More companion reading*, this time of the 'if you liked that then you'll like this' variety. Emma Donoghue's novel The Sealed Letter has much in common with Kate Summerscale's recent non-fiction book Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. The latter (there's a post on it here) is an account of a scandalous divorce case; the former is a fictional version of a similarly sensational real-life action, one which has many similarities to Robinson v. Robinson and Lane, to the point where that case crops up in Emma Donoghue's narrative, cited as having set a useful precedent.
The Sealed Letter is based on the daily newspaper reports of the 1864 Codrington v. Codrington and Anderson and it's a highly readable, detailed but brisk page-turner of a book which concentrates on the shocking allegations behind the case and the legal twists and turns, manipulation and intrigue which propelled it to its sorry conclusion.
It begins with a chance meeting in a London street: Helen Codrington, recently returned to England after some years abroad, bumps into her old friend Emily 'Fido' Faithfull. Although the two women had once been close, the friendship had foundered and they had lost touch. Emily had gone on to lead an independent life as the proprietor of a printing press and a pioneer of the Women's Movement, while Helen had become increasingly unhappy in her marriage to a vice-admiral, but having met again after so long, cordial relations are restored and all appears well. However, things are not quite as they seem, and 'Fido' soon becomes the unwitting accomplice to Helen's obsessive affair with an army officer. As events take their inevitable course, no party will emerge unscathed.
There are accusations and counter-accusations, secrets, lies, betrayals and shaming facts. "This isn't a sensation novel," Helen reminds herself as she listens to her husband's barrister in court, but of course it's the stuff of one, and Emma Donoghue has used her material very skilfully in this historical recreation.
*Companion piece 1 is here.