Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel

by Jennifer Chiaverini

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780142180358
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/24/2013
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 40,418
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jennifer Chiaverini is the New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Lincoln's DressmakerFates and Traitors, Enchantress of Numbers, and other acclaimed works of historical fiction, as well as the beloved Elm Creek Quilts series. She lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker
“Required Reading . . . The story of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Lizzie Keckley, a former slave who became Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress and confidante. After the president’s assassination, Keckley created the Mary Todd Lincoln quilt and also a scandalous memoir. A new spin on the story.”  —New York Post
 
“Jennifer Chiaverini imagines the first lady’s most private affairs through the eyes of an unlikely confidante.” –Harper’s Bazaar
 
“Chiaverini has drawn a loving portrait of a complex and gifted woman . . . Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker helps to illuminate the path on which her long and remarkable life led her.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
“All the characters are brilliantly written, and readers will enjoy getting to know them. [Chiaverini] brings to life long-forgotten snapshots of America’s past with style, grace and respect.” –RT Book Reviews
 
“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.”           –Library Journal
 
“Nuanced... a welcome historical.” –Publishers Weekly 
 
“A compelling fictional account of Keckley’s life.”  -Bookpage

Praise for Jennifer Chiaverini and the Elm Creek Quilts series

“Chiaverini’s themes of love, loss, and healing will resonate with many, and her characters’ stories are inspiring.” —Publishers Weekly

“Chiaverini has an impressive ability to bring a time and place alive.” —Romantic Times Book Reviews

“Emotionally compelling.” —Chicago Tribune on Sonoma Rose

“Jennifer Chiaverini has made quite a name for herself with her bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series. From the Civil War to the Roaring Twenties to contemporary settings, these novels have offered suspense, romance, and, at times, in-depth looks into the social, political, and cultural differences that helped shape a nation.” —BookPage

“Chiaverini excels at weaving stories and at character development. We can relate to the residents of Elm Creek Valley because they remind us of folks we know—a cousin, an aunt, or a grandmother.” —Standard-Examiner (Utah)

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
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.



ABOUT JENNIFER CHIAVERINI

Jennifer Chiaverini is the author of the New York Times bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series, as well as five collections of quilt projects inspired by the novels. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is her first stand–alone historical novel. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin.



A CONVERSATION WITH JENNIFER CHIAVERINI

What drew you to write about Elizabeth Keckley?

More than a decade ago, I was researching antebellum and Civil War era quilts for my fourth novel when I discovered a photograph of an antique masterpiece. Arranged in the medallion style, with appliquéd eagles, embroidered flowers, pieced hexagons, and deep red fringe, the quilt was clearly the work of a gifted seamstress, its striking beauty unmarred by the shattered silk and broken threads that gave evidence to its age. The caption noted that the quilt had been sewn from scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln’s gowns by her dressmaker and confidante, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley. I marveled at the compelling story those brief lines suggested—a courageous woman’s rise from slavery to freedom, an improbable friendship that ignored the era’s sharp distinctions of class and race, the confidences shared between a loyal dressmaker and a controversial, divisive First Lady. I wished that I could have been present as Elizabeth Keckley measured Mary Lincoln for a new gown, to overhear their conversations on topics significant and ordinary, and to observe the Lincoln White House from such an intimate perspective. From that moment, my interest in their remarkable friendship was captivated, and it really never waned.

After her interview with the journalist, Mr. Smith D. Fry, Elizabeth worries that he will fill in the gaps and silences with his own imagination, distorting her story to suit his purposes. “Why should one write the story to fit the facts, she thought wryly, when nothing could be easier than to invent one’s own facts to suit a more provocative story?” [p. 349]. One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is to navigate the dual demands of staying true to the facts but also shaping them into a satisfying story. What was the allure of telling Elizabeth Keckley’s story as a novel rather than nonfiction?

After I finished reading Keckley’s memoir, Behind the Scenes, I wanted to delve more deeply into her history, to learn about the woman she was beyond her friendship with Mary Lincoln—to discover what had happened after the closing passages of her memoir, and to uncover the details of everyday life in wartime Washington she had omitted. How had Elizabeth Keckely spent that tense and fateful day when the increasingly divided nation awaited the results of the election that would send Abraham Lincoln to the White House? What emotions had swept through her when the Confederate Army advanced upon the city and invasion seemed imminent? What sights, sounds, and smells had she encountered every day as she walked from her boardinghouse to the White House, while all around her the capital became first an armed camp, and then one vast military hospital? What inspired her to make her beautiful quilt, when did she make it, and for whom? And perhaps because I am a writer, one question more than any other would not let me rest: How had the publication of her memoir—still in print today and acclaimed by historians for the invaluable insights it provides into the Lincoln White House—transformed her? Fiction allowed me to explore possible answers to those questions in a way nonfiction could not.

