'Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker' by Jennifer Chiaverini
Published on Thursday, April 25, 2013 - 10:29am
In her first historical novel, best selling author Jennifer Chiaverini writes about Elizabeth (Lizzie) Hobbs Keckley, an African-American modiste who lived in Washington, D.C. for many years. A former slave, Mrs. Keckley sewed gowns for the women of Washington. Her numerous clients included First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Varina Davis, wife of Senator Jefferson Davis, Mrs. Robert E. Lee, and other leading society ladies of the day. It is her life and her friendship with Mrs. Lincoln which is the subject of Chiaverini's novel Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker.
Besides her dressmaking business, Elizabeth Keckley was actively involved in her community; she founded the Contraband Relief Association, which assisted newly freed African-Americans who arrived in D.C. during the Civil War.
After President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Keckley followed the widowed Mrs. Lincoln and her two surviving sons, Robert and Tad, to Chicago and lived there for a time. Eventually she returned to Washington. In 1868, she published her memoir, Behind the Scenes, which unfortunately damaged her long friendship with Mrs. Lincoln. Keckley continued to sew and taught college-level classes for a time.
I enjoyed reading this novel very much. It provided a well-detailed description of life in Washington City (as it was then called) and the Lincolns' residency in the White House. Prior to the Civil War, D.C. was a small, sleepy capitol city with a population of 70,080, according to the 1860 federal census. A number of local landmarks are mentioned throughout the novel, some still exist, others no longer. Mrs. Lincoln's discomfort and repeated social clashes with Washington society has been well documented in history and is depicted in the novel. The passage and signing by President Abraham Lincoln of the D.C. Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 is described; this was the local precursor to the Emancipation Proclamation, which he later signed on Jan. 1, 1863. Those who are fans of Chiaverini's "Elm Creek Quilts" novels will see a nod to quilt-making in the novel.
With the ongoing 150th anniversary of the Civil War, this novel will be of interest to those who are reading historical fiction or non-fiction about that time period.
You can find this novel listed in the DC By the Book project. While you're there, check out the listings of other novels set here in D.C.