Emma Donoghue on The Sealed Letter

Chris Roulston interviews Emma Donoghue about The Sealed Letter


Emma Donoghue's novel The Sealed Letter  is based on a real-life scandal, the Codrington Case, which gripped England in 1864. Chris Roulston is professor of French and Women’s Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Her latest book is Narrating Marriage in Eighteenth-Century England and France, and she is now working on a project about court cases, including the Codrington Case. Here, Chris and Emma discuss the Codrington Case and itsw influence on Emma's work. 

What makes you base your historical fiction on real incidents?

I often puzzle over my attraction to factual fiction: why don’t I make up stories from scratch, why do I need that little nugget of reality to get me started? I suppose it’s because of my academic background (a Ph.D. in English) that I love wrestling with the research: not just tracking facts down, but using all my experience to weigh up a text (a witness statement in the Codrington Case, for instance) and decide which bits ring true. But I also love finding gaps in the evidence which leave room for me to invent. Perversely, when I’m researching a historical novel I often come home after a hard day in the archives saying, ‘Great, I found nothing, I’m free to make it up.’ The ‘sealed letter’, for instance, to which Harry Codrington’s lawyers kept alluding darkly – I was deeply relieved that I never found the real document, so I got to come to my own conclusions about what was in it.

Why were you drawn to write about divorce in The Sealed Letter?

Ireland only voted to allow divorce in 1995, five years after I’d left. When I was growing up, divorce was a foreign, exotic thing: the notion that your life could include more than one story! So I suppose that by going back to the mid-nineteenth century, I was trying to capture a thrilling moment when divorce got democratized; when, for large numbers of people in the West, it began to seem possible to escape from your marital mistakes.

Divorce law was very biased towards men, wasn’t it?

As was marriage itself. Nowadays we’re so used to the notion of marriage-as-love that we forget the longer history of the institution: it’s always been about men owning women, children and property. Complicated rules about adultery all boil down to the need to make sure that the children who’d inherit a man’s money were genetically his. Custody decisions were based on this notion of ownership, rather than the welfare of the child. A mother only won custody if she was impeccable and the father was proven to be a monster – very violent, say, or (in the case of the poet Shelley, who lost his children) an atheist. Which means that for a wife like Helen Codrington, in 1864, the risks of an affair were appallingly high: she stood to lose everything, not just social status, and her income, but the right to ever set eyes on her daughters again. And of course, it never occurred to anyone to ask the children what they wanted!

What was it about the Codrington Case, in particular, that interested you?

It’s so modern. The Sealed Letter is much less of a period piece than some of my other novels, not just because it’s set in a mid-Victorian London infrastructure (stressed-out urbanites riding the Underground and reading The Times) which survives today, but because it’s about a highly, self-consciously modern legal battle. In overseeing the death of this particular marriage, the lawyers and journalists were also debating the changing roles of men and women, from clothes and sex lives to jobs and spending habits. I first heard about the case in a footnote to a verse by one of the Langham Place set (in an anthology of Victorian women’s poetry). The Codrington divorce was one of the first in which a wife took advantage of a new rule that let her make counter-charges, and Helen certainly threw the book at her husband, accusing him of everything from neglect, to cruelty, to attempted rape of her former best friend, Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull. So this wasn’t a simple case of a persecuted wife, but something closer to a fair fight. What really hooked me was the idea of an earnest feminist businesswoman getting dragged into a mucky divorce case to testify for the wife – and ending up, in a bizarre twist, speaking in support of the husband instead.


Wasn’t the Codrington Case also one of the only divorces in which the intimacy between two women became an issue?

Yes, lesbianism (which was a barely speakable taboo, but not an actual crime in the UK) was one of the implicit charges on which the case was judged. Even though the lawyers were loath to accuse Helen and Fido of having sex, they did imply that the friendship had contributed to the breakdown of the marriage – had ‘alienated Helen’s affections’ from Harry, to use a phrase commonly applied to a wife’s male lover.


