Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mrs Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

Fast on the heels of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, comes Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, a work of historical fiction about Mary Todd Lincoln's African-American dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley. Keckley was the child of  white plantation owner, Colonel Armistead Burwell and his house slave, Agnes.She was born in Dinwiddie Court-House in Virginia in 1818. Her mother Agnes was later allowed to marry George Pleasant Hobbs, who worked for another master.

Her parents were reunited briefly but when George's master moved out west, he was forced to move away. When she was but four years old, Lizzie, as she was then known, was made to look after her master, Col. Burwell's baby daughter, also named Elizabeth. One time when she rocked the baby's cradle too wildly, causing the baby to fall out, little Elizabeth was lashed.

Elizabeth, like many other slaves, endured whippings, cruelty, and rape, eventually bearing a son, whose father was Alexander Kirkland, a white man. Eventually, Elizabeth and her son, George, came to live in the house of Col. Burwell's daughter, Anna and her husband Mr. Garland. The couple was so poor that it was Mr. Garland's intention to sell Elizabeth's elderly mother. To help the family and prevent this, Elizabeth became a seamstress, and was soon supporting seventeen people in the Garland household.

Elizabeth married James Keckley and soon after was able to obtain her freedom at the age of thirty-seven. Special patrons, who felt that it was their duty to pay the fee for her freedom, raised the $1200 requested by the Garland family. However, Elizabeth would be indebted to no white man for her freedom, and she repaid every cent of the fee. Her husband, James, led a dissipated life so Elizabeth left him, moving to first to Baltimore and then Washington, in 1860. While in Washington, she met Mrs. Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis and became a modiste to her.  It was at this time she met Mrs. Lincoln.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker picks up Elizabeth's story when she is working for Mrs. Davis in 1860. The chapters in the book are labelled according to periods of each year and tell Elizabeth's story from November, 1860 to 1901. Narrated by Elizabeth, the novel recounts mostly about the relationship between herself and Mary Todd Lincoln and  President Lincoln during the American Civil War. The exception is the last six chapters which focus on Keckley's life after President Lincoln's assassination. Readers will find that the latter part of the novel is somewhat anti-climatic, as it focuses on Elizabeth's devotion to the increasingly unstable Mrs. Lincoln, and the writing of Elizabeth's memoir, Behind the Scenes.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a beautifully crafted novel, and Jennifer Chiaverini's writing more than adequately demonstrates the impeccable research that went into understanding these historical figures, allowing her to successfully create the conversations and relationships that existed in the Lincoln White House during this time period.

Mary Lincoln in a dress sewn by Elizabeth Keckley.
Chiaverini also demonstrates to her readers how everyone was affected to some degree on a personal level. Mary Todd Lincoln had a brother, three brothers and three brothers-in law fighting for the Confederate army. However, she was a staunch abolitionist. And Elizabeth Keckley was good friends with Jeffereson and Mrs. Davis, despite their beliMrs. Lincoln is portrayed as a passionate but unstable woman, fiercely devoted to her husband and his political career, active socially and politically on his behalf. She was a devoted mother, who suffered greatly over the deaths of her sons, Eddie and later on Willie. However, she was impulsive and ran up large debts in an attempt to refurbish the White House. Her time in Washington as First Lady was marked with controversy and through Elizabeth we see that no matter what she did, she experienced criticism from all sides and was often ostracized by the social elite of Washington. Through Elizabeth's narrative, we learn how Lincoln's assassination devastated Mary and led gradually to the unraveling of her life.

Although the main relationship in the novel is that between Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln, Chiaverini also gives us glimpses of the relationship between Mary and her husband Abe Lincoln. The integrity, intelligence and wit of President Lincoln is portrayed, as well as his devotion to his sons, and his tender but firm way with his wife. We also see, through the eyes of Elizabeth just how burdensome the Civil War period was to President Lincoln who was criticized for his views on slavery and on the management of the war between the North and South. Chiaverini is able to bring to life these historical figures in a way the is wonderfully realistic. Her presentations of Mary, President Lincoln, their children, and Elizabeth Keckley are complex and believable.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker provides insight into how the war affected the nation as well as how it split apart families and friends. Much like World War I fifty years later, both sides felt they could overcome the other quickly. Incredibly, as in the Battle of Bull Run, residents of Washington traveled to the battlefield to watch, as if they were attending the theatre. Instead it turned into the bloodiest battle in American history, at that point and changed both sides view of the war which was to become a four year bloodbath that saw many lose fathers and ef that they had the right to own slaves. Chiaverini uses Elizabeth to convey to her readers the enormous suffering the Civil War caused on a personal level. When Elizabeth learns that her son, George, has been able to pass himself off as a white man and enlist, she has mixed feelings; terrified that she may lose him, but recognizing that he has a duty to help those of his race, not yet free.

This well-written novel will appeal to readers of historical fiction, and those with a particular interest in Civil War history and the emancipation of slaves.Highly recommended!

You can read Elizabeth Keckley's book at Gutenberg: Barbara Hambly's The Emancipator's Wife is a historical fiction about Mary Todd Lincoln. To see pictures of the dresses Elizabeth Keckley sewed for First Lady, Mary Lincoln, go to

And those interested in learning more about Lincoln are directed to read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Book Details:
Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
New York: Dutton 2013
356 pp.

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