AUTHOR: EMMA DONOGHUE
Details: Reading Group
It is 1864 and Emily ‘Fido’ Faithful is an independent woman with a royally approved printing business and a good reputation in the women’s movement. When she bumps into Helen Codrington on the streets of London it seems an accidental reunion after a separation of seven years. Helen is married to the much older Vice Admiral Harry Codrington and has spent the past seven years in Malta, where her husband was posted. Having recently returned to London, Helen appears delighted at having found her old friend again, and dismisses seven years of silence to a fault in the postal services. Fido has been very fond of Helen ever since she first met her when Fido was only nineteen years old and quickly overcomes her reservations when Helen lets her know how much she would like to reignite their once close relationship. Fido is less happy about Helen’s close friendship with a young army officer, especially when Helen wants to use Fido’s house for meetings with him. But whenever Fido decides that Helen’s behaviour is disgraceful and should be discouraged, the woman manages to spin a tale which makes Fido feel sorry for her and determined to help her.
Of course this is a state of affairs that can’t last. It is only a matter of time before the Vice Admiral discovers his wife’s infidelity, seizes their two daughters and starts divorce proceedings. And in those days, divorce proceedings meant a court case in which the husband had to prove his wife’s misconduct while appearing without reproach himself. It is going to be a dirty case in which both sides will use any angle to get or keep what they want and Fido literally finds herself caught in the middle of warring spouses. It is a time during which Fido will have to reassess everything she has believed in for years while running the risk of losing everything she has built up over years of hard work.
I’m not sure how I feel about this book. On the one hand this is a fascinating story, especially since it is based on true facts. The Codrington divorce actually took place, and all the characters in this book really did live at the time. On the other hand I found this a rather infuriating story. It is probably due to my modern mind that I had little patience with Fido’s innocence, Helen’s arrogance and Harry’s long lasting ignorance. In fact, I had a hard time sympathising with any of the characters in this story. All seemed to be acting out of purely selfish motivations with little regard for the consequences their actions might have for others or even for themselves. And even if that is a completely accurate description of events at the time, it still doesn’t make me feel better about them or about the story. I can’t help wondering though if I would have felt better about this book if it had been a work of non-fiction. Would I have just accepted the way people were described if it hadn’t been a fictionalised account? I guess that is quite possible. Maybe I do want my fiction to have at least one character in it I can sympathise with or like. As it was, I found myself wanting to strangle all of the mayor players in this story, slowly.
On the other hand, I found a lot of the historical detail fascinating. The description of the emerging women’s movement, and the way in which the women involved had to strike a fragile balance between the conventions of the time and their goals was very interesting.
The description of the court case was a huge revelation to me. Imagine evidence being introduced without having to divulge what the evidence actually is and getting away with it. Or, maybe even more shocking, imagine divorce proceedings in which neither of the parties involved is allowed to speak. It is good to say that things have progressed a bit since those days, and not just in the legal field.
This is a very well written book though. Emma Donoghue writes a compelling story in beautiful language using well chosen words. And I did like the (fictional) conclusion to the book. There is nothing to prove that what she describes in the last chapter actually happened, but it makes so much sense that it is hard to believe that it didn’t.
“Yes, she used Fido. She took advantage of her old friend’s innocence and idealism from the start (…). It’s the way of the world, she supposes; everyone uses everyone. The trick is to know how much a given person can bear.”