Mrs. Lincoln's DressmakerOn Election Day, Elizabeth Keckley hurried home from a mid-afternoon dress fitting to the redbrick boardinghouse on Twelfth Street where she rented two small rooms in the back. 

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is a novelized version of the story of the friendship between Mary Lincoln (Mrs. Lincoln) and her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley, a freedwoman who had a very good reputation in D.C. from outfitting the most elite in the city. 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. 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.”

The idea of this book is that Chiaverini brings this story to light, and that sounded great, but the reality of it is that apparently a lot from the book is taken directly from Keckley’s memoir. That’s not only not good fiction, it’s inherently dishonest. I mean, it’s definitely right that parts from Keckley’s memoir would be in the novel, but not so much. Also, there was the usual “this is a work of fiction note” at the front which made me laugh, because even though Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is a historical fiction, obviously the characters are historical people. 

Also, a lot of the book did feel like biography, since the book is told in the third person. Like, “her reputation grew as one delighted patron after another recommended her to their friends, and soon she had almost more work than she could handle.” That’s all right, but it would have fit a biography much better. The style actually reminded me of Eighty Days, which I loved, but it’s not very fiction-like. It felt like a biography with a bit of dialogue added in. 

That said, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker was definitely an interesting novel, and I learned a lot about what the White House was like during the Civil War. The characters did feel a little flat, and the style left much to be desired, but the book was still entertaining enough. I may pick up Elizabeth Keckley’s own memoirs. 

I also loved the descriptions of the fancy dresses that Elizabeth makes for her customers; it also really showed the attitudes of the wealthy towards black people and the war. Despite the war, they still want elaborate things to wear. But it was also just fun to read about them. 

I did feel at times that the friendship between Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Lincoln didn’t come to life; the relationship wasn’t really well portrayed. Despite that, the bond was interesting to read about, especially since I’d never heard of Keckley before. 

The Civil War is definitely one of the periods I’m most interested in, so I was glad that I managed to get a review copy of this one from Dutton. It was definitely worth reading, although the advertising was somewhat false. It’s a lush and absorbing historical novel. 

Read Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker:

  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like books set in the Civil War era

350 pages.

Very Good! I would recommend this book!