The astounding success of the recent blockbuster film Lincoln has made everybody even more deeply interested in the 16th President, but other versions of that history deserve readers’ attention. Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidante, the central figure of this elegant historical novel, is an extraordinary woman who most of us have never heard of. Immensely likable and dignified, Elizabeth Keckley was well known across America during the Civil War, a renowned seamstress and dressmaker, and a woman of solid character who was respected enough to cross barriers and cultures to become a daily observer of events in the White House.
MRS. LINCOLN’S DRESSMAKER represents a limited national history of America during the Lincoln era and a personal story of Keckley’s life and dreams. A former slave, Keckley bought her freedom and arose from poverty due to her own industriousness and resilience. She, as well as virtually every American in the North, saw President Lincoln as an authentic hero (for reasons both political and personal) and is rightly embodied as an everyman’s hero right alongside him in this book.
"Jennifer Chiaverini has researched her history well, and writes elegantly and formally.... Any reader interested in President Lincoln, Civil War history, or historical fiction should love this book. I enjoyed it immensely and recommend it highly."
Readers will be highly interested to know that Keckley wrote her own memoir in 1868, BEHIND THE SCENES, which survives in a museum today and forms the basis of the unique history here. The liberty of every American slave was her dream and her son’s greatest aspiration. She did live to see this happen during Lincoln’s stay in office, even while her son, a Union soldier, did not. The triumph of the victory was more meaningful because she did know the President well, having been a dear friend of Mrs. Lincoln’s during her years as the First Lady’s “personal modiste.”
Though it is not a dedicated war story, MRS. LINCOLN’S DRESSMAKER takes readers through the entirety of the Civil War with the Lincoln family filling the background and Keckley’s story in the foreground. The book covers the daily lives and challenges of ordinary Americans, including former slaves who struggled to make a living and Washington elites whose names we still know. Lincoln himself is given a fair amount of attention, detailing a number of events in his later life, intimate family details, challenges and accomplishments during his presidency, in addition to many of his most respectable and enduring philosophies and solid foundations of character that led to the ideas behind the nation we know today.
Jennifer Chiaverini has researched her history well, and writes elegantly and formally. The perspective is third-person and emphasizes the historical and real over image and gossip. The novel paints a broad picture of what it must have been like to live in America during that age, and revisits the lives of the remaining members of the former First Family after the assassination and the election of the 17th President, Andrew Johnson. We learn of the scandals and motives behind the events that ended the long, very dear friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, and also a great deal about the First Lady and the Lincoln children in the years following the President’s death.
Chiaverini shares interesting perspectives on both Honest Abe and his wife, presenting the idea that Mrs. Lincoln was disliked and so heavily disparaged by the public simply because she failed to live up to the great image of her monumentally famous husband. In a sense, she was seen as human while he had become something greater. The life and trials of Mary Todd Lincoln appear as a regular subject in this novel. We learn of her habits as First Lady (including her overspending and incursion of debt) and her less flattering personality traits, but also her more noble qualities, particularly her undying loyalty toward her family, husband, friends and country. Whatever she was, Chiaverini approaches her as admirable for her ability to truly love the great man she was married to; she lived and died an ordinary American in the shadow of an icon.
MRS. LINCOLN’S DRESSMAKER is a wonderful novel that covers many topics surrounding the events of the 1860s in Washington and the following decades. Some of these include early threats of invasion in the North, policies of the White House and civil rights laws, major events of the Civil War, abolitionism, politics between North and South, and notable happenings in the Lincoln family’s history. Any reader interested in President Lincoln, Civil War history, or historical fiction should love this book. I enjoyed it immensely and recommend it highly.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on January 24, 2013