Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

17 Apr

953616_w185In March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln chose Elizabeth 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.

jenniferJennifer Chiaverini is the author of the New York Times bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series, as well as five collections of quilt patterns inspired by her novels. Her original quilt designs have been featured in Country WomanQuiltmakerQuiltmaker’s 100 Blocks Volumes 3-5, and Quilt, and her short stories have appeared in Quiltmaker and Quilters Newsletter. She has taught writing at Penn State and Edgewood College and designs the Elm Creek Quilts fabric lines from Red Rooster Fabrics. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin.

My Impressions:

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is this month’s selection for my book club, Page Turners. So far word on the street has been mixed: some find it fascinating, others boring. I am in the first category. I knew absolutely nothing about Elizabeth Keckley and very little about Mary Todd Lincoln. What I did know about Mrs. Lincoln was rumor and innuendo — she seems to have been a very divisive force in the Lincoln presidency.

The book opens in Washington City a few months before the election of Abraham Lincoln. Rumors of secession are flying and Elizabeth Keckley, as seamstress to some of Washington’s elite ladies, hears bits and pieces of the political wrangling. Keckley is a freed slave, who bought both her and her son’s freedom. Her excellence as a seamstress provides entree into the homes and lives of the powerful, including the White House. Her unique role as modiste to Mrs. Lincoln, allows for her to become much more than a tradeswoman, she becomes part of the family. Keckley becomes a confidante and supporter that  bespoke the unlikely relationship that developed between the two women. The book treats Keckley in a most favorable light. Mrs. Lincoln is treated fairly — her foibles offset by the tragic circumstances of her life. I cannot help but think that Mary Todd Lincoln’s life could have been different with modern therapy and anti-depressants.

The book follows the historical record accurately and the fictionalized parts seem natural. If you are a fan of historical fiction or have an interest in the larger than life figures of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, I recommend you read Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.


(I purchased this book for my Kindle. The opinions expressed are mine alone.)

To purchase Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, click on the image below.

4 Responses to “Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker”

  1. hopeinbrazil April 19, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    I read Keckley’s book a few years ago and I’m glad someone turned her story into a novel so that more people will know about it. Both Keckley and Mary Todd were fascinating ladies.

  2. Amy @ Hope Is the Word April 19, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

    This sounds good’

  3. Sue April 21, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

    I agree with the commenter who said both Keckley and M. Lincoln were fascinating people, but I found this novel to be slow, stiff and not as creative as Chiaverini’s other books. I feel she got caught up in the need to be historically accurate and lost the ability to create the lively interaction that you must have in fiction. When I posted a review of this title, I mentioned that I had read pieces of Keckley’s original book and felt the friendship between the two women was compelling and deep. I am not sure Chiaverini captures that, but I am so glad that today’s readers are getting a chance to learn of this relationship. I only wish we could see the dresses themselves – the seams, fabrics, and trims. And the politics and human interplay of the day- was Washington ever a simple seat of government?

    • rbclibrary April 22, 2013 at 6:26 am #

      I agree about the dresses! And your thought on Washington . . . not so different today is it? Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts.

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