Review: Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

Title: Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker Image

Author: Jennifer Chiaverini

Rating: ★★★

Provided Synopsis: 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.

Review: As of 2012, the life of Abraham Lincoln has been a hot topic, especially with the heavily nominated film “Lincoln” being released by Steven Spielberg. The myth of President Lincoln is larger than his stature (and he was a tall man)! But what about his wife, Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln? How did she live? What was she like? What was her role of First Lady of the United States remembered for?

To offer a glimpse into the life inside the White House, Jennifer Chiaverini uses Elizabeth Keckley — who was Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and close friend — as her protagonist. As a former slave who had bought her freedom, Elizabeth’s story begins with Washington before the Civil War; then it goes to a time of war during the Lincoln presidency; and the time that came after the president’s assassination. Since I am no expert on this subject, I had to trust every word of Mrs. Keckley to be true — but I found that to be an easy task considering that her judgment on the events that transpired are often unbiased. Elizabeth sees the faults in Mrs. Lincoln, for there are many, and she takes time to point them out to the reader and her favorite patron.

After reading this book I find myself curious to learn more about this time period. So in that sense, I do believe that Chiaverini has created a splendid piece of historical fiction: she has created interest in these real-life characters.

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