Jennifer Chiaverini began researching Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker long before she knew of the Lincoln movie, so the fortuitous timing of the novel’s release is an accident of fate, destined to vault this historical fiction to heights it would be unable to achieve on its own.
Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker was Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a former slave who purchased her freedom and that of her son and became the seamstress not only for Mary Todd Lincoln but for the wives of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. For Mrs. Lincoln, however, Keckley was not just an employee, but a confidante, providing friendship and support to an unpopular and often unstable First Lady.
In the Academy Award-nominated film Lincoln, Keckley, played by Gloria Reuben, is a constant at Mrs. Lincoln’s side. Keckley’s story is remarkable, not just for her relationship with the Lincolns but for her work founding the Contraband Relief Association, which assisted freed slaves, and for the book she wrote about her years in the White House. Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House was perhaps the first American tell-all memoir, and controversy over it dogged Keckley, then and still. She’s a fascinating figure, a treasure of American history well worth 350 pages, but alas, Chiaverini’s treatment of her story feels like twice that.
Part of the problem is the genre itself. Historical fiction demands so much of the reader, asking us to do the work of investigating what really happened and what the author makes up for the sake of the story. By the time we’ve Wikipedia’d this and IMDB’ed that, we return to the prose desperate for a riveting story, and in that, this book spectacularly fails us. It is, at times, like reading a high-school history text, made tolerable only because the main characters are so compelling.
A sample: “But even as General Early’s forces reached the breastworks at Fort Stevens and he began gathering his troops for a full-scale attack, Union reinforcements from the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps under Major General Horatio G. Wright began arriving in southwest Washington by steamer. The numbers of these desperately needed veteran fighters were few, but General Early must not have known that, because after two days of skirmishing … he withdrew before dawn on the morning of July 13, so stealthily and unexpectedly that the Union defenders did not realize the Confederates had gone until it grew light enough to look out from the fort and see that they had disappeared.”
Wake us, please, when the war is over.
Chiaverini is accomplished enough not to write with clichés, but there’s something banal and predictable in her style here (lips are pressed tightly together, excited crowds mill about), and the novel bewilders in its pacing. The promotion of Keckley from job interviewee to trusted modiste, for example, takes place in eight pages, nowhere in which does Chiaverini convey an escalating intimacy, an emotional connection that transcends workmanlike words, for either the women in question or for her readers. We long for a little emoting, for Chiaverini to run with the license that historical fiction extends. Even material inherently rich with emotion — for example, the deaths of Keckley’s son on the battlefield and Willie Lincoln, who succumbed to typhoid fever at age 11 — cannot induce a tear here. The author seems torn between telling the truth and telling a good story, and alas, she does neither.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is said to be Chiaverini’s first “non-series” book. She has written 19 (19!) other novels, astonishingly all connected to quilting. The first one came out in 1999, and since then, she’s written at least one new book a year, sometimes more, all with titles like The Sugar Camp Quilt, The Aloha Quilt and Circle of Quilters. Her new novel, too, emerged from a quilt: one stitched by Keckley from remnants of Mrs. Lincoln’s gowns. She read a description of it while doing research for a quilting novel and, intrigued, found Keckley’s memoir and had the idea for this book. It’s a good one — the idea, that is — just not so much the actual book. History buffs, nonetheless, will love it, as will women who read novels about quilting. For everyone else, there’s Keckley’s actual memoir, and a couple of nonfiction books about the relationship between the dressmaker and the First Lady, which give us the scoop without need of a sifter. C