn't stop them from behaving like silly little girls. Helen was supposed to act this way, as that is the way she was written, but Fido seemed juvenile to me as well. She is portrayed as the more sensible, mature of the two, which for the most part she is. But she sometimes broke out of character to do something silly, which ruined any chance of her becoming believable.

As this book is about early divorces, and women's legal rights in court, I was expecting a strong book about strong women. But rather than a book with brave female characters making their way through a man's world of both publishing and law, I got more a feeling of two silly girls running about bashing men.
Fido runs a printing press that publishes material aimed toward women, a revolutionary thing in her day and age. Fido runs her business with an iron hand, and the author seems to want us to think of her as a 19th Century businesswoman. I thought it suspicious that the few male employees Fido had were all either stupid and useless, or conniving and evil.

One thing I did like about the book was Helen. I wouldn't call her well written, but she was entertaining reading material. I rolled my eyes at her swooning over Anderson - it is pointedly obvious that all he wants from her is sex, but she is too naive to realize it. Helen is extremely selfish, and in the few scenes where we see her interacting with her two daughters, she seems to concern herself only vaguely with them, and in turn the two little girls treat their mother with an offhanded dismissal that Mommy is too "distracted" or "stupid" to bother with.
Helen's abuse of Fido's friendship was appalling. She comes by her friend's house and then says that she has invited Anderson over (without asking). At Fido's horrified objections, Helen makes up a lie that she is planning to break up with him. Reluctantly, Fido agrees, but then she hears the two of them having sex in her parlor. When she furiously confronts Helen about it later, Helen leads Fido to believe that she was forced. Later, when things escalate and she is found out, Helen blames Fido, saying that if she had only let her keep meeting Anderson in her parlor (snicker), her husband would never have found out. You have to admit, Helen hasn't many scruples, and it admittedly does make for entertaining reading.
I was truly shocked at how low Helen sinks in her lies to Fido during the trial. She truly would have said anything and hurt anyone - even her best friend - in order to get what she wanted.

*Mild spoilers - you can just skip to the next paragraph* I was annoyed at the revelation toward the end of the book that Helen and Fido had had a sexual relationship in the past. It was utterly pointless to the story, and to me it just seemed like a gratuitous, exaggerated furthering the not-quite-right feminist leanings this book had. Already written man-hating, hearty women who always seem to outsmart every male in the book? Looking to go further? Why not randomly throw in the fact that these women are also lesbian at the end! Sigh.
Feminism isn't about being lesbian or how stupid men are.

I like when characters refer to period books that they are reading, and here, Emily and Fido discuss their reads together. It was a fun, tiny little piece of their conversation, but I was annoyed at a small bit of inaccuracy. Helen says that her favorite scene in Lady Audley's Secret was when a woman pushes her husband down a well. However, there is certainly no such scene. I know this and I read the very same book only a few months ago.
On the other hand, besides the tiny mistake, it gave me a good feeling to hear Victorian Londoners talking about reading the same books that I read today, and the characters mentioned a book that I hadn't heard of called East Lynne. I thought that it sounded very good, and was pleased to find it was a real book when I looked it up. If nothing else, I'll have gained some new Victorian reading material.

In short, though, this book never impressed me. It was alright, I suppose, and the legal proceedings that took up the second half of the book were intriguing and not such light page turning as hearing about Helen's reckless secret meetings with her flippant lover. Average, I suppose.