Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker
by Jennifer Chiaverini
Why did you choose this book? I enjoy historical fiction, particularly Civil War era
When did you read this book? April 2013
Who should read this book? interested in the Civil War era and/or the contributions of African American women
Here is a synopsis of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker from Indie Bound
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.
I was browsing at Barnes and Noble, waiting for my appointment at the Apple Store, when this book caught my eye. Having grown up in the ‘Land of Lincoln’, pretty much any fiction about Abraham Lincoln catches my eye, but this one also had a cover to match. The book blurb on the cover was interesting, too. Great cover, Abraham Lincoln, and interesting book blurb; this HAS to be a winner, right?
Well, not so fast. While the story was interesting, and I’m glad I read it, for some reason it never really ‘caught’ with me. I’m not even sure why, but I just never got to the point that ‘I can’t put this book down!’
The story primarily traces the time Elizabeth Keckley spent in the White House as ‘modiste’ (dressmaker) to Mary Todd Lincoln. But her background is interspersed throughout the book so that you learn she is a former slave who saved to buy the freedom of both her and her son, George. Mary and Elizabeth became good friends during this time, with Mary relying on Elizabeth to advise her both in how she dressed and how she reacted to events in her life. And Mary was always willing to stop what she was doing to serve Mrs. Lincoln.
The book doesn’t really talk much about the assassination of President Lincoln, but does cover the aftermath and how it affected his widow. Of course, since this is fiction, much of the conversation is imagined, but the author used the memoir written by Elizabeth Keckley as part of her research, so she did have a basis for her imagination.
One thing the book does cover is the controversy created by the publication of the memoir. At the time, many people discounted it as sensationalism written by a fictional ‘former slave’ to sell books. Others were critical of the idea of a servant publishing what we would now call a ‘tell all’ book, and though they accepted that Elizabeth Keckley was real, they believed much of what she wrote was embellished and untrue.
Reading about this criticism really made me question how much of this novel is based in truth. While later research has verified much of what appears in the memoir, it still leaves me with a feeling of wondering. I really didn’t like how the story ended, but then, if it is true, the author didn’t have a lot of control over that. However, even if the book had ended in a ‘happily ever after’ kind of way, I still would not have felt I’d ever really been able to connect with the book.
If you are interested in reading the original memoir by Elizabeth Keckley, many libraries carry it and it is available as a free download at Archive.org.
My Rating: ★★★1/2 3-1/2 Stars