The Sealed Letter: Author's Note

28 October 2011

Emma Donoghue offers an author's note to her second novel, The Sealed Letter. Read on for more on this thoroughly well researched and written novel.

 

Her clear eyes look far, as bent
On shining futures gathering in;
Nought seems too high for her intent,
Too hard for her to win.

Emily Faithfull (1835–95), “Fido” to her intimates, was one of the leading members of the first-wave British women’s movement. Her colleague at 19 Langham Place, Isa Craig, wrote a poem called “These Three,” which celebrated Adelaide Procter as Faith, Bessie Parkes as Love, and Fido Faithfull as Hope. Here is the key verse about Fido: 

One of the counsel in the case told an acquaintance of mine that the “sealed letter” contained a charge I shall be excused from even hinting to you—fear of the explosion of which, caused the shift of Miss Emily from one side to the other. As is invariably the case, people’s mouths are opened, and tell you what “they knew long ago” though it seems that did not matter a bit so long as nobody else knew.

But by the time this optimistic verse was published in English Lyrics (1870), things had changed utterly: Adelaide Procter was dead; Bessie Parkes had married a Frenchman she barely knew (their children would include the writer Hilaire Belloc) and effectively withdrawn from the movement; the HQ of the Reform Firm had shifted from Langham Place to Emily Davies’s home; and Fido Faithfull was a pariah.

The Sealed Letter is a fiction, but based on the extensive reports on Codrington v. Codrington in the Times for July 30, August 1 and 2, and November 18, 19, 21, and 24, 1864, supplemented by the Daily Telegraph, Spectator, Reynolds’s Magazine, and Lloyds’s Weekly London Newspaper. Very closely based, in fact: for instance, the letter Helen sends Anderson protesting against his engagement, in this novel, is almost word for word the same as the one read aloud in court. What might seem like anachronistic allusions to the Bill Clinton impeachment, such as the stained dress, or the argument about whether a woman could have sex with a man without that man having sex with her, are real details from the Codrington trial. The only major change I have made is to compress the couple’s legal wranglings of the period 1858 to 1866 into the novel’s more dramatic time span of August to October 1864.

It is a matter of record that Emily “Fido” Faithfull, called as a witness by the wife, fled to avoid a subpoena, then returned to testify in the husband’s favour. But why? Robert Browning certainly thought he knew, when he sent his spinster friend Isa Blagden the following tidbit on January 19, 1865:

I have seen with my own eyes the curious combination of intellectual power and instability of purpose portrayed in Tiny Harewood; I have watched with an aching heart the shifting weaknesses and faint struggles for redemption described in these pages.

Because the document was not opened in court or entered into the trial record, we are unlikely ever to know what was in it.

William E. Fredeman in “Emily Faithfull and the Victoria Press: An Experiment in Sociological Bibliography” (Library, 5th series, 29, no. 2 [June 1974]: 139–64) was the first to spell out Browning’s sly hints about the “sealed letter”; he argues that Admiral Codrington must have used it to blackmail Faithfull into changing sides.

By contrast, James Stone’s biography of his wife’s great-great-aunt, Emily Faithfull: Victorian Champion of Women’s Rights (1994), attributes her volte­face to her sense of betrayal that Helen had broken her promise not to drag her into court.

The first thorough reading of this complex case was an essay by Martha Vicinus (“Lesbian Perversity and Victorian Marriage: The 1864 Codrington Divorce Trial,” Journal of British Studies 36 [1997]: 70–98, also included in her book, Intimate Friends). Based on exemplary research into all the participants as well as a close study of the newspaper coverage and legal documents, this brilliant analysis was invaluable to me in writing The Sealed Letter. Vicinus is not convinced by Stone’s theory that Helen Codrington and her lawyer conned a naïve Faithfull into approving Few’s af.davit. In this account, Faithfull emerges as an astute businesswoman who gave a brilliant performance in the witness box, drawing on Victorian preconceptions (for instance, about the naïve girl led astray by the older married woman) to get herself off the hook.

In creating my own “Fido,” “Helen,” and “Harry,” and attempting to solve the ill-.tting jigsaw puzzle that is the Codrington case, I have borrowed ideas from these three historians and others.

