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Originally published Friday, September 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Sealed Letter": BFFs behaving badly in Victorian London

Emma Donoghue's historical novel "The Sealed Letter" is a wicked tale of 1860s London that could be subtitled "Sex in the Victorian City."

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Sealed Letter"

by Emma Donoghue

Harcourt, 416 pp., $26

"The Sealed Letter" is a historical novel based on a true — or perhaps truthy would be a better word — story about a scandalous divorce case that rocked 1860s London. Author Emma Donoghue (best known for "Slammerkin") fills the background with extensively researched details, including gossip about another contemporary marriage gone sour, involving a certain Charles Dickens. In the foreground is a wicked tale of Sex and the Victorian City.

The main character is feminist and businesswoman Emily Faithfull, aptly nicknamed Fido. Despite her relative youth, Fido is, in spirit, a frumpy old bag, dour and earnest and dogged in her devotion to the nascent women's movement. If the novel were set in the 1980s, she would be clomping around in Doc Martens with an asymmetrical haircut and a collection of Kate Bush mix tapes.

Fido is surprised and then delighted by a chance encounter on the street. She almost literally stumbles across Helen Codrington, her best friend from years earlier. Their relationship ended bitterly when Helen left London for a posting in Malta with her naval officer husband.

Fido was hurt by the circumstances of the departure and Helen's apparent disinclination to reply to any of her letters, but their estrangement is soon shown to have been based on a misunderstanding, and the two click back into BFF mode.

No sooner have they picked up their old friendship than cracks begin to emerge in Fido's neatly ordered world. The irresistibly duplicitous Helen presses her into unwitting service as a beard, conducting a steamy affair with a Scottish cad in the comfort of Fido's otherwise staid parlor.

Even Helen's kind dullard of a husband cannot ignore her philandering forever, and when the reckless trysting results in a highly publicized divorce proceeding, Fido finds herself caught in the middle, summoned to testify in the mortifyingly public case. The mysterious letter of the title — produced out of thin air by a scheming lawyer — ratchets up the stakes.

Donoghue weaves an engrossing and often quite funny melodrama about a bad, bad girl who bursts the seams of this corseted world — it's part "Forever Amber" and part clockwork courtroom drama, with bawdy undercurrents of forbidden love thrown in for good measure. All in all, a deliciously wicked little romp, complete with a clever twist at the end.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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