Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini


In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini presents a stunning account of the friendship that blossomed between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley, a former slave who gained her professional reputation in Washington, D.C. by outfitting the city’s elite. Keckley made history by sewing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln within the White House, a trusted witness to many private moments between the President and his wife, two of the most compelling figures in American history.

In March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln chose Keckley from among a number of applicants to be her personal “modiste,” responsible not only for creating the First Lady’s gowns, but also for dressing Mrs. Lincoln in the beautiful attire Keckley had fashioned. The relationship between the two women quickly evolved, as Keckley was drawn into the intimate life of the Lincoln family, supporting Mary Todd Lincoln in the loss of first her son, and then her husband to the assassination that stunned the nation and the world.

Keckley saved scraps from the dozens of gowns she made for Mrs. Lincoln, eventually piecing together a tribute known as the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt. She also saved memories, which she fashioned into a book, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Upon its publication, Keckley’s memoir created a scandal that compelled Mary Todd Lincoln to sever all ties with her, but in the decades since, Keckley’s story has languished in the archives. In this impeccably researched, engrossing novel, Chiaverini brings history to life in rich, moving style.

My Review

2.5 Stars

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker follows the life of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a former slave who becomes the dressmaker of choice for many of the wives of Washington's political elite during the Civil War era.   The focus of the novel, however, is on Elizabeth's relationship with her most renowned client, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.  Although their relationship starts out as purely professional it quickly grows into one of steadfast friendship, with Elizabeth being made to feel part of the Lincoln family.  As a result, it is to Elizabeth that Mrs. Lincoln most often turns during the most difficult moments of her life.   In addition to its focus on Elizabeth and Mrs. Lincoln's friendship, the novel also showcases the major events of the age in which it is set, including the Civil War and President Lincoln's assassination, as well as provides a view into the lives of those with whom Elizabeth lived and worked.    

Told from Elizabeth's perspective, Mrs Lincoln's Dressmaker demonstrates what a truly remarkable woman she was.  Unfortunately, the story itself fails to captivate given that much of the narrative simply recounts events.  The result is that the novel often reads like a history text rather than a work of fiction.  This is especially evident during the section of the book set during the Civil War, which includes detailed descriptions of the outcomes of battles.  While Elizabeth Keckley's character is well fleshed out in the novel, the use of first person narrative prevents the reader from really getting to know the other characters in the story.   This is particularly evident when it comes to Mrs. Lincoln, who, despite Elizabeth's unwavering belief in the goodness of the former First Lady, does not come across as particularly sympathetic.  Given that Elizabeth's continued dedication to Mrs. Lincoln negatively impacts her later life and business, the reader may question why Elizabeth remained so loyal.

Although the manner in which this novel is written doesn't suit my particular tastes, I like the choice of Elizabeth Keckley as the book's principal character.  Given the novel generally receives favourable reviews, readers interested in Elizabeth Keckley and the Lincolns may wish to give it a try for themselves. 

Note: I was provided a copy of this novel by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.