Last week, a neighbor pressed into my hands this book which she had checked out at the library. We use different library systems, and mine doesn’t have it. So, this became my Week 9 read.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is a historical novel about Elizabeth Keckley who was born a slave, bought her freedom with her dressmaking work, moved to Washington, D.C. and built up a clientele among the “finest ladies” in society. This brought her to the attention of Mary Lincoln when Abraham was elected President and the Lincolns moved into the White House.
Much of the source material for this novel is the memoir that Keckley wrote after her time in the White House and the days of her continued association with Mary Lincoln following the assassination of the President. It was the publication of that memoir that caused an irreparable break between the two.
Chiaverini is definitely in Keckley’s corner as it regards this complicated relationship. Keckley apparently went above and beyond to protect and serve Mary Lincoln, and Mary generally was a person who took up all the air in a room when she entered it. She expected Keckley to drop everything (Who cares about your business? I need you.) when she summoned her to come to NYC, to Chicago, etc.
I thought that Keckley was going to be presented as a person without a single fault, but there was a little more nuance toward the end of the book. It would be difficult not to fall in love with your subject with a story like this one. Remarkable accomplishment in this long life. And to think that Keckley died at the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children (age of eighty-nine.)
The writing in this book is the writing I often expect to see in a book that has this written across its cover: “New York Times Bestselling Author.” Not in any way surprising, but not without its merits. It did make me think of the great sweep of this disaster of American inequality, something I think about every day.