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Giller Prize shortlist: Emma Donoghue’s historical heart

Latest draws links between Victorian & modern eras

Emma Donoghue is a woman on a mission: To wrestle history back from straight culture and queer it up. Her new novel, The Sealed Letter, is set in 1860s England. “It’s about a starchy feminist who gets caught up in a mucky divorce case,” says Donoghue, an award-winning lesbian writer who lives in London, Ontario.

“The collision of these two worlds was irresistible to me.”

The book forms a loose kind of trilogy with Donoghue’s other historical novels (Life Mask and Slammerkin), all of which feature unconventional women in extraordinary circumstances. Donoghue rescues her characters from the footnotes of other people’s stories — a compulsion she attributes to being an “academic gone wrong.”

Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter was named to the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist Sep 15. The winner from among the 15 titles (chosen by Margaret Atwood, Bob Rae and Colm Toibin) will recieve Canada’s richest prize, worth $40,000.


“I get hooked by real cases I come across,” she says. “If they stick in my mind long enough, I think, ‘Oh, I absolutely have to write about that.'”

Irish by birth, Donoghue moved to Ontario in 1998 and became a Canadian citizen in 2004. Her Canadian partner, Chris, drew her here, but Donoghue has since developed a love of the country.

“I think this is one of the most civilized spots on the globe for same-sexers,” she says. “It’s really set me free to do other things, rather than just constantly coming out.”

Those other things include childbirth — she and Chris are parents to four-year-old Finn and year-old Una. Motherhood has made her more focused, she says, but not smarter. “I was really hoping for some sudden injection of wisdom,” she quips. “I’m still waiting.”

Inspired by the diary of Anne Frank, she began writing poetry at age seven and by her teens it had become a get-it-down-now kind of compulsion. She decided to pursue a writing career at around the same time she realized she was gay.

“They were both about paying attention to the little voice in my head,” she says, “instead of the cultural voices telling you to get a good job in the civil service and marry a man.”

At 21 she left Dublin for a PhD at Cambridge University on 18th-century English fiction. That same year she found a literary agent. Her first novel — which she’d been writing and rewriting since the age of 19 — was published four years later. The book, Stir Fry, is a coming-of-age story about an Irish girl who’s confused about her sexuality.

Despite her own orientation being crystal clear (“It was like, ‘Ping. I’m a lesbian!'”), Donoghue’s always been drawn to write about more complex sexualities, especially in her historical fiction. Crucially, though, she’s careful to avoid giving her period characters a modern lesbian sensibility. In Life Mask widowed sculptor Anne Damer is outed by 1790s high society, with hardly an utterance of the L-word. “I felt a responsibility to figure out how Anne would have lived in a way we now call lesbian,” says Donoghue, “although she would have shuddered at the word.”

The Sealed Letter draws particularly interesting parallels with contemporary society. It takes place in a very modern-feeling Victorian London — not the darkly gothic city of a Dickens novel, but a bustling metropolis fuelled by new concepts like feminism and mass media. It’s a surprising reminder that those times are not as distant as we might think.

“We’re still using equivalents of the telegraph, riding on the underground and living in Victorian brick houses,” says Donoghue. “We’re not living in a brand-new era; we’re at the tail-end of their modernity.”