In 1864, divorce was still rare in Britain (as elsewhere), and the real one that Emma Donoghue forensically reconstructs in her new novel was a national scandal. The wronged vice-admiral Henry Codrington and his sexually predacious wife were already magnets for the prurient. Add in, as a witness to the case, the famous feminist Emily Faithfull and veiled hints of lesbianism, and public horror knew no bounds.
Donoghue recreates grim 19th-century London – relieved by whiffs of exotic Malta – with vividness and authority. The Dublin-born novelist, playwright, and literary critic (who now lives in London, Ontario) has sifted through court records, newspapers, correspondence, and even Faithfull’s later novels. She makes 150-year-old events immediate, evoking hot, sweaty flesh under rustling layers of bombazine and conveying a powerful sense of vertigo as her characters pitch headlong into the abyss of notoriety. In the cruel theatre of the court, the most intimate acts are laid bare.
Donoghue is remarkably even-handed in her treatment of the principals. Henry, the outraged husband, emerges as a baffled man, kindly father, and long-suffering spouse. Even his sly, manipulative wife, Helen, deserves compassion: her affairs begin only after her plea for a separation has been vehemently opposed.
Faithfull, the third major figure in the divorce (besides the red-coated soldier lovers), does not get off lightly for her credulity and temporary failure of courage in bolting to excape testifying. As a reformer and a businesswoman, Fido (her unfortunate sobriquet) seems at first an unlikely soulmate for Helen. Later revelations, however, explain all. What could have been mere Victorian melodrama resonates here with emotional truth.