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Emily "Fido" Faithfull is unusual for a Victorian woman as she has passed up marriage and children and at the ripe old age of 29 campaigns for the cause of woman's rights and runs a printing press giving employment to needy women. She is delighted when she bumps into her old friend and confidant Helen Codrington on the streets of London and the two rekindle a close friendship. On the surface Helen lives a respectable life as the wife of an Admiral in the Royal Navy but that comfortable life is about to come crashing round her ears when her husband accuses her of adultery and files for divorce. Fido is drawn into the tawdry court case; a letter written and sealed by Admiral Codrington threatens not only the relationship between the female friends but also Fido's place in society. Will Fido support her friend no matter what or save her own skin?
Life for women was very different back in Victorian times. Many of the rights we take for granted like the right to own property or the fact that a woman will probably be granted custody of her children in the event of her divorce simply did not exist then. I enjoyed reading about the early feminists and their struggles to achieve some basic rights for women in what was very much a man's world. It would be easy to portray the suffragettes as saints, we want to believe that these historical women were perfect but they were every bit as capable of bitchiness and backstabbing as modern women. Women have always enjoyed close friendships and that was no different in Victorian times with female solidarity seeing us through all the good and bad times in our lives but how far would you go for your best friend? Would you lie for her? What if saving her skin meant putting your own reputation on the line?
The book is based on the real Codrington divorce case of the time and Donoghue has obviously done her research in searching out both facts of the case but what life was like in Victorian London; the brand new underground railway system is seen as a novelty for the poor to use for example. It is the social attitudes odd moral rules which are most interesting to read about.
The main part of the book is the divorce case between the Codrington's in a time when divorce was newly legalised and still exceptionally rare. The case caused a huge scandal with the proceedings being written about daily in The Times and the public balconies in the courtroom full of nosey parkers keen to see for themselves what is going on. Whilst the Jeremy Kyle show and OK! Magazine are the modern ways of catching up on the latest celebrity scandal it is clear that our forbearers also enjoyed watching others be humiliated as the skeletons come tumbling out of the closets.
I was expecting great things from "The Sealed Letter" as it is written by Emma Donoghue who also wrote the exceptional book "room". Whilst the two books are very different, they are both very well written and thought provoking reads. It is a good book which combines changing relationships over time with a courtroom drama and Victorian life.