In her third historical novel, Donoghue (Landing, 2007, etc.) portrays a sordid Victorian divorce that roiled the women’s suffrage movement.
Emily Faithfull, known to her friends as “Fido,” thinks she’s comfortably settled as the proprietor of the Victoria Press, which trains women as typesetters and printers, and as a respected member of England’s nascent feminist leadership. But back into her life in the stifling London summer of 1864 comes the disruptive Helen Codrington, once Fido’s most intimate friend, but absent for seven years in Malta, where Helen’s husband was posted with the Royal Navy. The faltering Codrington marriage created an awkward breach in their friendship, and Helen claims never to have received the letters Fido sent her in Malta. Readers, however, will know this is a crock long before embittered Vice-Admiral Harry Codrington tells her that Helen mockingly tossed aside the missives with a wisecrack about lonely spinsters. The fact that Fido is oblivious to her beloved friend’s manipulative, scheming ways is only the most obvious problem with a sluggish tale possessing little of the deeply imagined period atmosphere of Life Mask (2004) and Slammerkin (2001), let alone the author’s usual sharp observations. The carefully drawn characters are dreary, as is the narrative, despite Helen’s adulterous trysts and Fido’s unjust ostracism by her feminist comrades. Even the climactic trial, complete with sleazy lawyers making insinuations about lesbian amour, is curiously flat. We would feel sorrier for Fido if she weren’t so clearly self-deluded, and the adulterous Helen is a particularly uninteresting villain. A last-minute revelation, apparently meant to be a bombshell, will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading carefully, and the sealed letter of the title proves to be an irritating red herring. Taking off from real-life characters and actual historical events has energized the author in the past, but Donoghue is just going through the motions here.
Uncharacteristically dull work from one of contemporary literature’s most interesting and entertaining writers.