Four years after testifying in the trial, Fido mulled over her experiences with Helen Codrington, more in sorrow than in anger, in a bestselling novel called Change upon Change (1868). The persona she adopts is that of a sober man called Wilfred, helplessly devoted and secretly engaged to his flighty cousin Tiny. “Women have so many natures,” he concludes wistfully; “I think she loved me well with one.” In the preface to the American edition of 1873 (renamed A Reed Shaken in the Wind), Fido admitted

But Fido did very little withdrawing, in fact. For all Bessie Parkes’s dark predictions, the Social Science Association did not take their custom away from the Victoria Press, and they resumed inviting Fido to address their annual conferences after a few years, in 1869. Nor did Queen Victoria ever withdraw her personal title of “Printer and Publisher in Ordinary to Her Majesty.” Fido and William Wilfred Head legally partitioned the press in 1867, and it was not wound down until the early 1880s.

Despite having been cast out of Langham Place, Fido remained active— and does not seem to have been ostracized for very long—in the broader women’s movement. She founded the Ladies’ Work Society and the Victoria Discussion Society in 1869, and in 1874 the Industrial and Educational Bureau for Women, to offer training, jobs, and emigration opportunities. In 1871 she was presented with a silver tea and coffee service by colleagues (including Lady Goldsmid of the SPEW committee), and Emily Davies resumed cautious dealings with her later in that decade. Fido continued to promote the Cause (including votes for women) in her Victoria Magazine, as well as in her cheaper weekly, Women and Work (1874–76), her West London Express (1877–78), and in her columns for the Ladies Pictorial in the 1880s and 1890s. Interestingly, she does not seem to have held a lasting grudge against Bessie Parkes, and often paid tribute to her in print.

Not content with being a campaigner, lecturer, publisher, editor, journalist, and novelist, Fido formed a small drama company that toured London and the provinces in 1875. Her reputation grew as a result of extensive U.S. speaking engagements, described in Three Tours of America (1884). In 1888 she received an inscribed portrait from the Queen in recognition of thirty years of work on behalf of her sex.

Nor was she lonely. After Fido’s friend Emy Wilson got married in 1868, actress Kate Pattison acted as Fido’s secretary and companion from 1869 to 1883. This long partnership was followed by one with interior decorator Charlotte Robinson. From 1884, Fido and Charlotte shared a quiet, thick-carpeted home in Manchester and ran a women’s decor college and business that earned Charlotte an appointment as “Home Decorator to Her Majesty.”

Despite her lifelong lung troubles, Fido remained a keen smoker: during her first U.S. tour in 1872–73, a Chicago journalist wrote that the “fat, famous and frolicsome Emily Faithfull smoke[s] like a Lake Michigan tug boat.” She died of bronchitis in 1895, a few days after her sixtieth birthday. In her will she left a tactful but firm message for the Faithfulls:

At least some of the Faithfull clan seem to have stood by Fido. At the time of the trial, she also had one loyal friend I have left out of the story, Emy Wilson (discussed in Martha Westwater’s The Wilson Sisters).

I have simplified and compressed many events at Langham Place in the early 1860s, including the death throes of the English Woman’s Journal and the founding of the Victoria Magazine and Alexandra Magazine. I have used quotations, paraphrases, incidents, and details from the papers of Bessie Parkes Belloc, her father Joseph Parkes, her daughter Marie Belloc Lowndes, and her colleagues Barbara Smith Bodichon, Emily Davies, and Adelaide Procter. Some of these papers are published, but most are held in manuscript at Girton College, Cambridge—the college for women that Davies founded in 1869. (When I did my Ph.D. at Girton in the 1990s, I had no idea I would be returning one day to research a novel, and I want to thank archivist Kate Perry for her help and insights during my week-long visit in 2005.)

Though voluminous, the letters of the “Reform Firm” are often tantalizingly euphemistic. At points of crisis—such as the ousting of the fascinating Matilda “Max” Hays from the Journal, or Bessie Parkes’s breaking off of relations with Fido—letters or entire sequences have been lost or (more likely) censored by heirs. For instance, the letter in which Parkes reports discovering Fido’s involvement in the Codrington case is missing at least the .rst page. This means that much of my novel’s depiction of relations among the women of Langham Place has to be guesswork. For factual accounts of these key years in British feminism I recommend Pam Hirsch’s Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Feminist, Artist and Rebel, Candida Ann Lacey’s anthology, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and the Langham Place Group, and Jane Rendall’s essay on the English Woman’s Journal in her Equal or Different: Women’s Politics 1800–1914.

