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.
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published January 15th 2013 by Dutton Adult
Three and a half stars: An interesting peek into the lives of two very different historical women.
Life hasn't always been easy for Elizabeth Keckley. She is a former slave who managed to buy her freedom and her son's as well. She is middle aged, estranged from her husband and building a dressmaking business in Washington D.C. Despite her difficulties, she endeavors to work hard and make the most of her opportunities. Her skills with the needle have landed her some prestigious clients, including Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis. Her reputation grows and eventually she lands an interview with none other than the First Lady. Mary Lincoln hires her even though she is the only colored woman applying. This is the beginning of a long term relationship between these two extraordinary women. When Elizabeth takes on the job to be Mrs. Lincoln's personal dressmaker, she has no idea how it will change her life. She not only diligently sews the finest gowns for Mrs. Lincoln, but she also becomes a personal friend and confidant to the family. Elizabeth spends endless hours at the White House interacting with the Lincoln's. She nurses the children, dresses Mary and even combs Mr. Lincoln's hair before important engagements. She has come a long way from her humble beginnings as a slave. This is the account of Elizabeth's relationship with Mrs. Lincoln and the story of her life. She was an amazing woman who led an impressive life.
What I Liked:
- I am always drawn to books set in the Civil War Era, but I admit, I tend to read more about the Confederacy and the subsequent death of the Old South. I am a bit unfamiliar with Mrs. Lincoln, and the few things I do know about her aren't the most flattering. This book is a revealing account of Mrs. Lincoln's time in the White House and what happened to her after her husband's untimely death. Told through the eyes of a loyal friend, this book attempts to paint Mrs. Lincoln in a more flattering light, but in the end she led a turbulent life and she made many unfortunate mistakes. Mary Lincoln faced many troubles and burdens, but her difficulties were not any more harsh than that other women of the time were facing. In the end, I felt somewhat sorry for her, as I realized that she was married to a man who was a martyr, and he certainly set an impossibly high standard for her to measure up against. If you are curious about Mrs. Lincoln, I would definitely recommend this book.
- I had never heard of Elizabeth Keckley before picking up this account. She is an impressive woman, who found the courage and means to buy her freedom. Elizabeth was able to establish a successful dressmaking business as a colored woman in a time of great turbulence and racism. Her skills set her apart, and she was soon crafting gowns for the elite women of the day. Not only was Elizabeth an accompished seamstress, she was also a generous advocate for her race. I finished this book with a new appreciation for women in her plight. Elizabeth Keckley was a humble, remarkable and amazing woman. I certainly admire her. I would highly recommend this book to those of you interested in slavery and African American history.
- I liked that the main focus of this book was during the Civil Way years. Mrs. Keckley gave her first hand account of the Lincolns behind the scenes. It was touching and revealing at the same time. How my heart ached for President Lincoln as he dealt with the heavy burdens of war and the death of his young son. This novel once again reminds us of the great losses during the war. It is a troublesome, yet fascinating time in American History. If you have any interest in the Civil War era, especially of the women of the era, read this book. I liked that it was told from the perspective of an African American woman. I learned so much about the difficulties they faced, the prejudice they fought against and the struggle they had to free their race from slavery.
And The Not So Much:
- I was a bit perplexed and disappointed that this book hardly covered Mrs. Keckley's life during her slave years. There is very little detail and discussion on this period in her life. Instead this book opens in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War when Elizabeth is middle aged and employed by Varina Davis. While I can understand why Ms. Chiaverni chose to put the main focus on the Civil War Era, I couldn't help but feel a bit cheated that there wasn't an account of her slave years, and how she bought her freedom. Especially since this was the formative years of her life.
- I loved that the focus of this book was on the Civil War, and I admit that my attention waned a bit the last part of the book. Once Mr. Lincoln is assassinated and the war ends, the book's pace falters. The last portion focuses on Mary Lincoln's troubles after she leaves the White House. Mrs. Lincoln is in serious debt, she racked up a horrendous amount of debt while in the White House, unbeknownst to her husband, the amount is shocking even by today's standards. Elizabeth, the ever loyal friend, tries to help her sell her belongings to make ends meet, and ends up in a sticky situation as she publishes her personal memoirs. The book ultimately estranges her from the Lincoln family. Thus, Mrs. Lincoln's final years are unbeknownst to Elizabeth, which was a disappointment since I would like to know more about how she ended up in the asylum. The considerable amount of time spent discussing the failed wardrobe selling dragged on and on and I lost interest.
- I longed to have a bit more details on the dressmaking. I was hoping to learn a bit more about how dresses during this era were crafted. Sewing machines were invented, but it was never clear whether Elizabeth ever used one or if she always sewed everything by hand. Furthermore, I would have liked to know how a seamstress went about piecing together one of those voluminous gowns, the length of time it took to make one, and how much a dress sold for during this time period. The details on sewing are very scant. I guess I was expecting more on this topic considering it is the account of a dressmaker.
Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is an eye opening account of Mary Todd Lincoln told by one of her most trusted friends. This book attempts to portray Mrs. Lincoln in a more positive light, but due to her many mistakes she comes across as flawed and unable to measure up to her esteemed husband. The horrors of the Civil War are front and center, along with the struggles of the African American race as they obtained their freedom and fought to find their way in the world after they escaped slavery. If you are interested in this time period, this is certainly a revealing story of an amazing woman of African American heritage who made a name for herself in this most difficult time period. I was certainly inspired by Elizabeth Keckley, and I am glad that I read this book.
"But even if he had placed his hand on a Bible and declared himself a staunch abolitionist, her few months in Washington had taught her that candidates often made promises that they found impossible to keep after taking office."
"If one is going to write the life of another," Elizabeth said aloud, rising from her chair with the newspaper still clutched in her hand, "one should always, always write the truth. Anything else is a waste of paper and ink and words."
"As the lowest among them fared, so everyone of their race would be perceived, and thus for their own sakes it was essential to forgo snobbery and raise up all colored people."
"After a lifetime of dependence, they know nothing else, and the worries and cares of poverty had given them a harsh introduction to freedom."
"If your hose is on fire, and a black man offers you a bucket of water, do you refuse it? If you are drowning, and a black man reaches out to haul you to shore, do you tread water and hope a white man happens by before you go under, or do you seize that dusky limb and live?"
"He talked about the Lord too, and how strange it is that each side prays to the same God and invokes His aid against the other."
"If a white child appeared dull, he and he alone was thought to suffer from a lack of intelligence or a deficient education, but if a colored boy appeared dull, the entire race was deemed unintelligent."
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and I was not compensated for this review.