Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker provides historical insight

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I finally finished “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer Chiaverini over the weekend. It took me a year to get through it, partly because I was sent the book for review right before my life got very busy, and partly because it just didn’t have the same I just can’t put it down qualities as some of Chiaverini’s other works, such as “Sonoma Rose.”

Nevertheless I did enjoy the book, which follows the life of Elizabeth Keckley, a real-life historical figure who started life as slave, purchased her freedom through her extraordinary dressmaking skills and made her living as a seamstress to the Washington elite, Mary Todd Lincoln, being one of her most loyal and demanding patrons.

The book begins shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War and chronicles Keckley’s life as she sews for the ladies of Washington and the historical moments she has an intimate front row seat to as the dressmaker to politician’s wives.

Much of the book surrounds the trouble of Mrs. Lincoln, who was not very well liked by other politicians, their wives and the press. She was often the subject of gossip, some of it based in fact, some it far from the truth according to Keckley’s account. While there is a good deal about Keckley’s own struggles in this book, far more time is devoted to the first couple and historical events of the day.

While the Lincolns are surely are an easier sell, they’re all over books and the movies since the 150th anniversary of beginning of the Civil War, Keckley’s world seems to be dominated by the actions of the president and his wife. The book covers some of Keckley’s personal moments, giving aid to escaped slaves seeking a new life in Washington, correspondence with and eventual death of her only son and some of her history that lead up to her life as a seamstress for Washington’s elite.

But far more ink is given to Keckley’s relationship with the first lady. For example, there are pages and pages on Mrs. Lincoln’s reaction to her son Willy’s death and how Keckley helped her through that difficult time. While attention is given to Keckley’s own son’s death, the passing of the Lincoln’s son is a much more prominent event in the novel.

It is not until Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln have a parting of ways over an unfortunate event, that the focus is truly on Keckley and her own struggles to rebuild her life after devoting so much of it to assisting Mrs. Lincoln after the assignation of Abraham Lincoln. But even then, the Lincoln’s shadow is inescapable.

For those of you who know Chiaverini for her Elm Creek Quilts novels, there is a quilt in this novel, although the driving women’s enterprise is dressmaking.

Is “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” my favorite of Chiaverini’s novels? No. Is it worth adding to your collection and reading how women played a major roll behind the scenes of the Civil War? Absolutely.

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