Would you agree that the newspapers tended to cast Fido as Helen’s victim?

It’s fascinating: photos of Fido show that she looked like a bulldog – very plain, tough and androgynous – so readers today might expect that she would be blamed: ‘aggressive lesbian breaks up admiral’s marriage’, as it were. But in 1864, there were three strikes against Helen: she was older, married (therefore sexually informed) and adulterous, so she was generally assumed to be the source of danger: ‘wicked wife abuses trust of innocent friend’.

We know that Fido went on to have two devoted domestic partnerships, spending fourteen years with Kate Pattison and eleven (until her death) with Charlotte Robinson.

Interestingly, the two women Fido spent the rest of her life with were quite a different sort from Helen: businesslike, comforting, stable . . . Fido never again went for a troublemaker.

It sounds like she went for marriage . . .

Yes, she certainly did choose domestic, marital-style relationships. One irony of Fido’s role in the divorce is that she was never an enemy of marriage and was appalled to be portrayed as a home-wrecker; the evidence suggests that she wasted years of her youth trying to cobble the Codringtons’ chalk-and-cheese marriage back together.

If in 1864 people could have known that Fido would spend her entire life loving women, would that have made a difference to how they read her involvement with Helen?

Probably not. This was a society that still relied on pair-bonds between women; women quite often shared beds, lived with their married friends, even went along on honeymoons . . . Traditionally, physical closeness between women was seen as harmless (because no penis was involved), and their emotional closeness was thought of as helpful to society in general and marriage in particular. What’s unusual in the story of the Codringtons is not the moment when young Fido moved in with the couple, but the moment years later when Harry asked her (for reasons his lawyer later claimed he’d noted down in the ‘sealed letter’) to move out. You get a sense from the court records of a society just waking up to the terrible possibility that, in this generation of New Women, who were asking for the vote and higher education, running businesses and living independently of men, devoted friendship might morph into something subversive of marriage rather than supportive of it.

With divorce rates so high today, why are people still flocking to get married?

It’s more than a legal protection, it’s a status symbol. The fact that so many heterosexuals object loudly if same-sex couples are allowed actual marriage (as opposed to civil union, civil partnership, or some other neologism) shows that it’s the M word itself that matters, more than the rights; it’s the ring, the paraphernalia, the symbolism. A wedding says, ‘We’re better – more loved, successful, mature, secure – than the rest of you.’ I know teenage girls, whom you might expect to be indifferent to this archaic cultural baggage, who fixate on TV shows such as The Bachelor or Say Yes To The Dress: the fetish of the wedding as the day on which a woman wins the grand prize.

There’s a strange disconnect between this cult of a single day, and the whole lifetime it’s meant to represent.

Which reminds me of that theory that divorce is a substitute for death, because only nowadays do people survive long enough to find themselves facing the prospect of sixty or seventy years of living cheek-by-jowl with the same person. Marriage is full of strange disconnects, actually. We struggle to think of it as permanent romance combined with hot sex, but also best-friendship, emotional support, the linking of two families, financial partnership, egalitarian co-parenting . . . It’s an impossible hybrid. And yet most of us cling to the dream, hoping to beat the statistics and hold on to wedded bliss for a lifetime.

Marriage in literature has almost always been represented through its beginning (the wedding) or its ending (adultery, break-up). How do you tell the story of married life itself?

Some marvelous fiction, such as Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons (1988) or Carol Shields’ Happenstance (1980, composed of two back-to-back novels called The Wife’s Story and The Husband’s Story), charts the tiny emotional subtleties between spouses over a single day or a single weekend. Or you can focus on the relations between parents and children, which are always changing as the kids grow up; ABC’s popular series Modern Family takes that tack. Or you can start with a weird premise; I’ve a fervent fan of the HBO series Big Love, about a polygamist Mormon and his three wives, which manages to defamiliarize marriage itself. You need a whole bag of tricks to make a marriage story interesting!