The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

A quick rundown… A fictional story based on the real life events of a divorce trial in Victorian England.

Strengths: Different aspect of Victorian based fiction and strong portrayal of women.

Weaknesses: I felt a bit cheated after I read that it was based on actual events.

Why I read it: Bought it on holiday in Singapore

Pages: 397

Published: 2008

Publisher: Picador

Setting: England

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Like many readers, I was blown away when I read Emma Donoghue’s Room back in 2011. Eager to see what else she had written, I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of it was historical fiction (right up my alley!). I eagerly jumped into this one, but I can see that others may find it strange in comparison to Room.

Why? Well, let’s look at the similarities for starters – both novels are based on a factual event (although I wish that this had been made obvious at the start of The Sealed Letter). This book is a little less sensational for the modern reader as it’s based on a divorce trial in Victorian England, which is not so shocking. Donoghue does her best to make the reader see just how sensational a divorce was at the time by the cloak and dagger methods employed by the main character. Both Room and The Sealed Letter have strong women characters and the events and secrets are slowly, carefully revealed at just the right moment.

But the differences? The Sealed Letter’s Fido is a bit dim at times compared to Room‘s Jack, despite her being an adult. She seems to be a complete sucker when it comes to Helen (her alleged best friend and soon to be divorcee). Helen dupes Fido over and over to spend time with her lover, whether using her (or her house!) as an alibi. Fido becomes entangled in the court case and soon her character is tainted.

The plot I found to be a little more uneven than Room, without the extreme dramatic moments (but to be fair, the subject matter is difficult to match). At times, the narrative was slow, Fido had her head in the sand and Helen continued using her. But I persevered and I found the courtroom scenes to be interesting as well as the juxtaposition between the strong and weak females, versus good or bad. Is it better to be ‘good’ and ‘weak’ or ostracised for being ‘bad’ and ‘strong’?

There’s as many questions left unanswered here as in Room, but given the basis on real life events, I was expecting this. The Sealed Letter will have you questioning intentions, morals and why our society shuns some over others.


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