Author Talk: January 24, 2013
Jennifer Chiaverini takes a break from her bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series to pen MRS. LINCOLN’S DRESSMAKER, which chronicles the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, a slave who earned her freedom through her skill with a needle and thread. In this interview, Chiaverini talks about her inspiration for the book, which is her first stand-alone historical novel. She also explains why the First Lady remains an enigma, despite the volumes of historical and psychological research devoted to her; describes the bond --- and eventual falling out --- between Mary and Elizabeth; and pinpoints what it is about the antebellum and Civil War eras that especially intrigue her as a writer.
Question: MRS. LINCOLN’S DRESSMAKER chronicles the friendship between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, who was born a slave and earned her freedom through her skill with a needle. What brought this story to your attention, and how did it inspire your first stand-alone historical novel?
Jennifer Chiaverini: More than a decade ago, I was researching antebellum and Civil War era quilts for my fourth novel when I discovered a photograph of an antique masterpiece. Arranged in the medallion style, with appliquéd eagles, embroidered flowers, meticulously-pieced hexagons, and deep red fringe, the quilt was the work of a gifted needleworker, its striking beauty unmarred by the shattered silk and broken threads that gave evidence to its age. The caption noted that the quilt had been sewn from scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln’s gowns by her dressmaker and confidante, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley. I marveled at the compelling story those brief lines suggested --- a courageous woman’s rise from slavery to freedom, an improbable friendship that ignored the era’s sharp distinctions of class and race, the confidences shared between a loyal dressmaker and a controversial, divisive First Lady. What I would give, I thought, to have been present as Elizabeth Keckley measured Mary Lincoln for a new gown, to overhear their conversations on topics significant and ordinary, to observe the Lincoln White House from such an intimate perspective. From that moment, my interest in their remarkable friendship was captivated, and it never really waned.
Q: Readers may be surprised to learn that Elizabeth Keckley was not only an accomplished modiste and businesswoman, but also a published author. Was meeting a historical figure through her own words different than encountering her via more distant historical sources?
JC: A few years after I learned about the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt, I was researching a Civil War novel set on the Pennsylvania home front when I realized that many of my secondary sources cited the same work --- BEHIND THE SCENES, OR, THIRTY YEARS A SLAVE, AND FOUR YEARS IN THE WHITE HOUSE, a memoir published in 1868 by Elizabeth Keckley. Struck by the familiar name, I immediately found a reprint and plunged into her story, which told of her harrowing years as a slave, her difficult struggle for freedom, and her ascendance as the most popular dressmaker of Washington’s social elite, including the new president’s wife. Sewing in the Lincoln family’s chambers within the White House, dressing Mrs. Lincoln for balls and receptions, Keckley observed Abraham and Mary Lincoln in their most private, unguarded moments, and with them she witnessed some of the most glorious and most tragic events in the nation’s history. Reading the story of her life in her own words made her experiences more immediate and more compelling, and for a long time afterward, I longed to delve more deeply into Elizabeth Keckley’s history, to learn about the woman she was beyond her friendship with Mary Lincoln, to discover what had happened after the closing passages of her memoir, and to uncover the details of everyday life in wartime Washington she had omitted.
Q: President Lincoln is often characterized by his calm, thoughtful, and wise demeanor. The same, however, can’t be said for Mrs. Lincoln. In MRS. LINCOLN’S DRESSMAKER, you paint a picture of a complex, yet fascinating woman with mood swings and emotional outbursts but who also possesses a strong and confident presence. Can you describe your insights on her character? Why is she such an intriguing person, not just in your book but also in history?
JC: Despite the volumes of historical and psychological research devoted to Mary Lincoln, she remains an enigma. She was the first wife of a US president to be called First Lady, and she was then and remains to this day one of the most controversial. Regrettably, descriptions of her tend to fall into the extremes of caricature: She is either portrayed as an unstable, shrill, vicious, corrupt shrew who made President Lincoln utterly miserable, or as a devoted wife and mother and a brilliant, shrewd, political helpmeet whose reputation was savaged by biased male historians. As a friend and confidante who observed Mary Lincoln closely in moments of triumph as well as tragedy, Elizabeth Keckley knew her as a real woman, full of flaws and virtues and surprises like any other. It was this far more nuanced woman that Elizabeth Keckley depicted in the pages of her memoir, and since Elizabeth Keckley is my narrator, I shaped the character of Mary Lincoln according to her perceptions.
Q: Mrs. Lincoln chose Elizabeth Keckley first for her superior dressmaking skills; later for her confidence and friendship. Despite differences in temperament, status, and race, each woman made profound sacrifices for her country. Was it shared experience that cemented their bond?
