A sordid affair

The Sealed Letter, By Emma Donoghue, Picador, RRP£16.99, 398 pages

The Codrington Divorce in 1864 was a sordid Victorian courtroom scandal. Vice-Admiral Codrington, son of one of the hero-officers who fought at Trafalgar, was the governor of Malta. When he returned to England after seven years with his much younger wife and two daughters it emerged that she had been having an affair with one Colonel Anderson, a bewhiskered cad. He impulsively started divorce proceedings. Helen Codrington had, indeed, had the affair, not only with Anderson but with another young man in Malta. But as we see in The Sealed Letter, Emma Donoghue’s novel based on the case, the proceedings soon spiralled out of the vice-admiral’s control and into the hands of the lawyers, revealing just how cruel the Victorian marriage laws were.

Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room reconstructed the horror of a young mother and son imprisoned in a tiny space. The nightmare of this story will never leave me. Obviously, Room owed much to several high-profile news stories, just as The Sealed Letter is indebted to this real-life story. Donoghue follows the Victorian case closely but with the eye of a novelist rather than a reporter. The mystery key to the case was why Helen Codrington’s best friend, feminist campaigner Emily Faithfull (nicknamed Fido), changed sides. She had apparently been preparing to go into the witness-box to attest that she and Mrs Codrington had suffered an attempted rape from the vice-admiral but she then switched sides. In the end, she did a bunk and went abroad.

Robert Browning wrote his greatest poem, “The Ring and the Book”, about a sordid marital murder. Browning apparently once whispered in someone’s ear his explanation for the change in Fido’s mind: almost certainly that Fido was being blackmailed by Codrington’s lawyers. This is the clue upon which Donoghue constructs her compulsively readable telling of the story.

The tale begins with Helen Codrington, lately returned from Malta, resuming her friendship with Fido after a chance meeting in London. Fido had been a witness to the unhappiness of the Codringtons and at first we suppose that her reason for leaving Malta, and not keeping up with Helen Codrington, has been sheer embarrassment at having overheard so many rows.

In the novel Fido is indeed blackmailed by Codrington’s lawyer. They hand her a sealed envelope that she believes contains her guilty secret. In fact the envelope is empty. The denouement will come as no surprise to readers who come to know Fido as a friend. Fido is beautifully evoked by Donoghue – the clergyman’s daughter who believes passionately in feminism and is working with such luminaries of the movement as Emily Davies, founder of Girton College, Cambridge, and Bessie Parkes, friend of George Eliot. When these doughty women discover that Fido has been condoning Mrs Codrington’s adultery, and even lending her a room for the afternoon, they priggishly drop their disciple.

All the characters are drawn with convincing realism – the emotionally backward admiral, his pleasure-seeking wife; the odious “friends” who testify against Helen; the weak-spirited lover, Colonel Anderson – but it is Fido who is our friend.

There is consummate artistry in the way that Donoghue plants her clues. At first, you nearly believe in Helen’s “innocence” during the Maltese past. The behaviour of the colonel to his married mistress is especially observant. But so too is the ending, and the changes which come upon the central female characters. In a clever recitation of the novels enjoyed (slightly guiltily) by Fido, she lists among them Wilkie Collins: and the tale itself is every bit as melodramatic as such 19th-century masterpieces of marital horror as Collins’s No Name.

AN Wilson is author of ‘The Victorians’ (Arrow Books)

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