Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker
by: Jennifer Chiaverini
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Summary: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.
Review: In the novel Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker the story of Elizabeth Keckley unfolds; Elizabeth is a woman in her late thirties at the beginning of the novel who works for years to gain her and her sons freedom out of the cruel world of slavery. After being a slave for thirty plus years she saves up enough money to buy her way to freedom and eventually finds herself in Washington working as a modiste or a dresser, and creator of fashions for the elite of society in Washington's higher circles. Her contacts will eventually lead her to Mary Todd Lincoln who will be one of her most challenging and yet rewarding clients.
The plot line follows the two women's relationship as it progresses from when the Lincoln's first enter the white house, into the events of the Civil War, through Mrs. Lincoln's bad press reviews, the death of her sons, Mrs. Lincoln's bad spending habits which she gets bad press reviews for, into the hard won second election of President Lincoln, and his assassination. Through the years it is interesting to look at these events through the eyes of two different women from totally different places in society, and to imagine how they might have dealt with the challenges they were facing.
Overall the book for me gave a different perspective to Abraham Lincoln from Elizabeth Keckley's point of view that I'd never thought about before, and there were other historical details in the book that I learned about that definitely made it a worthwhile read for me, especially knowing that Elizabeth Keckley was a real woman, and did have similar experiences to those portrayed in the book. It is one I would recommend to those interested in this time period in American history.