This story is set in Victorian London, but the characters are timeless. Donoghue read of a real-life scandalous divorce that happened at this time, just divorces were starting to become more common. The wife who was to be divorced had a strong witness who changed her testimony at the last minute due to a “sealed letter” written by the husband which was threatened as evidence. Donoghue imagined what might have led these people to this situation and also what could have been in that letter to frighten the witness so much that she basically switched sides.
I like a historical novel based on fact, this one made me think about what it was like to be a woman at the time when feminism was first becoming a cause. Donoghue ties in the two main characters’ lives to illustrate how the lives of women were changing at this time. One is the spurned adulteress divorcee with no income. The other is a single spinster with a business to run, and an interest in promoting women’s right to work.
The wife in question is a bit of a drama-queen. She is bored and selfish and reckless and does not really care who she affects in her pursuit of excitement and fun. Her poor friend, the witness in the divorce case, is good and nice and naïve and gets used. It is quite a sad story, but a classic tale.