Room was a star-making breakthrough for Emma Donoghue, but if you had put me to a blind test and asked which contemporary Irish author wrote it, I would have guessed the dramatist Enda Walsh. Donoghue was responding loosely to the Josef Fritzl case, in which an Austrian woman spent 24 years locked in the basement of her rapist father, whom she bore seven children. The spin that Donoghue put on this rather stomach-turning material was straight out of Walsh's The Walworth Farce, or perhaps Bedbound, both of which seemed to anticipate the Fritzl story. Room slimmed down the cast, sharing Walsh's interest in the power of very claustrophobic relationships to generate their own fairy-tale mythologies, and of confined spaces to become theatres for the imagination. It tapped into a vein of mordant abstraction that runs deep in Irish writing, all the way back to Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien.
What makes it surprising that Donoghue should have written it is the fact that her earlier work consists largely of historical dramatisations and studies of female companionship. Room made it to the shortlist for the 2010 Man Booker prize, of course, and won Donoghue an army of new admirers, which will be why Picador has decided to issue her previous novel in an overdue British edition. The move may yet backfire given Room's atypicality, but here's hoping it doesn't.
The Sealed Letter was first published in Canada in 2008. It is neither as bold nor as interesting as Room, but it is still a thoroughly enjoyable novel, skilfully constructed, gripping and thoughtful.
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The plot is based on a scandalous English divorce trial of the 1860s. Really based on it, rather than just echoing it, à la Room: we find Donoghue reanimating genuine historical personages, sticking close to the record and, in a few places, visibly puzzling over what the given facts might mean (her deference to the documents doesn't preclude occasional distracting lapses into modern colloquialism, with references to "teamwork" and "real life" creeping in amongst the tarradiddle and rodomontade). Her heroine is Emily "Fido" Faithfull, stocky proprietress of a radical women's press. Unmarried at 29, Fido lacks "the part of a woman's heart that, in the presence of the right man, melts and runs like ore from the rock". She is devoted to "the Cause", her English Woman's Journal and her Society for the Promotion of Employment of Women, which sounds like a Hysterical Realist acronym joke - along the lines of Zadie Smith's Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation - but which is gratifyingly real.
The novel opens when Fido bumps into a long-estranged friend in Farringdon, London's traditional printing district. Seven years earlier she had lived with Helen Codrington and her naval husband Harry at their house in Kent. The marriage had already turned sour - "nothing to bind them except two small daughters, and the full force of law" - but Fido had taken it upon herself to try to mediate between the Captain and his leisured, not to say bored and capricious, younger wife. She liked them both: was drawn to Helen, significantly, "by instinct, as a bloom opens to a bee", but also admired the tall and black-bearded Harry, "his earnestness, his zeal for the Navy, his tenderness with the children"; she found him "manly in the best sense". Nevertheless, whatever good qualities Fido could see in each spouse proved invisible to the other and the marriage degenerated to such an extent that Harry asked the guest to leave the house, to shield her from unpleasant scenes. Shortly afterwards, Captain Codrington got the first of his overseas administrative postings and Fido and Helen lost touch, apparently owing to the vicissitudes of the Maltese postal service.
In the years that followed Fido reinvented herself as Emily Faithfull, champion of the "womanist" movement. She surrounded herself with feminist heroines such as Bessie Parkes and Emily Davies, proto-bluestockings very unlike the hedonistic Helen, who is "always striking some arch pose from one of her yellow-jacketed [ie licentious] French novels". Yet when Mrs Codrington breezes back into Fido's life, dragging a certain handsome Captain Anderson on her arm, Fido is powerless to resist her allure; she is once again, Donoghue writes, "sucked into this woman's orbit; the festive whims and whirls of it", and the reader isn't far behind.