Jennifer Chiaverini's first foray into the world of historical fiction picks a subject that many people many not be familiar with even if they are fans of President Lincoln and his life. Mary Todd Lincoln employed Elizabeth Keckley as her dressmaker--the 1860's were still a time when every dress was measured, cut, and sewn by hand. Elizabeth was incredibly gifted and well known in the Washington area for her talents. Most importantly, Elizabeth was a former slave, who had worked hard to purchase not only her freedom, but the freedom of her son, George.
The novel starts in late 1860, as Lincoln is running for President, and the election is drawing near. Elizabeth lives in Washington City--early Washington, D.C. She lives in a boarding house and has established a reputation around the upper classes in town as someone who makes beautiful dresses. She makes a comfortable living, and her son George is attending college--a very big deal for a former slave. Elizabeth's clients include women from both sides of the conflict that is currently raging in Washington--Southerners who will not stay with the United States if Lincoln is elected, and Northerners who will fight to keep the United States together. She's living in an incredible time, and is witness to many intimate moments between husbands and wives who are struggling to keep the United States from coming to war.
Lincoln is elected--and the world is divided. Elizabeth is soon requested at the White House, where Mary Lincoln has heard of her reputation as the best dressmaker in town, and requests Elizabeth make her gowns for important dinners and balls. Their friendship soon becomes firm and very fond, and Elizabeth spends much of her time at the White House. She is witness to private moments between Abe and Mary, and moments that will help define history. She witnesses Abe Lincoln struggling through decisions that will shape our nation at a crucial time; she sees the sorrow of losing Willie, and the agonizing day to day effects of the war on a man who cares deeply for his nation and believes slavery is wrong.
The novel moves through the years of the Lincoln Presidency and then into that awful period after Lincoln's assasination. Here's where Mary, who is a fragile woman, finally lets her grief over losing her son, her husband, her home, and lack of money engulf her every moment. Mary Lincoln's life after the White House is a sad, terrible story. And Elizabeth was there to witness most of it. Until she makes a horrible mistake that will cost her everything she holds dear. Both women are taken advantage of by people who care for little but making money off other people's unfortunate circumstances.
This novel is a very well written look at two women who were brought together during an incredible time in our country; became dear friends, and struggled to maintain that friendship through scandal, gossip, and misunderstandings.
I have read a few other books about Mary Lincoln and her relationship with Elizabeth Keckley, but this is the first novel I've read written from Elizabeth's view point. I learned a lot about the political machinations during the Civil War, the struggle for so many who found themselves free after decades of slavery--and the economical strife this caused. Elizabeth is a very compelling woman who takes you along on a journey that includes heartbreak and hope. I'll leave it up to you what you may think of Mary Lincoln. We will never know just what kind of woman she was--most of that has been written by people who did not care for her. I think Ms. Chiaverini does an admirable job portraying Mary Lincoln as a very complex woman who made a lot of poor choices and was blinded by grief.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who is riding the current wave of Lincoln Fever! It is a well written historical novel with enough attention to the political details of the time that you understand the whole scope of the world Mary and Elizabeth live in, yet does not over do it and lose your attention. Lots to discuss for a book club!
And finally: Elizabeth Keckley's book is still in print, and is available in paperback:
Rating: 8/10 for excellent writing, making complex characters seem very real, and a fascinating look at two very different women and their relationship.
Here's an interview with Jennifer Chiaverini about Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker:
A CONVERSATION WITH
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker chronicles the friendship between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, who was born a slave and earned her freedom through her skill with a needle. What brought this story to your attention, and how did it inspire your first stand-alone historical novel?
More than a decade ago, I was researching antebellum and Civil War era quilts for my fourth novel when I discovered a photograph of an antique masterpiece. Arranged in the medallion style, with appliquéd eagles, embroidered flowers, meticulously-pieced hexagons, and deep red fringe, the quilt was the work of a gifted needleworker, its striking beauty unmarred by the shattered silk and broken threads that gave evidence to its age. The caption noted that the quilt had been sewn from scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln’s gowns by her dressmaker and confidante, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley. I marveled at the compelling story those brief lines suggested—a courageous woman’s rise from slavery to freedom, an improbable friendship that ignored the era’s sharp distinctions of class and race, the confidences shared between a loyal dressmaker and a controversial, divisive First Lady. What I would give, I thought, to have been present as Elizabeth Keckley measured Mary Lincoln for a new gown, to overhear their conversations on topics significant and ordinary, to observe the Lincoln White House from such an intimate perspective. From that moment, my interest in their remarkable friendship was captivated, and it never really waned.
