Historical Fiction: Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, by Jennifer Chiaverini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1868, seamstress and former slave Elizabeth Keckley (she, herself, spelled it Keckly) did the unthinkable, when she had the audacity to write a memoir of her life in general and her years in the White House in particular. She would soon regret it, or at least regret her honesty and her misplaced trust her publisher. Drawing primarily from that memoir, author Jennifer Chiaverini has written a fictional account of her life from 1860 to her death in 1907, and although the perspective is primarily Elizabeth’s, appears to have provided a fair picture of the tumultuous life of Mary Lincoln as First Lady.

Her engagement to serve as Mary’s “modiste” was quite a feather in Elizabeth’s   cap, contributing greatly to the success of her dressmaking business. Mary quickly came to rely upon her for much more than her sewing skills. Mary was never well accepted into the society of the capitol, and Elizabeth became her truest friend and confidante. She also gained great insight into the character of Abraham Lincoln. Each woman was remarkable in her own right, for very different reasons, and each suffered substantially in the years following the President’s assassination.

Ms. Chiaverini writes a series of historical novels involving quilting during the Civil War, and Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is produced in the same simple, cozy style. Apparently, she couldn’t resist including a few slow chapters on the making of a quilt said to have been designed especially for Mary by Elizabeth, although she never managed to give it to her. What this book does well is paint a picture of race relations during the Civil War era; particularly evocative are the passages on the derogatory and overtly racist public reaction to the memoir, and on the difficulties Mary and Elizabeth encountered when traveling together. Mary is sympathetically portrayed as a well-meaning woman who did many fine things, but who undermined her popularity through her own behavior, likely due to bipolar disorder. Less uniformly successful is the portrayal of the personality of Elizabeth. Her extraordinary accomplishments are justly explicated, but the character herself comes across as a candidate for sainthood.

No book, of course, is perfect, and this is a story well worth reading. Elizabeth Keckley deserves a prominent place in the history of her era, and Mary Lincoln a more compassionate image, as Jennifer Chiaverini has demonstrated.


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