Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel

( 154 )

Overview

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini?s compelling historical novel unveils the private lives of Abraham and Mary Lincoln through the perspective of the First Lady?s most trusted confidante and friend, her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley.
 
In a life that spanned nearly a century and witnessed some of the most momentous events in American history, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born a slave. A gifted seamstress, she earned her ...

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Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel

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Overview

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini’s compelling historical novel unveils the private lives of Abraham and Mary Lincoln through the perspective of the First Lady’s most trusted confidante and friend, her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley.
 
In a life that spanned nearly a century and witnessed some of the most momentous events in American history, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born a slave. A gifted seamstress, she earned her freedom by the skill of her needle, and won the friendship of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln by her devotion. A sweeping historical novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker illuminates the extraordinary relationship the two women shared, beginning in the hallowed halls of the White House during the trials of the Civil War and enduring almost, but not quite, to the end of Mrs. Lincoln’s days.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

At the center of this historical novel by talented novelist Jennifer Chiaverini (The Union Quilters; The Spymistress) is the singular friendship between eccentric, Southern born president's wife Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, former slave Elizabeth Keckley. As strange as it seems, this unlikely closeness strengthened during the Civil War years, even gaining resilience in the aftermath of one Lincoln son's demise and the death of the president himself. Then years later, a well-intentioned act of independence by the former confidante destroyed Keckley's bond with the president's widow. Now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.

Publishers Weekly
Elizabeth “Lizzy” Keckley, a freed slave in Washington, D.C., right before the start of the Civil War, gains fame as a dressmaker for Northerners and Southerners alike, but when Lincoln is elected and the Southerners secede, she chooses to remain in Washington. She becomes the modiste for Mary Todd Lincoln and is privy to the innermost workings of the Lincoln White House, Mary Todd’s reckless spending, President Lincoln’s death, and his widow’s subsequent penury. When Lizzy writes a memoir about her experiences, she’s denigrated by the public (which derides it as “Kitchen and Bed-Chamber Literature”) for betraying the Lincoln confidences even though she casts Mary Todd in a favorable light. Chiaverini’s characterization of the relationship between Mary Todd and Lizzy, a real historical figure, is nuanced, revealing a friendship that is at times unstable and fraught with class distinctions but also warm and protective. Though not without its problems (characters are insulated from the worst of the war; Lizzy is curiously passive; the pacing can be slow), Chiaverini deviates from her usual focus on quilting (found in the Elm Creek Quilts series) to create a welcome historical. Agent: Maria Massie, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Elizabeth Keckley, born a slave who later purchased her freedom, lived a life that was charmed in many ways. Her talents as a seamstress gained her entrée into the dressing rooms of the wives of the political elite in Washington. By far her most famous and long-lasting association was with Mary Todd Lincoln, wife then widow of the 16th President. Chiaverini steps away from her popular “Elms Creek Quilt” series to explore this relationship in this absorbing stand-alone historical novel.

