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Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker    by Jennifer Chiaverini order for
Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker
by Jennifer Chiaverini
Order:  USA  Can
Dutton, 2013 (2013)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Here's a different, yet engaging take on the Lincoln White House. Jennifer Chiaverini's Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is told from the point of view of former slave Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. After exploiting her skills as a seamstress to purchase her freedom, she ended up sewing for the Washington elite, including Jefferson Davis's wife Varina. In March 1861, she was chosen to be First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln's modiste, a relationship that grew into friendship.

Though this is fiction it is based on a true story (covered in an Author's Note at the back of the book) - freedwoman Elizabeth Keckley did indeed run a dressmaking business in Washington, D.C.. She become Mary Lincoln's modiste, trusted friend and confidante. And she eventually wrote a memoir, Behind the Scenes, about her White House years.

Through Elizabeth's apprehensive eyes, we watch the early days of the Lincoln presidency and the onset of the Civil War. Young men of color (including Elizabeth's son George) who tried to enlist were turned away. Washington grew increasingly isolated, fearing imminent Confederate invasion. And high society women gave Mary Lincoln the cold shoulder, gossiping about her unrestrained spending on refurbishing the White House, and about her familial ties to the Confederacy.

Both Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Lincoln faced personal tragedy during the war years. And, though she had tremendous respect for the President, Elizabeth was disappointed by his early reluctance to support 'immediate and total emancipation'. When he did, Washington became 'the refuge of contraband, runaways, and freedmen emigrating from slave states.' Elizabeth and others worked to support the Contraband Relief Association, to ease their lot.

I was fascinated to read that President Lincoln had advocated 'for the colonization of freed slaves in Africa or Central America'. I learned a great deal of history while enjoying this novel, including the surprising fact that some slaves in the South fought for the Confederacy late in the war, promised their freedom in return for enlisting. I also appreciated reading a touching letter to Mary Lincoln from Queen Victoria, who expresses sympathy though they had never met.

The novel goes beyond the time of Abraham Lincoln's presidency to show Mary Lincoln's progressive breakdown after his assassination, and her increasingly misguided attempts at raising funds afterwards. Elizabeth's motivations for writing her memoir are presented sympathetically here, though she was villified for it, and it led to a final break between Mary Lincoln and her modiste.

If you enjoy a well written historical, then I recommend Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker to you as a highly engaging read.

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