How would you best describe Elizabeth Keckley? How would you describe her relationship with Mary Lincoln?

Elizabeth Keckley was a woman of remarkable strength, courage, perseverance, and dignity. She was exceptionally talented, but also very diligent and ambitious, and together those qualities enabled her to deliver herself from slavery and become a successful businesswoman. In their written reflections, people who knew her during her lifetime refer admiringly to her natural grace and dignity, her integrity, her lovely speaking voice, and her beauty. As for her relationship with Mary Lincoln, for as long as their friendship endured, it was, for the most part, mutually beneficial, strengthened by shared experiences and tragedies. Mary Lincoln provided Elizabeth Keckley with opportunities for social and economic advancement she probably had never imagined during her years as a slave, while Elizabeth offered Mary the loyal, steadfast friendship she craved but had always found so elusive.

President Lincoln is often characterized by his calm, thoughtful, and wise demeanor. The same, however, can’t be said for Mrs. Lincoln. In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, you paint a picture of a complex, yet fascinating woman with mood swings and emotional outbursts but who also possesses a strong and confident presence. Can you describe your insights on her character? Why is she such an intriguing person, not just in your book but also in history?

Despite the volumes of historical and psychological research devoted to Mary Lincoln, she remains an enigma. She was the first wife of a U. S. president to be called First Lady, and she was then and remains to this day one of the most controversial. Regrettably, descriptions of her tend to fall into the extremes of caricature: She is either portrayed as an unstable, shrill, vicious, corrupt shrew who made President Lincoln utterly miserable, or as a devoted wife and mother and a brilliant, shrewd, political partner whose reputation was savaged by biased male historians. As a friend and confidante who observed Mary Lincoln closely in moments of triumph as well as tragedy, Elizabeth Keckley knew her as a real woman, full of flaws and virtues and surprises like any other. It was this far more nuanced woman that Elizabeth Keckley depicted in the pages of her memoir, and since Elizabeth Keckley is my narrator, I shaped the character of Mary Lincoln according to her perceptions.

Elizabeth Keckley’s story was largely lost to history, yet it has recently been restored, through efforts to restore her gravesite, and now your novel. What do you regard as her legacy?

Certainly her writing is a significant part of her legacy. Despite the vitriol of her critics and Robert Lincoln’s efforts to rid the world of Behind the Scenes, Elizabeth Keckley’s memoir, so denounced in its time, is today respected for its invaluable insights into the Lincoln White House. The influence she had upon President Lincoln—not in any official role of advisor, but rather through her presence and conversation, making him better aware of the needs of the African–American community—and how it might have informed his opinions and thus guided his policy decisions is another. Another part of her legacy—perhaps impossible to measure—springs from her role as a teacher, not only in her later years, when she worked as a domestic arts instructor at Wilberforce University, but also and especially when she taught sewing, reading, and other important skills to the former slaves living in Washington’s overcrowded refugee camps. She helped countless numbers of women gain the skills and knowledge they needed to build better lives for themselves and their families in the new world of freedom.

What is your next work of fiction? Can readers expect to meet another remarkable figure from America’s past?

My next novel, The Spymistress (Dutton, October 2013), will explore the suspenseful life and clandestine adventures of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union loyalist who was General Grant’s most valuable spy in her native Richmond, Virginia, during the tumultuous years of the Civil War.



DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • What are Elizabeth Keckley’s most admirable qualities? What makes her such an appealing figure?
  • Mrs. Lincoln and Elizabeth both suffer terrible tragedies. Elizabeth was born into slavery, raped by her white master, and betrayed by her husband. She lost her only son in the war and was the victim of a scandal that damaged her reputation and left her in poverty. Mrs. Lincoln lost three of her four sons, as well as her husband, and was also the victim of devastating scandals and financial distress. How do they respond differently to the trials that life throws at them?
  • What picture of President Lincoln emerges in the novel? In what ways does the novel deepen our understanding of Lincoln, both as a political leader and as a husband, father, and friend?
  • Elizabeth likes to think “that she too had played some small part in helping President Lincoln know the desires and worries of colored people better. She hoped she had used, and would always use, her acquaintance with the president and her time in the White House for the good of her race” [p. 192]. In what ways—direct and indirect—did Elizabeth helped the cause of people of color during her time in the White House? How might her personal example of dignity, compassion, and integrity have helped her cause? What actions does she undertake on behalf of her race?
  • Why is the press so eager to vilify Mrs. Lincoln? Are any of their criticisms deserved?
  • After her husband’s death, Mrs. Lincoln tells Elizabeth, “You are the only good, kind friend I have anymore, and I don’t know how I shall get along without you” [p. 259]. Why does Mrs. Lincoln come to rely so heavily on Elizabeth? In what ways is Elizabeth a loyal and generous friend to Mrs. Lincoln? What does she offer Mrs. Lincoln beyond dressmaking?
  • Late in her life, Elizabeth tells the reporter, Mr. Fry, “When I am most in distress, I think of what I often heard Mr. Lincoln say to his wife: ’Don’t worry, Mother, because all things will come out right. God rules our destinies” [p. 349]. Does the novel itself seem to confirm Mr. Lincoln’s belief in divine providence? Does Lincoln’s death seem fated?
  • What are some of the novel’s most moving scenes? How is Chiaverini able to bring the era, as well as the Lincoln family, so vividly to life?
  • What are Elizabeth’s intentions in writing her memoir? In what ways does the editor of Carleton & Co., Mr. Redpath, take advantage of her?
  • One reviewer of Elizabeth’s memoir, Behind the Scenes, writes that “The Line must be drawn somewhere, and we protest that it had better be traced before all the servant girls are educated up to the point of writing up the private history of the families in which they may be engaged” [p. 321]. Why do the critics respond with such hostility—and inaccuracy—to her book? Why would they feel threatened by it?
  • How does Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker complement and add to the portrait of President Lincoln in the recent, Oscar–winning film Lincoln?
  • Elizabeth learns from Mrs. Lincoln’s negative example that “the only way to redeem oneself from scandal was to live an exemplary life every day thereafter” [p. 325]. In what ways is her life, not just after the scandal but her entire life, exemplary?
  • Reflecting on her teaching at Wilberforce University, Elizabeth feels that “Her greatest legacy could not be measured in garments or in words but in the wisdom she had imparted, in the lives made better because she had touched them” [p. 339]. In what ways does Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker also strengthen Elizabeth’s legacy? How much did you know about her before reading the novel?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 169 reviews.
    literarymuseVC More than 1 year ago
    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!
    Dollycas More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.  
    irishclaireKG More than 1 year ago
    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.
    moonshell127 More than 1 year ago
    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....
    PDW48 More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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-
    LJHotch More than 1 year ago
    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++
    CMKmom More than 1 year ago
    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.
    CricketJD More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Jennifer chiaverini is an amazing author. She paints pictures with words.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Enjoying it very much!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I can understand that some people would mark down the stars awarded for this book if they started it and didn't see it through. This outstanding presentation of an historical person starts out a little dry as Ms. Chiaverini tries to master the flow of telling a fact-based story as opposed to her usual easily freeflowing fiction. A reader's persistence in getting through the early part of the book is richly rewarded as Chiverini hits her stride about halfway through, and her literary efforts are not so strained in the second half. On the balance, the book is VERY good and a fair portrayal of the personages, from what I know. As a textile person myself, I fully appreciated the references to Ms. Keckley's skill and how much pride and pleasure she took in her craft.
    chelsea597 More than 1 year ago
    With the recent movie, Lincoln, plus a trip to Springfield, IL, my interest grew about Mary Lincoln's dressmaker. In the wondeful Springfield museum I read and saw a model of her dressmaker which inspired me to learn more about her. This book was a great read about the time period,slavery/free blacks, and life with Mrs.Lincoln throu her trusted seamstress. I highly recommend this book! Very informative and based on facts with wonderful writing, will hold your interest as well as give you lots of new information about Mrs. Lincoln from the woman who dressed her.
