The Sealed Letter


Author: Emma Donoghue

Published: 2008

Genre: Historical fiction

About The Sealed Letter: In 1864, a divorce trial scandalized England. Based on a true story.

Find this book at,,

Review of The Sealed Letter

On the last day of August in 1864, Emily "Fido" Faithfull runs into a friend she hasn't seen in seven years. Helen Codrington, newly back in England after living in Malta where her husband was stationed, is eager to renew their friendship.

Her attention keeps wandering. What are the odds of running into someone in London? Three and a half million to one, according to the last census. It's not as if the two former friends ran into each other at one of their old Belgravia haunts, or the home of some mutual acquaintance. To happen to glimpse each other on Farringdon Street, in a mob of bankers and porters, only a fortnight after the Codringtons' return to England, with Helen in search of magenta tassels and Fido's head full of printing schedules—it can't be an accident. Such astonishing luck, after the awful mischance of the lost letters that ended their friendship so needlessly. Fido likes to think of her life as self-made, an ingenious machine held in her own two hands...but there's something so fortuitous about today's reunion, she can only attribute it to providence.

...from page 16

Fido learns that Helen is still unhappy in her marriage and her joy at rediscovering a friend is short-lived as she finds herself caught up in a scandalous divorce trial.

I didn't realize until I read the author's note at the end just how much of this book was based on truth. There were fictionalized aspects, of course, and a compressed timeline but these were real people and real events and this divorce trial was a very big deal in its time. I went to a reading by Emma Donoghue earlier this month and she said this trial was bigger than the OJ trial and the Clinton impeachment put together.

I loved the contrast between Fido and Helen. Fido was an independent businesswoman, fighting for women's rights, and yet she was shocked that Helen could have lovers, something that men had been doing for centuries. Fido was also incredibly naive and more than a little in love with Helen, although she wasn't able to admit that to herself.

Helen was not the most likeable character although I felt some sympathy for her, being trapped in marriage to a man who expected her to be something she was not. Henry also earned my sympathy. As an admiral in the British navy, he was stuck between conflicts and his career was essentially in limbo. When he discovered Helen's infidelity, he seemed honestly hurt by the betrayal, personally, not just socially. Donoghue did a good job of showing both sides of a divorce.

From the first page, the language put me right into that place and that time period and I was immediately immersed in the book. All of the characters, even the minor ones, were interesting and the story was fascinating. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Lynn Bornath, from the hardcover edition provided by HarperCollins Canada, on 18 August 2008.

Find this book at,,

More Reviews

Cate, Cate's Journal and Book Reviews, 7 December 2007
“ excellent novel that gives the reader much to think about in regards to relationships and equality, both in the Victorian era, and in our own.”
Maureen Garvie, Quill & Quire, April 2008
“What could have been mere Victorian melodrama resonates here with emotional truth.”
Teddy Rose, So Many Precious Books, So Little Time, 18 April 2008
“...a balanced, well-written, and entertaining story.”
‘Divorce and the Cause for women.’ Eva Tihanyi, National Post, 18 April 2008
“Donoghue demonstrates this unavoidable synergy between the public and the private in an engaging narrative that subtly delivers a history lesson in the form of entertainment.”
Jonita, The Book Chick, 30 September 2008
“Donoghue made the story came to life; obviously something she's skilled at.”


WARNING: Comments may contain spoilers.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Added 19 August 2008.
Updated 26 February 2015.