Verdict Taking readers through times of war and peace as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary woman, the author brings Civil War Washington to vivid life through her meticulously researched authentic detail. Chiaverini’s characters are compelling and accurate; the reader truly feels drawn into the intimate scenes at the White House. Historical fiction fans will enjoy this one, while Chiaverini’s devoted readers may be adventurous enough to try something new. [See Prepub Alert, 8/16/12.]—Pam O’Sullivan, SUNY Coll. at Brockport Lib.(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
From the intimate domestic circles of the political elite, a dressmaker witnesses the upheavals of 19th-century America. Chiaverini (The Giving Quilt, 2012, etc.) sets aside her Elm Creek Quilts series for this historical novel about Elizabeth Keckley. Drawing upon the rich milieu of Civil War America, as well as Keckley's own memoir (published in 1868 as Behind the Scenes), Chiaverini weaves the story of a woman who lived as both slave and freedwoman. Elizabeth learns her trade by making clothes for her fellow slaves, and once freed, she plies her needle so skillfully that the wives of Republicans and Democrats clamor for her designs. Varina, the second wife of Jefferson Davis, even seeks to take Elizabeth with her to Montgomery when the South secedes and her husband becomes president of the Confederacy. Despite her desire to journey with Varina, Elizabeth decides to stay in Washington, since traveling further South will erase most of her freedoms. Her decision leads to her new position as Mary Todd Lincoln's modiste. Elizabeth not only designs and sews Mary's clothes, but she also arranges her hair, helps her dress, cares for her children at times and becomes her confidante. As others nearly shun Mary for her extravagances during wartime, not to mention her mercurial personality, she relies more and more heavily upon Elizabeth. Their relationship affords an interesting perspective for viewing the cultural and social turmoil of the times, for no matter how much Elizabeth is respected for her skills and no matter how intimately Mary trusts her with her confidences, Elizabeth remains a former slave, and she must be reminded of her place. While the backdrop is strikingly vivid, Chiaverini's domestic tale dawdles too often in the details of dress fittings and quilt piecings, leaving Elizabeth's emotional terrain glimpsed but not traveled.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142180358
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 9/24/2013
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 953
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer Chiaverini

Jennifer Chiaverini is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago. She lives with her husband and two sons in Madison,
Wisconsin.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 154 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(59)

4 Star

(46)

3 Star

(22)

2 Star

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1 Star

(9)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 154 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 15, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Elizabeth Keckley is no stranger to suffering. Born into slaver

    Elizabeth Keckley is no stranger to suffering. Born into slavery, forced to submit to her white master and giving birth to her son George, bearing years of the indignities of slavery and finally painstakingly saving enough to buy her own freedom, she has gradually developed into a skillful dressmaker. Initially, she develops a reputation by sewing the dresses of Mrs. Davis, whose husband will later leave Washington, D.C. to become the Confederate President during the Civil War. Her obvious skill earns her enough clientele of the well-to-do that she immediately comes to the attention of Mrs. Lincoln, an enigmatic personality who nonetheless comes to cherish Elizabeth as a dear friend!

    This then is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s presidential years observed by Ms. Keckley who spends most of her time at first sewing and dressing the extravagant Mrs. Lincoln and then soothing and encouraging her during her nervous and anxious moments. Elizabeth’s goodness and kindness in this story is credible but also highlights a bit of naivety as Elizabeth fails to see that Mrs. Lincoln’s caustic tongue has repeatedly offended so many political families so that attention of her peers and the press are constantly focused on reporting innuendos and rumors of scandal. Elizabeth, however, fails to understand how others can be so cruel to this woman who lost a son years ago, loses another child during the Presidential years, and would be a lonely soul with Elizabeth’s constant encouragement and comfort. The President, meanwhile, is portrayed as terribly burdened by the disappointing progress for the Union in the interminable defeats of the War, which are carefully and minutely described in detail herein and well worth the read. However, there are wonderful pages describing Elizabeth’s more than noble efforts to help former slaves adapt to their new freedom after the President gradually frees them, first in certain states, and then later after the Emancipation Proclamation.

    The President and his wife, it seems, had premonitions of his death in the year before his assassination, and poignant are the scenes following his untimely death. Mrs. Lincoln up to that point has been shopping for herself and the White House to the point where her debt is absolutely outrageous whether one considers the value of our current money or the value of money in the 1860s. Elizabeth spends the rest of her life trying to help save Mrs. Lincoln from the embarrassment that would be sure to fall if the public were to learn about her impecunious situation. Not to provide a spoiler, suffice to say that all fails, and the closing chapters surround Elizabeth’s coming to terms with the reality of what she can realistically do and the harm she has inadvertently done in her well-intentioned efforts.

    Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker is well-researched and crafted carefully, never failing to intrigue, fascinate and inform the reader about these tumultuous years when history forced dramatic changes on the nation and on individuals living during those precarious years! Characters are depicted with all of their strengths and weaknesses, adding to the emotional ups and downs that touch the reader on every page. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is superb historical fiction that should become a best seller very, very soon! Congratulations, Jennifer Chiaverini!

    38 out of 46 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 15, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    This story tells of the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and

    This story tells of the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley. Lizzie, a slave who bought the way out of slavery for both herself and her son did so using her sewing talents. She went on to sew for some of the elite woman in Washington D.C. When Mrs. Lincoln moved to The White House she chose Lizzie over many applicants to be her her personal “modiste,” responsible not only for creating the First Lady’s gowns, but also for dressing Mrs. Lincoln in the beautiful attire she created for the first lady. Their friendship quickly evolved and she became part of the fabric of the Lincoln White House. She was there to see Mary through the loss of her son and the assassination of her husband.




    Chiaverini has written an in depth look at an important time in history from the women’s point of view as only she can. It is well researched and flows smoothly into the reader’s heart and mind. This being her first novel away from her characters in the Elm Creek Series there were a bit of growing pains in places. She is writing about real people and tries to keep all the facts straight even though the book is fiction which can be extremely difficult. Readers should know this is not a quilting or a quilter’s story but Lizzie does create a quilt from the scraps leftover from her creations for Mrs. Lincoln. This is a very small part of this novel.




    The author has a reputation of writing strong woman and Elizabeth Keckley is one strong woman. She definitely went above and beyond for Mrs. Lincoln. Chiaverini has captured her excellently and it is easy to forget Lizzie was a real person. Her insight into Mary Todd Lincoln was enlightening as well. Reading stories like this one are superb ways to learn more about the people the history texts forget about or only mention in passing. 




    This book is everything I expect a Jennifer Chiaverini novel. Wonderful characters in a fascinating time and exciting places.  Fans of historical fiction will absolutely love this book. I sure did!! I can’t wait to read her next novel due out in October. The Spymistress features Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union loyalist who was a spy for General Grant.

    24 out of 27 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2013

    Uuggg! This is written in a style suitable for a middle school r

    Uuggg! This is written in a style suitable for a middle school reader. Very rarely do I find a book so poorly written that I can't finish it-especially one I paid $12 for.. I was expecting a historical fiction with a lot of interesting historical information-this book is heavy on the fiction and light on the history. The style of writing is sophomoric and unsophisticated. Save your time and money-

    11 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2013

    I read this story back in collage as part of a of an English Cla

    I read this story back in collage as part of a of an English Class on woman that contributed it our American history. we only read a few select chapters it was interesting how; what would be considered a simple dress maker could have on history and all that she accomplished for an Africa American woman of the time was almost unheard of at that time period. I'm sorry to say i never got to read the rest of the book a friend borrowed it to try to inspire another friend and it was never returned. i will most likely buy the book again to fine out the rest of this amazing life of this unique woman.

    10 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 17, 2013

    This is a fascinating subject as Elizabeth Keckley is one of tho

    This is a fascinating subject as Elizabeth Keckley is one of those little known historical figures who automatcially intrigues--especially if you have seen the film "Lincoln" where she is depicted. However, I find this novel wooden and rather unengaging. As this seems to be the first historical fiction by this author, the style is forced and rather stilted. I never found Keckey to be fully "fleshed out." There are other terrific books on this subject; this is not a bad introduction, but I find the whole novel disappointing.

    9 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2013

    Jennifer chiaverini is an amazing author. She paints pictures

    Jennifer chiaverini is an amazing author. She paints pictures with words.

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2013

    This book was so well written I had to remind myself several tim

    This book was so well written I had to remind myself several times it was fiction.  I love historical novels.  This one had a great blend of historical fact, conversation and emotion that I couldn't put it down.  

