Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

Mrs. Lincoln's DressmakerAuthor: Jennifer Chiaverini
Publication Date: January 15, 2013
Publisher: Dutton Adult

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 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.

“Elizabeth knew her friends were right. She also knew that the North was far stronger than Mrs. Davis seemed to believe – in spirit as well as might. Mr. Lincoln’s people were powerful and eager for victory, and Elizabeth could not believe that they would let the Southern states go without a fight or that they would give up as soon as the Southerners resisted. In the end, after all her questioning and pondering and prayer, her decision came down to one irrefutable fact: She was a colored woman, and she would be far wiser to cast her lot with the people of the North, many of whom supported abolition, than those of the South, most of whom believed she belonged in chains.” – Hardback Copy pg. 15

“Elizabeth would be moved, later, when she read a transcription of President Lincoln’s speech and learned how he had said, of the disagreeing citizens of North and South, ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” – Hardback Copy pg.27

“For Elizabeth had become Mrs. Lincoln’s regular modiste, and throughout the spring of 1861, she would sew more than fifteen gowns for the First Lady. She also often dressed Mrs. Lincoln in her finery and arranged her hair for balls, dinners, and levees. One evening, as the president observed how skillfully Elizabeth tended to his wife, he asked her if she were brave enough to attempt to subdue his own unruly locks.” – Hardback Copy pg. 37

“Over time she would learn that Mrs. Lincoln preferred to wear white but that she was also fond of pink, crimson, bright yellow, deep purple, and royal blue. She loved to wear pearls against her skin and flowers in her hair, and she favored low, open necklines with short sleeves to show off her well-formed neck and shoulders, ignoring whispered criticism that such styles were more appropriate for younger women.” – Hardback Copy pg. 38

“Suddenly she was seized by the cold realization that she would likely be asked to sew many black dresses in the months ahead as her patrons lost husbands, sons, and brothers, and donned the somber colors of mourning that custom demanded.” – Hardback Copy pg. 52

In the past few months, after watching several media publications based on Lincoln, I have become more and more fascinated with his life and the life of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. This book, however, focuses more on the lives of Mrs. Lincoln and more importantly her dressmaker and modiste, Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley. Lizzie Keckley was very much a real person and close friend to Mrs. Lincoln and her life was a testimony to other slaves of that time. This story focuses on her life after slavery and as a freedwoman and her time in the White House serving the Lincoln’s. Her life was much more than that however, and I wish that we would have gotten more of an account of her life outside the White House walls. The book was beautifully written and provided an entryway into the lives of some of the greatest people in America’s broad history.

Until reading this book I had no idea that Elizabeth Keckley was a real person and friend to the Lincolns during their time spent in the White House. Her character was very inspirational, after learning all that she had went through in her previous life as a slave. She valued her position as a freedwoman and never denied herself any of the privileges given to the freed slaves. She saw herself as an educated, capable woman who was modest, yet know the degree of her skill and never let anyone take her for granted. She faced several trials and tribulations while living in the White House and her entire story was very intriguing. I always loved reading slave and freed slave narratives in school and loved seeing the differences while studying them.

I have mentioned above that I absolutely love the Lincolns. I love everything about them and I find Abe, Mary, their sons, and their relationship a great discussion topic at times. I loved how personable their characters felt in this novel. For example, I adored the way that Mr. Lincoln addressed Mary as “Mother,” and she in turned called him “Father.” These terms of endearment are small and miniscule, but I would love to believe that they may be somewhat true. I have read all types of biographies on both Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln and this book is another account of what their life might have been like inside the White House. I love the compassion and sympathy that seems to be instilled in both of their hearts, and especially their sympathy regarding the treatment of slaves. Books like this are how I will always picture the Lincolns and for that reason I will read them over and over again.

My only complaint with this novel is small and that is that I wish we would have had more of an account of Elizabeth Keckley’s life before freedom and outside of the White House. I very much enjoyed reading about the colorful, elaborate dresses that she often designed for Mrs. Lincoln and the reactions from her followers at some of the colossal gowns that she dressed Mrs. Lincoln in. I also loved the fact that Mrs. Lincoln sometimes came off as temperamental and Lizzie was always there to comfort and guide her in the way a friend should. Their endearing relationship was the highlight of this book and a monumental step for mankind considering the times. I would read this book again tomorrow.

***A copy of this book was provided for me by the publishers at Dutton Adult for the purposes of an honest, unbiased review***

1 comment:

  1. I am dying to read this and am thrilled to see that you loved it. Thanks for your great review and wonderful quotes.