Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

Title:  Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker 
Author:  Jennifer Chiaverini 
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date: 1/15/2013 
Pages: 352 
How Acquired:  Through Net Galley

Overview:  New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini illuminates the extraordinary friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a former slave who won her freedom by the skill of her needle, and the friendship of the First Lady by her devotion. 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 this impeccably researched, engrossing novel, Chiaverini brings history to life in rich, moving style.

My thoughts:  I was very excited to read this novel when I first heard about it, it seemed especially fortuitous since Gloria Reuben plays Elizabeth in the new film Lincoln.  I have written about Elizabeth Keckley and her friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln before, and I was interested to read a fictional interpretation of Elizabeth’s life.  The book opens up right before the start of the Civil War.  Elizabeth Keckley is a modiste who spent years working to buy her and her son’s freedom.  Now established in Washington City (present day Washington, D.C.), she has made a name for herself as a dressmaker for both Northerners and Southerners alike, one of her best patrons is Varina Davis, the wife of Senator Jefferson Davis (soon to be the President and First Lady of the Confederacy).  When Lincoln is elected, another patron arranges for Elizabeth to meet the new First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.  To be chosen as the modiste for the new First Lady would be the ultimate coup for any dressmaker, white or black.  Elizabeth is chosen and is soon privy to the innermost workings of the Lincoln White House. We see through Elizabeth’s eyes Mrs. Lincoln’s reckless spending and mood swings, President Lincoln’s death, and his widow’s subsequent penury.
There were many things that I liked about this novel. Jennifer Chiaverini’s characterization of the relationship between Mary Todd and Elizabeth is nuanced, revealing a friendship that is at times uneven and fraught with class and racial distinctions, but also warm and protective (on Elizabeth's part).  In a very poignant moment, Mrs. Lincoln calls Elizabeth her best friend. In Chiaverini’s hands, Mary is not quite the Satanic Majesty that she is called by one of the staff, but a woman who if not bi-polar clearly has emotional issues.  Unhappy at being shut out of the President’s political life and having her view dismissed, Mary seeks happiness through endless shopping.  While reading the novel, I was reminded of the scurrilous gossip aimed at Marie Antoinette and how she sublimated her unhappiness through partying and shopping.  Mary becomes dependent on Elizabeth whose own kindness eventually becomes a straightjacket in a way.  Elizabeth becomes more than just a modiste to Mary; she also arranges her hair, helps her dress, cares for her children at times and becomes her confidante. 

The book is not without its problems; at times the book gets bogged down through too much telling and not enough showing. There are endless pages devoted to telling what is going on with the war, which would be interesting if this were a history book instead of a novel.  The book comes alive when the war hits home for the characters, Robert Todd Lincoln wanting to enlist, Elizabeth’s friends fleeing from the disaster that was the first battle of Bull Run.  Instead of giving us vibrant scenes of Elizabeth’s trip with Mary Todd Lincoln to New York and Boston during the war, where she attempts to raise money for the Contraband Relief Association, we are told about it.   Another wasted opportunity occurs later in the novel when Elizabeth meets the abolitionist Frederick Douglass for the first time.  Again we are kept at a distance from the action, instead of plunged right into it.  Elizabeth is also curiously passive at that times but again she is stuck between a rock and a hard place.  As the reader, I wanted Elizabeth to stand up for herself more, to not let Mrs. Lincoln take advantage of her friendship the way that she does, but I had to remember that this was a different time and Elizabeth also owed Mrs. Lincoln a great deal as well. Her business as a modiste takes off because she worked for the First Lady.  

Once Mrs. Lincoln is widowed, the book really moves along as Elizabeth is given the task of helping the former First Lady sell her clothes and jewels to raise money, and then decides to write her memoirs.  At this point, we get to know a little bit more about Elizabeth and less about Mary.  Chiaverini also does a wonderful job at detailing the hardships that Elizabeth must go through during her stay in New York, having to move to a room in the attic of a hotel because they wouldn’t let her have a regular room, being forced to eat in the servants’ hall. It’s these little details of what life was like for a colored woman in post-Civil War America that really make the book come alive.  Although I found the portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln balanced and compelling, my real interest was in Elizabeth, her thoughts and feelings about the war, and her position in society.   One of the best sections of the novel occurs when Elizabeth goes to visit the family that once owned her.  In the end, that old adage, no good deed goes unpunished comes into play.  Elizabeth’s good intentions come to bite her in the butt.  Mrs. Lincoln cuts off her friendship once Elizabeth’s memoir is published, and the public chastises her for her revelations.  In the end, it is brought home to Elizabeth that no matter how far she has come; there will always be those who look down on her because of her color and want to put her in her place.

Despite my problems with the novel, I was intrigued enough that I’m looking forward to reading Chiaverini’s next novel about the Civil War spy Elizabeth van Lew.

My verdict:  Compelling account of the friendship between Elizabeth Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln.  Well worth reading for a glimpse into the inner workings of the White House during the Civil War.


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