In her Family Chronicle for 1864, Emily Davies summed up the Codrington crisis as discreetly as possible:

Miss Faithfull was obliged, owing to some references to her in reports of a Divorce case, to withdraw for a time, from society, & I, & others, ceased to be associated with her.I feel sure that any loving members of my family who may survive me will appreciate my desire that the few possessions I have should be retained for the exclusive use and as the absolute property of my beloved friend Charlotte Robinson as some little indication of my gratitude for
the countless services for which I am indebted to her as well as for the affectionate tenderness and care which made the last few years of my life the happiest I ever spent.

Fido destroyed almost all her private papers, except for some that she left to Charlotte to be passed on to her favourite nephew, Ferdinand Faithfull Begg, which have since disappeared.

But though she survived the Codrington case, both personally and professionally, it did cast a long shadow over her name; she remained vaguely associated with sex scandal. At least one obituary by a woman journalist (Illustrated London News, May 15, 1895) criticized her for having adopted a mannish style of dress—which by then carried sinister implications of what doctors were starting to call “inversion,” “sex perversion,” or “homosexuality.” As James Stone documents in his biography, the death of this tireless maverick was followed by a conspiracy of silence on the part of her comrades, who wrote her out of the history of the first British women’s movement.

Jessica Balmer—a brilliant researcher at the Centre for Feminist Research, York University—has managed to shed light on the life of both Codringtons after the divorce in 1865.

Vice-Admiral Henry Codrington shook off the disgrace of the court case and was knighted in 1867, so it was as Sir Henry Codrington that he remarried two years later, choosing a widow, Catherine Compton. (Since her first husband, Admiral Aitchison, had fought a duel at Brussels in which both men gallantly blindfolded themselves before shooting each other dead across a table, perhaps she was just as relieved as Harry to find herself with a more prudent partner this time.) They lived two doors away from his brother General William Codrington in Eaton Square. In 1870 Lady Codrington simultaneously presented two debutantes, her daughter Selina and her step­daughter Nan, to the Queen. Harry never was sent on active service again, but he received the titles of Admiral of the Fleet and Knight Commander of the Bath before he died in 1877, leaving £30,000 each to his two daughters. (Nan later became the mother of Denys Finch-Hatton, made famous as the hero of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, and Ellen married Sir John Dasent, who took her to the West Indies.) Harry’s sister Lady Bourchier published two volumes about her family, Memoir of the Life of Admiral Sir Henry Codrington (1873) and Selections from the Letters of Sir Henry Codrington (1880), masterpieces of euphemism that manage to make almost no reference to Harry’s first marriage.


As for Helen, she continued to go by her married name of Helen Jane (sometimes misspelled Jean) Codrington, and received some regular income from Bank of Bengal shares that her father (Christopher Webb Smith) had settled on her and Harry in 1850. When her father died in 1871, Helen sued Harry and their daughters (among other defendants, including Sir Alexander Lindsay) over an inheritance of some 80,000 rupees. Codrington v. Lindsay, a case so Byzantine as to make Codrington v. Codrington and Anderson seem crystal clear, seems to have resulted in at least a qualified victory for Helen in 1875. But she died of cancer at forty-five (on  12 September 1875, at 27 South Street, South Kensington, according to the Times notice three days later), and the Liverpool Mercury reported in a gossip column of 17 September that she was “understood to have spent the whole of her portion in lawsuits against her husband, and to have died in poverty.”


*

In Britain from 1670 to 1852 there were fewer than two divorces a year (and men were the petitioners in all but four of them). After the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 this rose rapidly to several hundred a year, and despite legal and financial hindrances, women were the petitioners in almost half of the divorces and almost all the judicial separations. In 1923 the double standard was finally abolished: a wife could now ask for a divorce on the basis of a husband’s adultery alone. (Interestingly, the double standard was a peculiarly English institution; in Scotland, women and men could both divorce for simple adultery as early as the sixteenth century.) The Guardianship of Infants Act, in 1925, finally gave father and mother an equal right to custody and established the welfare of the child as paramount. The Herbert Act of 1937 extended the grounds for divorce to include cruelty, desertion (three years), incurable insanity, and habitual drunkenness: the divorce rate doubled the following year. The 1969 Divorce Reform Act restated the three main “fault” grounds as adultery, desertion, and unreasonable behaviour (a broader concept than cruelty), and made it possible for a couple to obtain a divorce on the basis of incompatibility after simply living apart for two years.

In 1996 the Family Law Act tried to make divorce an even simpler, faster, and entirely “no fault” business, but met with opposition on several sides, and that section of the act was never implemented. In August 2006, calling in the Independent for a reform of British divorce law, Lord Justice Wall admitted, regretfully, that making divorce a “no fault” process will be difficult, as “people actually don’t like not being able to blame someone.”

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