    msmeisel More than 1 year ago
    Great perspective from which to present this story! There were a couple of slow spots in the book but much of it is a page turner and worth muddling through the slower parts. Bear with the beginning, the author steps up though she relapses at another point... leaving the reader to ponder if they should really give it another chance. Do. Strengths will, in the end, win the day. The character development of both the dressmaker and Mrs. Lincoln are vivid, and believable. The reader can more clearly see the times through the eyes of these two ladies; though friends, from very different backgrounds, values and expectations. More importantly, their friendship finds common bounds -- based on shared hopes and loves.
    AVIDREADER78ML More than 1 year ago
    I ENJOYED THIS HISTORY OF THE LINCOLN YEARS COMING FROM A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE. I HAVE SPENT MY LIFETIME READING EVERYTHING I CAN FIND ABOUT ABE LINCOLN SO I HAVE ALWAYS FOUND THAT HISTORY HAS CONSISTENTLY PORTRAYED MARY TODD LINCOLN IN VERY NEGATIVE WAYS. IT'S REFRESHING TO SEE HER ROLE AS WIFE, MOTHER AND FRIEND IN MUCH KINDER WORDS. I FOUND MYSELF UNDERSTANDING HER FOR THE FIRST TIME.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    It was a wonderful read! So good that I couldn't get my hands on her next book "The Spymistress", which I'm almost through reading! Both books are wonderful, as I love reading about the Civil War period, and both books tell history from a far more interesting angle! Great books! I can't wait to buy her latest one!!
    bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
    Historical fiction novels are in vogue lately, with books recreating the lives of such relatively unknown people as Edgar Allen Poe's wife in Mrs. Poe, Anne Franks' sister in Margot, and Elizabeth Keckley, better known as Mary Todd Lincoln's modiste and confidante in  Jennifer Chiaverini's Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker. Anyone who saw Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln last year may remember the character of Mrs. Keckley in a few scenes in the movie, played by actress Gloria Reuben. I had known of Mrs. Keckley, but not of her story, which is fascinatingly brought to life in this new novel. Keckley was born a slave, and purchased her and her young son's freedom through her earnings as a seamstress. Her son was born of a rape by a white man, an acquaintance of her owner who failed to protect her from the man. Elizabeth loved her son George, and was thrilled when he went to college. She became a modiste to many famous women in Washington DC, most notably Mrs. Jefferson Davis, of whom she was very fond. As the succession of the Southern states portended the Civil War, Mrs. Davis wanted Elizabeth to come with her to Alabama, but Elizabeth was wary of going further South. Her reputation led her to be summoned to the White House to meet with Mrs. Lincoln and she became the modiste (dressmaker) for the First Lady. Through Mrs. Keckley, the reader is privy to private and public moments in the White House. Mr. Lincoln is portrayed as a humble, honorable man, one who dearly loved his wife and children. Mary Lincoln is lonely, shunned by many of the society people in Washington as an unsophisticated outsider. Elizabeth became Mrs. Lincoln's confidante, the one to whom she turned to when she was troubled. Mrs. Lincoln was wary of the men in Mr. Lincoln's cabinet and she freely shared her opinions with her husband, who may have agreed with her, but was more reticent to do anything about it. When her son Willie died, Mrs. Lincoln was inconsolable, and Elizabeth stayed by her side. When Mr. Lincoln was assassinated, again it was Elizabeth who stayed with her, even leaving her own successful seamstress business behind to accompany Mrs. Lincoln on her move to Chicago. I didn't know much of Mary Lincoln's life after she left Washington, and so this part of the novel truly captured me. Elizabeth assisted Mrs. Lincoln in trying to sell her dresses off to cover her over $70,000  debt, mostly from her shopping trips to New York City. They journeyed to New York and became involved with brokers who took advantage of them. Congress had yet to fund any pension for Mrs. Lincoln, so she had no income. Elizabeth came upon the idea of writing a memoir about her life as a way to earn money she could share with Mrs. Lincoln, but that became a disaster which haunted her the rest of her life. Chiaverini, who has written many novels about quilting, came to this story after hearing about a quilt that Elizabeth made for Mrs. Lincoln from pieces of material she used in various dresses made for Mrs. Lincoln. That led her to the book that Mrs. Keckley wrote, Behind the Scenes. I enjoyed getting to know these two disparate women who became unlikely friends. Chiaverini cleverly uses Elizabeth's story to bring us right into the inner sanctum of the White House during the most turbulent time in our history. She brings the Lincoln family to vivid life and yet in the end, it is Elizabeth Keckley's story that is truly amazing. I will be looking for more information about her.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Well written, interesting and enjoyed reading about daily activity during war years and the survival of people in its day. The cost of textiles to make Mrs. Lincoln's dresses. GIves us a glimps into the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln and their children, how her clothing was made and by whom.
    pointerbd More than 1 year ago
    Very revealing and interesting look at women, society,fashions and politics in an era where women were not written about too frequently. The middle dragged a bit for me(with details of Civil War battles and political squabbles) but overall a most engaging look at life inside the White House during and after Lincoln's presidency.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.
    KatieB99 More than 1 year ago
    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.