The Sealed Letter

by Emma Donoghue

Based on a scandalous divorce case that gripped England in 1864, THE SEALED LETTER is a riveting, provocative drama of friends, lovers, and divorce, Victorian style.

  • Format: eBook
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547391571
  • ISBN-10: 0547391579
  • Pages: 416
  • Publication Date: 09/24/2009

About the book

Miss Emily "Fido" Faithfull is a "woman of business" and a spinster pioneer in the British women’s movement, independent of mind but naively trusting of heart. Distracted from her cause by the sudden return of a once-dear friend, the unhappily wed Helen Codrington, Fido is swept up in the intimate details of Helen’s failing marriage and obsessive affair with a young army officer. What begins as a loyal effort to help a friend explodes into an intriguing courtroom drama complete with accusations of adultery, counterclaims of rape, and a mysterious letter that could destroy more than one life.

Based on a scandalous divorce case that gripped England in 1864, The Sealed Letter is a riveting, provocative drama of friends, lovers, and divorce, Victorian-style.


About the author
Emma Donoghue

Born in Ireland, national bestselling author EMMA DONOGHUE spent many years in England and now lives in Canada. Her books include Room (basis for the Oscar-nominated film), Slammerkin, and The Pull of the Stars. Her novels have been translated into eight languages.


The last day of August, and the sky is the colour of hot ash. Something rancid wafts on the air from Smithfield Market; the air glitters with stone dust. She’s swept down Farringdon Street in the slipstream of bowlers, top hats, baskets on porters’ heads. A hand lights on her arm, a small, ungloved hand; the brown silk of her sleeve is caught between plump pink fingertips. She staggers, clamps her pocketbook to her ribs, but even as she’s jerking away she can’t help recognizing that hand.


One syllable dipping down, the next swooping up, a familiar and jaunty music; the word skips across the years like a skimmed stone. Almost everyone calls her that now, but Helen was the first. Fido’s eyes flick up to Helen’s face: sharp cheekbones, chignon still copper. An acid lemon dress, white lace gloves scrunched in the other hand, the one that’s not gripping Fido’s sleeve. The human river has washed Fido sideways, now, into a scarlet-chested, brass-buttoned officer, who begs her pardon.

"I knew it was you," cries Helen, holding her emerald parasol up to block the terrible sun. "Did you take me for a pickpocket?" she asks, a giggle in her throat.

"Only for half a moment, Mrs. Codrington," she manages to say, licking her gritty lips.

A flicker of pain across the pointed face. "Oh, Fido. Has it come to that?"

"Helen, then," says Fido, and smiles despite herself. Despite the skin-tightening sensation of encountering a friend who is no longer one. Despite the memories that are billowing up like genii from smashed bottles. She wrenches a handkerchief from her jacket pocket and dabs at her forehead. The two women are blocking the traffic; an old man swerves around them, under a sandwich board that reads No Home Should Be Without One.

"But how you’ve grown," Helen is marvelling.

Fido looks down at the brown bulge of her bodice. "Too true."

Pink fingers clap to the coral mouth. "You monster! Still the same talent for mistaking my meaning, or letting on that you do. Of course I meant you’ve grown up so."

"It has been, what, seven years?" Her words are as stiff as tin soldiers. Checking her bonnet is straight, she becomes belatedly aware that the scarlet uniform she bumped into a minute ago is hovering, so she turns to see him off.

"Oh, my manners," says Helen. "Miss Emily Faithfull—if I may—Colonel David Anderson, a friend of the family’s from Malta." The colonel has dangling blond whiskers. Fido lets his fingers enclose hers. "Delighted," she says distractedly. "The Miss Faithfull?" She winces at the phrase. By his accent, he’s a Scot. "Printer and Publisher to the Queen?"

The man’s well informed. Fido concedes a nod. "Her Majesty’s been gracious enough to lend her name to our enterprise at the Victoria Press." She turns back to Helen. So much to say, and little of it speakable; words log-jam in her throat. "Are you and Captain Codrington home on leave, or—"

"Forever and ever, amen," says Helen.

That little twisted smile is so familiar to Fido that the years fall away like planks splintering under her feet. She feels dizzy; she fears she’ll have to sink to her knees, right here in all the dusty clamour of London’s City district.

"Matter of fact, it’s Vice-Admiral Codrington now," remarks Colonel Anderson.

"Of course, of course, forgive me," Fido tells Helen. "I can’t help thinking of him by the name he bore in the days . . ." The days when I knew him? When I knew you? But she’s not that girl anymore. It’s 1864: I’m almost thirty years old, she scolds herself.

"Harry’s been immured in paperwork for weeks, ever since our vile crossing from Malta," complains Helen, "so I’ve press-ganged the colonel into service as my parcel carrier today."