JC: Shared experiences certainly strengthened their bond, and for as long as their relationship endured, it was, for the most part, mutually beneficial. Mary Lincoln provided Elizabeth Keckley with opportunities for social and economic advancement she probably could not have even imagined during her years as a slave, while Elizabeth offered Mary the loyal, steadfast friendship she craved but had always found so elusive. But Mary assumed that the faithful Elizabeth would keep their shared experiences confidential. Loyalty meant everything to Mary, which is why their friendship could not survive the publication of Elizabeth’s memoir. Elizabeth claimed to have written her memoir in part to place Mary “in a better light before the world,” but since she was determined to write the truth, her portrayal was often unflattering. As publication day approached, Elizabeth worried that she might be criticized for revealing too much about the private lives of President Lincoln and the First Lady. “I have been prompted by the purest motive,” she defended herself in the book’s preface. “A breach of trust --- if breach it can be called --- of this kind is always excusable.” Understandably, Mary did not agree, and her sense of betrayal was so profound that she abruptly severed ties with the woman she had once considered her “best and kindest friend.” For the rest of her life, she rebuffed Elizabeth’s attempts to reconcile.
Q: History has a way of offering its lessons in the way of recognizable trends and patterns. Elizabeth Keckley’s story was largely lost to history, yet it has recently been restored, through efforts to restore her gravesite, and now your novel. What do you regard as her legacy?
JC: Certainly her writing is a significant part of her legacy. Despite the vitriol of her critics and Robert Lincoln’s efforts to rid the world of BEHIND THE SCENES, Elizabeth Keckley’s memoir, so denounced in its time, is today respected for its invaluable insights into the Lincoln White House. The influence she had upon President Lincoln --- not in any official role of advisor, but rather through her presence and conversation, making him better aware of the needs of the African-American community --- and how it might have informed his opinions and thus guided his policy decisions is another. Another part of her legacy --- perhaps impossible to measure --- springs from her role as a teacher, not only in her later years, when she worked as a domestic arts instructor at Wilberforce University, but also and especially when she taught sewing, reading, and other important skills to the former slaves living in Washington’s overcrowded refugee camps. She helped countless numbers of women gain the skills and knowledge they needed to build better lives for themselves and their families in the new world of freedom.
Q: Entertainment Weekly has recently described President Lincoln as “having a moment.” Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film Lincoln has renewed interest in this renowned figure in American history. From your experience in writing about him and his era, what has brought his Presidency back into cultural consideration?
JC: Although interest certainly has escalated recently, Abraham Lincoln has always loomed large in the American imagination, perhaps because his story is so quintessentially American --- from humble beginnings, through hard work and perseverance, he rose to success and renown. His tragic assassination just as the dawn of peace rose above the horizon only enhances his legend, because we will forever wonder what might have been, what else he would have accomplished had he lived. He consistently ranks at or near the top in national surveys rating the presidents on their greatness, their achievements, their leadership, and even those who disagree with his methods acknowledge that he saw the country through its most serious national crisis. The story of his presidency is especially relevant today, as the United States grapples with many of the same issues President Lincoln faced --- matters of race, of the gulf between socioeconomic classes, of the role of government and the presidency, and of the challenge of fostering democracy in a nation of deeply divided citizens.
Q: Your New York Times bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series has frequently drawn on history to great acclaim, and your passion for the American people, their struggles and triumphs, shines through. What is it about the antebellum and Civil War eras, especially, that intrigues you as a writer?
JC: The antebellum and Civil War eras were a tumultuous and transformative time for our nation, showing the best and worst of humanity in stark contrast. Looking back, we discover great moral failings alongside true heroism in the struggle for justice, equality, and freedom. My personal heroes are people who face adversity with moral courage and dignity, whose hunger for justice and compassion for others lead them to stand up for what is right even at great risk to themselves. My favorite characters to write about either possess similar qualities, or are given the opportunity to summon up these qualities and do what is right but fall short. What slavery, the Underground Railroad, secession, and the Civil War say about our country --- that we are capable of both great moral failings and tremendous goodness --- resonates strongly even today, perhaps especially today, and as a creative person, I am drawn to explore and try to understand that conflict.
Q: What is your next work of fiction? Can readers expect to meet another remarkable yet little known figure from America’s past?
JC: My next novel, THE SPYMISTRESS (Dutton, October 2013), will explore the suspenseful, clandestine life of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union loyalist who was General Grant’s most valuable spy in her native Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital during the tumultuous years of the Civil War.