Readers may be surprised to learn that Elizabeth Keckley was not only an accomplished modiste and businesswoman, but also a published author. Was meeting a historical figure through her own words different than encountering her via more distant historical sources?
A few years after I learned about the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt, I was researching a Civil War novel set on the Pennsylvania home front when I realized that many of my secondary sources cited the same work—Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, a memoir published in 1868 by Elizabeth Keckley. Struck by the familiar name, I immediately found a reprint and plunged into her story, which told of her harrowing years as a slave, her difficult struggle for freedom, and her ascendance as the most popular dressmaker of Washington’s social elite, including the new president’s wife. Sewing in the Lincoln family’s chambers within the White House, dressing Mrs. Lincoln for balls and receptions, Keckley observed Abraham and Mary Lincoln in their most private, unguarded moments, and with them she witnessed some of the most glorious and most tragic events in the nation’s history. Reading the story of her life in her own words made her experiences more immediate and more compelling, and for a long time afterward, I longed to delve more deeply into Elizabeth Keckley’s history, to learn about the woman she was beyond her friendship with Mary Lincoln, to discover what had happened after the closing passages of her memoir, and to uncover the details of everyday life in wartime Washington she had omitted.
President Lincoln is often characterized by his calm, thoughtful, and wise demeanor. The same, however, can’t be said for Mrs. Lincoln. In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, you paint a picture of a complex, yet fascinating woman with mood swings and emotional outbursts but who also possesses a strong and confident presence. Can you describe your insights on her character? Why is she such an intriguing person, not just in your book but also in history?
Despite the volumes of historical and psychological research devoted to Mary Lincoln, she remains an enigma. She was the first wife of a US president to be called First Lady, and she was then and remains to this day one of the most controversial. Regrettably, descriptions of her tend to fall into the extremes of caricature: She is either portrayed as an unstable, shrill, vicious, corrupt shrew who made President Lincoln utterly miserable, or as a devoted wife and mother and a brilliant, shrewd, political helpmeet whose reputation was savaged by biased male historians. As a friend and confidante who observed Mary Lincoln closely in moments of triumph as well as tragedy, Elizabeth Keckley knew her as a real woman, full of flaws and virtues and surprises like any other. It was this far more nuanced woman that Elizabeth Keckley depicted in the pages of her memoir, and since Elizabeth Keckley is my narrator, I shaped the character of Mary Lincoln according to her perceptions.
Mrs. Lincoln chose Elizabeth Keckley first for her superior dressmaking skills; later for her confidence and friendship. Despite differences in temperament, status, and race, each woman made profound sacrifices for her country. Was it shared experience that cemented their bond?
Shared experiences certainly strengthened their bond, and for as long as their relationship endured, it was, for the most part, mutually beneficial. Mary Lincoln provided Elizabeth Keckley with opportunities for social and economic advancement she probably could not have even imagined during her years as a slave, while Elizabeth offered Mary the loyal, steadfast friendship she craved but had always found so elusive. But Mary assumed that the faithful Elizabeth would keep their shared experiences confidential. Loyalty meant everything to Mary, which is why their friendship could not survive the publication of Elizabeth’s memoir. Elizabeth claimed to have written her memoir in part to place Mary “in a better light before the world,” but since she was determined to write the truth, her portrayal was often unflattering. As publication day approached, Elizabeth worried that she might be criticized for revealing too much about the private lives of President Lincoln and the First Lady. “I have been prompted by the purest motive,” she defended herself in the book’s preface. “A breach of trust—if breach it can be called—of this kind is always excusable.” Understandably, Mary did not agree, and her sense of betrayal was so profound that she abruptly severed ties with the woman she had once considered her “best and kindest friend.” For the rest of her life, she rebuffed Elizabeth’s attempts to reconcile.