Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

It's always interesting to learn about history from someone who was there, someone who knows, someone who saw it with her own eyes. And often the people who have the most interesting and complete view of events are those not in positions of power. Jennifer Chiaverini takes a real historical figure, Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who bought her freedom, became a celebrated dressmaker in Washington, and had an insider's view to the Lincoln presidency, the Lincoln's family life, and the progress of the Civil War thanks to her position as mantua maker and friend to Mary Todd Lincoln, and uses her to tell an intimate story from that someone who walked through the same corridors as those enshrined in history books today.

Opening with Elizabeth sewing a dress for Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, Elizabeth is apprised of not only the likelihood of Lincoln's election but of the increasingly loud rumblings of secession should that in fact happen. And although Elizabeth is pleased by the idea of a man who has no wish to continue the spread of slavery taking over the White House, she must also be concerned with the effect on her dressmaking business once Lincoln's election comes to pass and so many of her best clients return to their native southern states. But she secures an entrée with the new First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, and ultimately wins the position of sewing the dresses of this sometimes difficult, much maligned woman, eventually even settling into a rather uneven friendship with her.

Elizabeth is often in the White House and has many opportunities to witness the Lincolns together, the care and affection that Abraham Lincoln showed his wife, the overwhelming grief and sorrow they feel over losing their son, the inquisitive and unappreciated intrusive meddling into national affairs by Mrs. Lincoln, the careworn exhaustion and stress under which Lincoln himself suffered as the war dragged on, and the bald insecurities of Mary Lincoln in a Washington that considered her a rube whose family ties to the rebellious South made her that much more suspect. Elizabeth has a front seat to history and gets to see the hidden, often undocumented side of it as well. But this is not always appealing either. As Elizabeth becomes a closer confidante to Mary Lincoln, she sees her mercurial personality, her temper tantrums, her frustrations, and the secret spending that will cripple her after her husband's assassination. But as a true friend would, Elizabeth tries to steer her friend when she can and to support her when no amount of guidance has turned her from a disastrous or ill-conceived path. And yet the friendship is not at all balanced since she cannot share her own personal life with Mrs. Lincoln, not her grief when her only son George passes as a white man and enlists only to be killed in battle, not her true thoughts about the evil of slavery (despite the fact that her own former mistress must have been fairly benign since Elizabeth joyfully reunites with the family), and not her pressing concerns about her dressmaking business each and every time she puts her livelihood on hold to come to Mrs. Lincoln's rescue.

And this inability to confide in and receive consolation from Mary Lincoln means that despite the title of the novel, the story is at least as much focused on Mary Todd Lincoln as it is on Elizabeth Keckley and her life. Much of the research here comes from Keckley's own memoir, Behind the Scenes, which focuses mainly on her years inside the Lincoln White House but the rest of her life, as a slave, as a freedwoman establishing a business in Washington and competing with white mantua makers, as a member of the free black community during and after the war, and finally old and alone is not as fully developed as it might have been. And the mentions of these aspects of her life serve more as bridges back to the Lincoln White House than anything else. Ultimately Elizabeth Keckley was a very hard character to get to know amongst the massive and overwhelming events of historical import chronicled here. But what interesting historical events they are.

For more information about Jennifer Chiaverini and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I did NOT realize this was based on a real person - how did I miss that?!

    Thanks for being on the tour. I'm off to snag a copy of this book for myself!


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