With its eye for the minutia of bygone days – and listing obscure styles of dress, décor, architecture and speech – historical fiction can run the risk of becoming a quaint and lengthy (but kind of dull) tour through a vast museum of antiquities.
A reigning talent of contemporary historical fiction, London’s Sarah Waters knows that risk and spins elaborately queer plots that – whether set in the England of Victoria (Tipping the Velvet) or Churchill (The Night Watch) – highlight the complex mind and breathing body beneath the petticoats and whalebone corsetry.
The other widely lauded lesbian historical novelist, London, Ontario’s Emma Donoghue, works much the same turf as Waters, though she arguably has a greater attraction to shadowy gothic plots and Grand Guignol thrills.
In The Sealed Letter (HarperCollins $30), she leaps about a century forward from the streets of working-class London that she ably captured in Slammerkin, her blood-soaked breakout novel. This time she sets her sights on so-called polite society, basing her story on an actual aristocratic divorce case in 1864.
In keeping with Slammerkin, Donoghue shapes her page-turner of a story around the intimate friendship of women. In The Sealed Letter, she scrutinizes the power dynamics and awkward love between Miss Emily Faithfull, a homely and unmarried proto-feminist, and her former friend Helen Codrington, whose wealth and beauty have not protected her from becoming embroiled in a highly public and scandalous divorce – one with enough accusation, shocking evidence and slanted testimony to fuel an entire season of a soap opera.
A deeply ethical and idealistic activist, Emily’s blind passion for her unreliable friend soon involves her in the divorce trial, and – once she’s manipulated into testifying – tests her commitment to feminist ideals. No one emerges a winner.
“Men don’t understand the first thing about friendship,” Helen at one point tells her barrister, asserting a Victorian truism about the moral superiority of women. She later states: “We are daughters and sons of apes, after all” and implies that we are all, for better or worse, possessors of animal drives.
Donoghue’s exceptional examination of the clash of those views on womankind widens her novel’s reach, and offers food for thought as it otherwise enthralls with delightful scandal and terrific lapses of manners.