Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Sealed Letter.
Poor Helen Codrington gets more than she bargains for when she finally returns to London with her esteemed husband, Admiral Henry “Harry” Codrington, after seven years in Malta. In a blaze of lemon yellow, Helen also returns with her handsome and debonair lover, blond-haired Colonel David Anderson, whom Helen introduces as “a valued friend of the family.”
Determined to find a go-between to field their subterranean love letters back and forth, Helen and Anderson descend upon Helen's naïve old friend Emily “Fido” Faithful, a woman of “independent means” who has been busy establishing her own publishing house
for furthering the causes of the bourgeoning women’s suffrage movement.
That August in London resembles the color of hot ash, the air glittering with coal dust. Fido is delighted to bump into Helen as she sweeps down Farrington Street, dizzy with excitement and expectation, her mind full of printing schedules. It’s not surprising that the young spinster feels “the grey ashes of friendship” reddening to life again.
Despite the complications of a shared history, the two women are determined to meet eye to eye “with a collective new heart.”
Helen’s “rueful merriment,” however, proves to be rather deceptive. Astonished at her own recklessness, in reality she holds Anderson by the thinnest of threads, meeting for secretive sexual assignations on Fido’s sofa at four in the afternoon, he seizing her as soon as their trusting hostess has left the room. When Fido learns the real truth behind their friendship, she is appalled at Helen’s impropriety and begs her friend to break off all connection with her lover.
Harry sees his wife as a selfish puppet. Like the unseen spy outside, he begins to keep his wife “in his sights,” even hiring a detective to watch her every move. When Helen fails to receive a telegram of Harry’s telling her that their youngest daughter, Nell, is gravely ill, Harry, reeling from what he sees as an adulterous betrayal, sets his famous divorce in motion along with the very real possibility of Helen’s financial and social ruin.
Fido finds herself blindsided by the duplicitous needs of Helen, the assumed anger of Harry, and the dirty-mindedness of the over-educated lawyers, each vying with the other to invent euphemisms for the “act in question. ” Donohue’s fine Victorian melodrama is filled with feminine evasions, equivocations, and long-held animosities as the sexes duel it out in the drawing rooms and courtrooms of English society.
A "twisted image of cracked mirrors" accelerates the complicated plot. The “sealed letter” threatens to ignite a firestorm along with assignations of a forbidden love. While the intricate historical elements add an extra dimension to the author’s characters
- especially Fido with her feminist goals, aspirations and frustrations - the novel remains a richly layered and emotional account of a marriage defined by stuffy Victorian propriety. There's also the ever-present moral indignation that reverberates throughout, which eventually drags Harry
and Helen - even Fido - into a stinking quagmire, their lives eventually bordering on the
outer edges of social and sexual decency.