Redress for a dressmaker
BY PAULA WOLF, Staff Writer
One of the byproducts of Steven Spielberg's epic film "Lincoln" has been an awakening of interest in other people in the Lincoln White House. They include Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and confidante, the former slave Elizabeth Keckley.
Keckley was a minor but memorable character in Spielberg's movie and also is featured in a couple of recent plays. So Jennifer Chiaverini's new historical novel, "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker," is timely.
The author of 21 novels, including The New York Times best-selling Elm Creek Quilts series, Chiaverini said in an interview with the Times that she was researching books set during the Civil War and kept coming across secondary sources that relied on the talented dressmaker. Keckley, born a slave, purchased her freedom by earning money from her labors.
After reading Keckley's 1868 memoir of her White House years, "Behind the Scenes," Chiaverini was inspired to pen her novel.
The tome imagines scenes between Mrs. Lincoln and Keckley, in which they discuss everything from the state of the war to the first lady's constant concern about her husband's health and safety.
"Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" takes the reader through all the major events of the Civil War, as well as the tribulations of the Lincoln family, including the death of son Willie and the assassination of the president.
Prior to this, I never read any of Chiaverini's books, but I like the easy manner in which she writes, with little wasted verbiage.
The novel portrays a complicated but-not-unsympathetic Mrs. Lincoln, whose struggles with overspending and mental illness have been well documented. Yet she also comes across as an intelligent woman who is just as committed to the Union cause as her husband is, despite her Southern background.
President Lincoln is more than an ancillary character in the book; in their encounters, he always treats Keckley with respect and kindness, and she reveres him.
"Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" may rehabilitate the first lady's reputation somewhat, but it does even more for Keckley's. She was vilified in the post-Civil War press -- much of the criticism had racist overtones -- for publishing her memoir.