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 Thoughts: I read Janice Cooke Newman's Mary: Mrs. A Lincoln a couple of years ago and found Mary Todd Lincoln to be such a fascinating character. When I saw this book was coming out I couldn't wait to dive in and see the unpredictable and enigmatic First Lady from the point of view of someone who was her close confidante. That person in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who bought the freedom of herself and her son and moved to Washington DC to make a living off of her exceptional skills as a seamstress. Elizabeth arrives in Washington City when the country is in a state of extreme political unrest over the issue of slavery but it isn't long before she attracts the notice of the most fashionable ladies of the city due to her creations (including Varina Davis-wife of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis). She soon becomes the most in demand seamstress in the Capitol. When Abraham Lincoln wins the White House, Elizabeth is able to secure an interview with Mrs. Lincoln to serve as her personal modiste. When Elizabeth secures the job, she forms a friendship with the First Lady that is both rewarding and trying at times as the women deal with a nation divided by war, personal struggles, and the loss of a man that will heal the country.
Elizabeth tells her story in an honest and poignant manner. I was hoping for a glimpse of the "real" Mary Lincoln through the eyes of someone who knew her better than most and that is what Jennifer Chiaverini delivered. In this novel we get a Mary Lincoln whose motivations, while at times misguided, were understandable and in Elizabeth Keckley we get a woman who transcends her awful past with her kindness, intelligence and skill to become a respected member in all of society at a time when this was unheard of. I loved the friendship between these two women trying as it was at times. I also really enjoyed the insider view of the White House at such a turbulent time in our history and the relationship between President and Mrs. Lincoln.
While I really liked these aspects of the novel the telling about the actual war itself felt a little removed to me. The manner in which the battles, victories, and losses were related made it feel like it was happening in some far off distant land and not our own country. Even those battles taking place across the river in Virginia seemed remote. This was remedied somewhat with Elizabeth's efforts with the refugees via her Contraband Relief Society but this facet of the novel felt a little off to me. Also it felt like the story was a little rushed towards the end. While a richly detailed account is given covering the years 1861-1867 which makes up 80% of the book, only the last three chapters cover Elizabeth's life from 1868 until 1901, a few years before her death. Despite these few little things, I really did enjoy this story. I am a big fan of historical fiction set in America and with the sincere voice of Elizabeth guiding the story this one is definitely worth a read.
I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.