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 19, 2013

    I'm trying to get through this book because there is so much inf

    I'm trying to get through this book because there is so much information regarding the battles and people and very little about the relationship between the two women! I'll try reading the book a little bit more but am disappointed in it so far compared to Ms. Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilt series which I LOVE! I thought it was just me, but apparently after reading most reviews here others share the same concerns....

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 4, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Jenn did a really great job on this book. The story line was en

    Jenn did a really great job on this book. The story line was engaging and she did a fantastic job of researching the subject. I learned a lot about the Lincolns and Elizabeth Keckley - what an amazing story. So much to discuss for book clubs. So much interesting history. What a fascinating story. A++

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 1, 2013

    If you enjoy historical fiction, read this one - you'll like it.

    I love historical fiction, and this was a good one. Finished reading this book and a couple of nights later went to see Lincoln, the movie. Great one-two punch.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 23, 2013

    Just OK. Not her best.

    I found this book a litle slow reading. I hve read Jennifer's quilt books and loved them, but this one was not her best.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2013

    Interesting but sad

    Although I found this book interesting and fascinating, I also found it extremely sad the way things turned out. I wish I had borrowed it or taken it out of the library as it is something I won't read again. For historical fiction it is an easy read. I am at a point in life that I have enough sadness without adding anymore.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2013

    interesting, yet dull at times

    Like many others, I enjoyed learning about life in the White House during the time of Lincoln, and I enjoyed the pictures in my head of the characters in the story. However, I had to skim over the parts telling what battle was fought when. Not a bad read, but a little long.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 9, 2013

    Disappointing

    A fan of Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilt series, I was very disappointed in this book and did not finish reading it. Jennifer's wonderful character development and exploration of interpersonal relationships, especially between women, is missing from this book. I found it endlessly tiring o read through descriptions of Civil War battles and strategy. As a Yankee who has lived in the south for close to 20 years, I've read about and talked about and visited many of the battle sights. I didn't want or expect this from a book that purports to be about the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln's relationship with her dressmaker. Even the dressmaker's learning about the death of her son early in the war was told at an notional remove I found dissatisfying.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 8, 2013

    Interesting Read

    For the most part this was an interesting read. At times it got slow.. I think for lack of detail. In stories about slavery there was a failure to go into real explanation of the life of Ms Keckley as a slave. Stories of Mrs Lincoln were also devoid of real detail. It made the book an interesting read that was more like an abbreviated biography of each woman with few anecdotes. The history was there, the descriptions of places was detailed enough to be vivid but not so much in descriptions of the characters. Again, what was there was interesting much of the time but was a struggle to read at other times. This would probably be a good book for discussion for clubs... with such questions of the nature of Keckley's friendship (?) with Mary Todd Lincoln; the differences between the slaves who purchased their freedom and those who escaped vs those freed by the Emancipation Proc. and subsequent passage of Amendment to the Constitution, etc. I am not sure I would read more from this author.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2013

    Very Good

    Enjoying it very much!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2013

    Ok...

    I am a third grader. I think this book is ok.

    3 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2013

    IT IS STUPID Macci

    Pooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooop

    3 out of 36 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2013

    Great premise for a story, but disappointing results

    I bought this book because I love historical fiction. I've read stories about Lincoln that always painted his wife as a dark character, but they were extremely one-sided. I was hoping to get a better view of Mrs. Lincoln as told by someone who was sympathetic to her.

    The book does develop Mary Lincoln as a somewhat more sympathetic character, but I felt like the author's development of both Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley was really lacking. She reports the facts, but I didn't come away from the story feeling like I really understood either one of them. The characters just weren't as well developed as I hoped.The book isn't terrible, it just isn't great.

    If you have the chance and like historical fiction, I recommend Sandra Gulland's trilogy on Josephine Bonaparte. That is the kind of story I was hoping for here, but didn't get it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2013

    Anon

    Could not wait to read this book. I was so disappointed in how dull and slow it was. I actually started it and tried so hard to find it interesting, I did not get to far and had to put it down. I am glad I got it from the library and did not pay for it.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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