Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Sealed Letter - Emma Donoghue

I read Emma Donoghue’s novel Room last year, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Well, ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word for a novel about abduction and rape told through the eyes of the resulting child, but I did find it gripping, original and very touching. The Sealed Letter’s blurb, however, promised “a delicious tale of secrets, betrayal, and forbidden love”, based on real-life events in Victorian England, so I was expecting something very different here.

The central character, Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull, bumps into Helen, an old friend she’s lost contact with, and gets drawn into Helen’s unhappy marriage and her affair with an army officer. Despite her reservations, Fido’s unspoken but deep-seated love for Helen leads her to become irrevocably embroiled in ensuing events.

Donoghue wrote this novel in the present tense, which always jars a little with me, but I got used to it pretty quickly. I’m still not convinced that the present tense and the modern, direct style of language used are completely successful in an historical novel – while the terminology and social assumptions give a good Victorian atmosphere, I personally find it more effective to have a novel written in the style of the time period in which it’s set.

The Sealed Letter is told alternately from the viewpoints of Fido, Helen, and Helen’s husband Harry, and Donoghue uses this very effectively to portray alternative perspectives on the same events and to get a different narrative voice for each character. The treatment of ambiguous sexuality is subtle and effective, and this novel manages to turn an historical court case into a very personal and engaging view of an unhappy marriage.

This is a very readable window into Victorian life, especially the unequal legal conditions that made the lives of women difficult, and, as long as you don’t mind the present tense too much, is well worth giving it a try if you are a fan of historical fiction.

Next up: Dark Fire, by C J Sansom

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