Saturday, February 23, 2013

Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
Dutton Adult
January 2013
Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

First line: On Election Day, Elizabeth Keckley hurried home from a midafternoon dress fitting to the redbrick boardinghouse on Twelfth Street where she rented two small rooms in the back.

From the inside cover: 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. She earned her freedom by the skill of her needle and won the friendship of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln with her devotion. In her sweeping  historical novel, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini 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.

Elizabeth Keckley made her professional reputation in Washington, DC, making expertly fashioned dresses for the city's elite, among them Mrs. Jefferson Davis and Mrs. Robert E. Lee. In March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln chose her from among numerous applicants to be her personal "modiste," responsible for creating the First Lady's beautiful gowns and dressing her for important occasions. In this role, Elizabeth Keckley was quickly drawn into the intimate life of the Lincoln family, a clear-eyed but compassionate witness to events within the private quarters of the White House.

Ever loyal to the Union, Elizabeth Keckley hid her fears when her only son, George, enlisted with the First Missouri Volunteers, and his courage in battle inspired her to bold new endeavors. When tens of thousands of former slaves sought refuge in Washington, she cared for them in their squalid camps, taught them sewing and other necessary skills, founded the Contraband Relief Association - to which Mary Todd Lincoln was a generous contributor - and worked tirelessly to raise money so that the struggling freedmen could embrace their newfound liberty. All the while, Elizabeth Keckley supported the First Lady through years of war, political strife, and devastating personal losses, even as she enduring heartbreaking tragedies of her own.

Even more daring, Keckley not only made history but also wrote it, in her own words. The publication of her memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, placed her at the center of a scandal she never intended. The sensational fallout distanced her longtime confidantes, and for the rest of her days, Elizabeth Keckley sought redemption through living an exemplary life.

Impeccably researched and thoroughly engrossing, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker renders this singular story of intertwining lives in rich, moving style.

My thoughts: Oh my goodness - I loved this book. From the first page, I was completely engrossed in the story. I have recently developed a fascination with Mary Todd Lincoln after reading Timothy O'Brien's The Lincoln Conspiracy, and knew that I had to read this book. I had also recently started reading Jennifer Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilts series and already knew I liked her writing. Well, I was definitely not disappointed with this book, loving both the subject and the writing.

While this is primarily a story about Elizabeth Keckley, a slave who used her sewing skills to buy her and her son's freedom, we also get an inside look into the Lincoln's lives during their White House stay and after. Hired to be Mrs. Lincoln's personal seamstress, she also gives Mrs. Lincoln her friendship, a friendship that at times Mrs. Lincoln seems to manipulate, especially after Mr. Lincoln's death. 

Elizabeth became a regular visitor at the White House, often at the beck and call of Mrs. Lincoln. She would go to help her dress for events, take care of the Lincoln boys when they were sick, take care of everything after the death of one of the boys, and she would even comb and style Mr. Lincoln's hair, all in edition to creating dresses for Mrs. Lincoln. She knew just about everything that was going on at the White House at the time. Then, after Mr. Lincoln's death, she traveled with Mrs. Lincoln after she left the White House. It wasn't until writing her book that a unrepairable rift occurred between the two women, a rift that Elizabeth spent the rest of Mrs. Lincoln's life trying to straighten out.

I admit that I don't remember much about the events leading up to the Civil War or about Lincoln's presidency, and after getting glimpses into these events, I am left with wanting to read more. I am also curious to read more not only about Mrs. Lincoln, but about Elizabeth Keckley herself. In this book, Elizabeth comes across as a fascinating, smart woman - characteristics that were not that common among black women of this time. I loved the few descriptions we got of the actual dressmaking, but do wish we got more about this, or even that a few photos or drawings could have been included.

So now, I'm on a quest to find more books about Mrs. Lincoln and even about Elizabeth Keckley. Have you read anything about either of these two women?

(I borrowed this book from the library.)


  1. This sounds like a book that gives credit where it's due. I think I'd also find this book quite absorbing.

  2. I didn't love this so much. I was thrilled to see Jennifer Chiaverini finally branch out from the Elm Creek books, but this one didn't quite live up to my expectation. I am, however, fascinated by Elizabeth Keckley and I would love to read more about her.

  3. I haven't read anything by Jennifer Chiaverini but this book caught my attention and I hope to give it a try someday. I find the Lincolns fascinating (and am looking forward to watching the movie Lincoln). Great review!


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