Victorian society was scandalised in 1864 by the divorce of Vice-Admiral Henry Codrington from his wife, Helen. The case dominated the columns of The Times and The Telegraph, which gleefully reproduced the innuendo and evidence, gripping polite society.
Such cases of a wife cheating on her husband wouldn’t even make it in front of a judge these days. But when Emma Donoghue stumbled across a reference to it – in a footnote to a “dull poem” – she knew she had found the subject worthy of a novel.
What struck her while writing The Sealed Letter were the similarities between the trial and modern day court room dramas from OJ Simpson murder trial to President Clinton’s near impeachment (the Codrington case also features a stained dress). But it was the contrasting fortunes and personalities of the people involved which really drew her in.
“It was in a collection of poetry by women in the Langham set, the early feminists. They mentioned this court case into which Emily Faithfull got dragged,” Donoghue explains.
Faithfull, known to her friends and in the book as Fido, was a leading progressive who campaigned for women to have such novel things as the vote, a career and the chance to study at university.
“The Langham group were very tense about their public image, often snappy and critical of each other [in their letters]. They didn’t hesitate on purging Fido from their ranks as soon as she got drawn in. They weren’t hippies. Not a bit. In order to get taken seriously for their views on getting women the vote or accepted to professions they had to be starchy in other ways.
“Fido went on to have two long term pairings. You can never know whether these relationships were sexually consummated. It is odd, you can’t quite tell with heterosexual marriages either. But Fido did go on to share her life with one woman for a long stretch and then another woman for a long stretch.”
The fallen woman in Donoghue’s story, Helen Codrington, a mother of two girls, was quite different. Raised away from England you get the sense that this is a woman who saw nothing wrong with taking a lover or two. And she’s prepared to lie in order to protect her interests, which drew Fido into some very murky waters.
“Here was a very starchy social reformer getting dragged in to testify on this mucky divorce case about affairs among the military – I thought that was irresistible,” the author adds. “I loved the shape of the triangle: these three very different characters.”
She was surprised to find her sympathies ultimately lay with the one person you might think was the villain of the piece: the Admiral, who used the weight of the law to jettison his wife.
“We always assume that Victorian women were miserably locked up while the men had a wonderfully free time,” she says. “But you know, he couldn’t move an inch. Victorian upper class men, if you think of those pointy collars, they literally couldn’t bend their heads.
“They had to stick to a very limited range of behaviours and Admiral Codrington had suffered for so long before finally trying to divorce his wife. I don’t think he had any idea that it was going to become such a mortifying public scandal.”
Donoghue, who wrote The Sealed Letter - it was released in Canada and the US but not previously in the UK - before last year’s Booker shortlisted best seller Room, says the Codrington novel is more typical of her approach to writing.
“What’s funny is that in the case of Room, people kept asking me about the real life sources. But in fact Room, bears a very indirect relationship to any case,” she says.
“What I took from the Fritzl case was just a one line idea. I often write stuff that is very based on fact. I just love the puzzle of working with real facts and working out what really happened.”
Donoghue is adept at bringing to life an era we think of as being familiar. Yet her Victorian London has a freshness you don’t expect: it is a smart but stressful place, not unlike our own cities, and she scatters intriguing details throughout the narrative: from references to tea shops to the smell of the underground.
“They say that life changed more radically for the Victorians than it has for us. London was a very modern place, a stressed out place. They had a postal service far better than ours – we have email, they had the post,” she explains.
“I thought not getting a telegram was a very Victorian way of finding someone out – like now a husband might check his wife’s cellphone.
“At the same time, I really tried not to slow the story down with descriptions of London. There are no passages there just to give you flavour of what life was like. But the details I have included, they have to be good.
“You do the research 100 per cent, but you throw 99 per cent away. The one per cent you are left with though, it is far better, more vivid detail.”
· The Sealed Letter, published by Picador, £16.99, is out now. This interview appears in the November 7 edition of The Big Issue