Pop culture's fascination with Hollywood divorces - Tom and Nicole, Denise and Charlie, Pamela and the man of the moment - pales when compared with the excitement almost any divorce stirred in Victorian England. So it is in Emma Donoghue's cozily lurid new novel, "The Sealed Letter," which tells a story all the more remarkable for being based on an actual case involving an admiral, his beautiful young wife and a prominent activist for women's suffrage.
Helen Codrington is the wayward wife, Harry the strait-laced older husband to whom she's long refused sexual "rights." Returning to London after a stint abroad, Helen renews her acquaintance with Emily Faithfull, known as Fido, and hopes to use her old friend's house for illicit trysts. The women share a love of sensational novels and Dickens; they used to share a bed, too, when Fido's asthma attacks (normally soothed with a good cigarette) required Helen's attention. Idealistic to the point of naiveté, homely Fido believes ardently in women's rights and has opened a printing shop that employs female typesetters. But she doesn't necessarily believe in adultery. When she hears Helen and a naval officer going at it on her sofa - the springs emit a "frantic squeak" - she's both fascinated and repulsed, reluctant to be drawn into this tawdry affair.
Too late. One great lesson of "The Sealed Letter" is that "every friend one makes in life is a liability: . . . one must keep her as a friend forever or she'll become an enemy." In the autumn of 1864, as letters fly back and forth between Fido, Helen and Helen's lover, Harry instigates divorce proceedings. As of 1857, the relaxation of certain laws significantly increased the number of English divorces, but the courts still refused to allow petitioners, respondents or even corespondents to speak on their own behalf. Thus Harry must put his trust in a handful of witnesses and knit together a case from circumstantial evidence - a stained dress, a missed telegram, Helen's visits to Fido's house and to a hotel.
All this would be scandal enough, but Helen decides to fight back. And to further her cause, she reminds her friend of an "unspeakable" incident: One night when the two women were sleeping in Fido's bed, Harry attempted to rape Fido. Horrified - could she have repressed this memory? She had, after all, taken laudanum for her asthma - Fido agrees to file an affidavit attesting to its veracity, then runs away when she learns her statement will be made public.
Donoghue neatly delivers the twists expected of courtroom drama, even up to the frisson-inducing final page. The game of claim and counterclaim leads the combatants to a sealed letter, backdated to the time of Fido's stay with the Codringtons, in which Harry expresses doubts about the nature of the women's relationship. This suggestion comes as no surprise to the reader, who has long since diagnosed Fido's feelings for Helen, but the threat of exposure is awful enough to shock her out of hiding and onto the witness stand. On whose behalf does she testify? Will the letter be unsealed and read aloud? And what exactly does it say? Helen isn't the only one on the edge of her seat.
Heterosexual monogamy may have been the bedrock of Victorian society, but the public (then as now) watched eagerly when a marriage crumbled: "That's the devil of publicity," Harry thinks, "an airing of any kind only feeds the flame." Headlines draw spectators to the courtroom, and public opinion ensures that the results will be devastating, no matter what verdict is reached. Helen is easily branded an adulteress and Fido a "panderess"; Harry watches his daughters for signs of nymphomania. Saboteurs break into Fido's printing press, and the women of the suffrage movement begin coolly to detach her from the organization.
As with Donoghue's previous novels "Slammerkin" and "Life Mask," the plot is psychologically informed, fast paced and eminently readable (it compresses the timeline of actual events). Yet some narrative elements borrow too much from the 19th century. Exposition often comes packaged in dialogue, where it sounds artificial: when Fido discourses on politics or the printing press, she might be speaking to a lecture hall. Donoghue also sprinkles metaphor and simile as liberally as Helen might use face powder. On one page alone, memories billow up "like genii," words make a "log-jam" in Fido's throat and "years fall away like planks splintering." Figuration may have been a technique dear to Victorian hearts, but it can tire a contemporary ear, which might then miss the simple strength of lines like "a surge of loathing so pure it reminds him of desire."
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."