"A keen volunteer, Mrs. C.," he corrects her, swinging two small packages on their strings. "I’ll just pop across the road to pick up your whatsits, shall I?"

"Curtain tassels, a dozen of the magenta," she reminds him.

"That’s the ticket."

Tactful of the officer to absent himself, Fido thinks. But once she and Helen are alone, the discomfort rises between them like a paper screen. "Such heat" is all she manages. "It takes me back," says Helen pleasurably, twirling her fringed green parasol and tipping her chin up to catch the merciless light. Watching that face, Fido finds it hard to believe that this woman must be—count the years—thirty-six. "To Italy? Or do you mean India?"

"Oh, both: my whole torrid youth!"

"Was it . . . was it generally hot in Malta?"

Helen’s laugh comes out startlingly deep, like a sob. "So we’re reduced to discussing the weather." Irritation boils in Fido’s veins. "As it happens, I’m pressed for time today—" "Oh, yes, I was almost forgetting what a very important person you’ve become. The Miss Faithfull, philanthropist, pioneer!" Fido wants to take her by the lemon-lace-edged shoulders and shake her like a doll. "I prefer to call myself a woman of business."

"I can quite see why I was dropped the moment I left the country," Helen rattles on, "considering how pressed for time you’ve been, what with all your valiant efforts on behalf of our downtrodden sex."

Her mouth, Fido finds, is hanging open. "Whatever can you mean, dropped?"

A pretty shrug. "It needn’t have been done with such brutal efficiency, need it?" Helen’s dropped the mocking tone. "Friendships have their seasons, that’s understood. But you might have let me down rather more gently, I suppose, after all we’d been through."

Fido blinks dust out of her eyes. "It wasn’t kind, that’s all I’ll say. Or womanly. It wasn’t like you, like what I knew of your heart, or thought I did." "Stop." She holds up her white-gloved hand till it almost touches those rapid lips.

Helen only speeds up. "You’d had your fill of me and Harry by the time we embarked for Malta, was that it? All at once sick to death of us and our bickerings?" Her eyes have the wet blue sheen of rain. "I know, I know, I quite see that we’d worn you out between us. But I must confess, when I found myself tossed aside like yesterday’s newspaper—"

"My dear." Fido almost barks it. "I find these accusations incongruous." Helen stares at her like a baby. "Must I remind you, I wrote twice to Admiralty House in Valetta and got not a word of reply to either?" "Nonsense!" Fido is bewildered. This is like one of those dreams in which one is caught up in an endless, illogical series of tasks.

"Of course I wrote back," cries Helen.

"From Malta?"

"Of course from Malta! I was a stranger in a strange land; I needed a bosom friend more than ever. Whyever would I have left off writing? I poured out all my worries—" Fido breaks in. "When was this? What month?"

"How should I recall, all these years later?" asks Helen reasonably. "But I know I replied as soon as I got your letter—the one and only letter I received from you when I was in Malta. I sent several long screeds, but on your side the correspondence simply dried up. You can’t imagine my nervous excitement when a packet of post would arrive from England, and I’d rip it open—"

Fido’s chewing her lip; she tastes blood. "I did change my lodgings, that autumn," she concedes. "But still, your letters ought to have been sent on directly by the post office."

"Lost at sea?" suggests Helen, frowning.

"One of them, perhaps, but could the Continental mail really be so—"

"Things do go astray."...



"Donoghue weaves an engrossing and... quite funny melodrama about a bad, bad girl who bursts the seams of this corseted world... part "Forever Amber" and part clockwork courtroom drama, with bawdy undercurrents of forbidden love thrown in for good measure. All in all, a deliciously wicked little romp, complete with a clever twist at the end." -- The Seattle Times

"Emma Donoghue's triangle of real-life protagonists presents us with a quintessentially Victorian tableau...mid-Victorian London feels so real you can almost taste it." -- Washington Post Book World

"A fascinating tour de force, a brilliant unraveling of closely held secrets and brutal betrayals...A case of Dangerous Liaisons with yet another layer of Victorian outrage."

"Donoghue blends a true case and period detail into an intriguing tale of mystery and passion."--The Oregonian

"Donoghue recreates grim 19th-century London -- relieved by whiffs of exotic Malta -- with vividness and authority...She makes 150-year-old events immediate, evoking hot, sweaty flesh under rustling layers of bombazine and conveying powerful sense of vertigo as her characters pitch headlong into the abyss of notoriety...What could have been mere Victorian melodrama resonates here with emotional truth." -- Quill & Quire (Canada)

"[A] cozily lurid new novel." --The International Herald Tribune


"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.'" --The New York Times Book Review