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New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini illuminates the extraordinary friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a former slave who won her freedom by the skill of her needle, and the friendship of the First Lady by her devotion.
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. Â 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.
About The Author JENNIFER CHIAVERINI is the author of the New York Times bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series, as well as five collections of quilt projects inspired by the novels. Her original quilt designs have been featured in Country Woman, Quiltmaker, and Quilt, and her short stories have appeared in Quiltmaker and Quilters Newsletter. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin.
Reviews Publishers Weekly
Elizabeth "Lizzy" Keckley, a freed slave in Washington, D.C., right before the start of the Civil War, gains fame as a dressmaker for Northerners and Southerners alike, but when Lincoln is elected and the Southerners secede, she chooses to remain in Washington. She becomes the modiste for Mary Todd Lincoln and is privy to the innermost workings of the Lincoln White House, Mary Todd's reckless spending, President Lincoln's death, and his widow's subsequent penury. When Lizzy writes a memoir about her experiences, she's denigrated by the public (which derides it as "Kitchen and Bed-Chamber Literature") for betraying the Lincoln confidences even though she casts Mary Todd in a favorable light. Chiaverini's characterization of the relationship between Mary Todd and Lizzy, a real historical figure, is nuanced, revealing a friendship that is at times unstable and fraught with class distinctions but also warm and protective. Though not without its problems (characters are insulated from the worst of the war; Lizzy is curiously passive; the pacing can be slow), Chiaverini deviates from her usual focus on quilting (found in the Elm Creek Quilts series) to create a welcome historical. Agent: Maria Massie, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (Jan.) Library Journal
Elizabeth Keckley, born a slave who later purchased her freedom, lived a life that was charmed in many ways. Her talents as a seamstress gained her entrÃ©e into the dressing rooms of the wives of the political elite in Washington. By far her most famous and long-lasting association was with Mary Todd Lincoln, wife then widow of the 16th President. Chiaverini steps away from her popular "Elms Creek Quilt" series to explore this relationship in this absorbing stand-alone historical novel.
Verdict Taking readers through times of war and peace as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary woman, the author brings Civil War Washington to vivid life through her meticulously researched authentic detail. Chiaverini's characters are compelling and accurate; the reader truly feels drawn into the intimate scenes at the White House. Historical fiction fans will enjoy this one, while Chiaverini's devoted readers may be adventurous enough to try something new. [See Prepub Alert, 8/16/12.]-Pam O'Sullivan, SUNY Coll. at Brockport Lib.(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Kirkus Reviews
From the intimate domestic circles of the political elite, a dressmaker witnesses the upheavals of 19th-century America. Chiaverini (The Giving Quilt, 2012, etc.) sets aside her Elm Creek Quilts series for this historical novel about
Elizabeth Keckley. Drawing upon the rich milieu of Civil War America, as well as Keckley's own memoir (published in 1868 as Behind the Scenes), Chiaverini weaves the story of a woman who lived as both slave and freedwoman. Elizabeth learns her trade by making clothes for her fellow slaves, and once freed, she plies her needle so skillfully that the wives of Republicans and Democrats clamor for her designs. Varina, the second wife of Jefferson Davis, even seeks to take Elizabeth with her to Montgomery when the South secedes and her husband becomes president of the Confederacy. Despite her desire to journey with Varina, Elizabeth decides to stay in Washington, since traveling further South will erase most of her freedoms. Her decision leads to her new position as Mary Todd Lincoln's modiste. Elizabeth not only designs and sews Mary's clothes, but she also arranges her hair, helps her dress, cares for her children at times and becomes her confidante. As others nearly shun Mary for her extravagances during wartime, not to mention her mercurial personality, she relies more and more heavily upon Elizabeth. Their relationship affords an interesting perspective for viewing the cultural and social turmoil of the times, for no matter how much Elizabeth is respected for her skills and no matter how intimately Mary trusts her with her confidences, Elizabeth remains a former slave, and she must be reminded of her place. While the backdrop is strikingly vivid, Chiaverini's domestic tale dawdles too often in the details of dress fittings and quilt piecings, leaving Elizabeth's emotional terrain glimpsed but not traveled. I'm trying to get through this book because there is so much information regarding the battles and people and very little about the relationship between the two women! I'll try reading the book a little bit more but am disappointed in it so far compared to Ms. Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilt series which I LOVE! I thought it was just me, but apparently after reading most reviews here others share the same concerns....
This book was so well written I had to remind myself several times it was fiction. I love historical novels. This one had a great blend of historical fact, conversation and emotion that I couldn't put it down.
I read this story back in collage as part of a of an English Class on woman that contributed it our American history. we only read a few select chapters it was interesting how; what would be considered a simple dress maker could have on history and all that she accomplished for an Africa American woman of the time was almost unheard of at that time period. I'm sorry to say i never got to read the rest of the book a friend borrowed it to try to inspire another friend and it was never returned. i will most likely buy the book again to fine out the rest of this amazing life of this unique woman.
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