Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

"[An] absorbing stand-alone historical novel. Taking readers through times of war and peace as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary woman, the author brings Civil War Washington to vivid life through her meticulously researched authentic detail. Chiaverini's characters are compelling and accurate; the reader truly feels drawn into the intimate scenes at the White House." —Library Journal

In a life that spanned nearly a century and witnessed some of the most momentous events in American history, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born a slave. She earned her freedom by the skill of her needle, and won the friendship of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln by her devotion. In her sweeping historical novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini illuminates the extraordinary relationship the two women shared, beginning in the hallowed halls of the White House during the trials of the Civil War and enduring almost, but not quite, to the end of Mrs. Lincoln’s days.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker Book Club Resources

Excerpt

Elizabeth Keckley made her professional reputation in Washington, D. C., making expertly fashioned dresses for the city’s elite, among them Mrs. Jefferson Davis and Mrs. Robert E. Lee. In March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln chose her from among numerous applicants to be her personal “modiste,” responsible for creating the First Lady’s beautiful gowns and dressing her for important occasions. In this role, Elizabeth Keckley was quickly drawn into the intimate life of the Lincoln family, a clear-eyed but compassionate witness to events within the private quarters of the White House.

Ever loyal to the Union, Elizabeth Keckley hid her fears when her only son, George, enlisted with the 1st Missouri Volunteers, and his courage in battle inspired her to bold new endeavors. When tens of thousands of former slaves sought refuge in Washington, she cared for them in their squalid camps, taught them sewing and other necessary skills, founded the Contraband Relief Association—to which Mary Todd Lincoln was a generous contributor—and worked tirelessly to raise money so that the struggling freedmen could embrace their newfound liberty. All the while, Elizabeth Keckley supported the First Lady through years of war, political strife, and devastating personal losses, even as she endured heartbreaking tragedies of her own.

Even more daring, Keckley not only made history, but wrote it, in her own words. The publication of her memoir, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, placed her at the center of a scandal she never intended. The sensational fallout distanced the longtime confidantes, and for the rest of her days, Elizabeth Keckley sought redemption through living an exemplary life.

Impeccably researched and thoroughly engrossing, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker renders this singular story of intertwining lives in rich, moving style.

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Quilts

Praise

[An] enlightening new historical novel...Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker vividly imagines how the Civil War touched daily life in Washington.

— The Washingtonian

3 out of 4 stars. If you saw Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and wondered about the black woman who sits next to Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Field) up in the Congressional balcony, here's your book. A former slave, Elizabeth Keckley was a remarkably gifted seamstress who established herself in Washington, D.C., in 1860. Thanks to a recommendation from one of her clients, Keckley came to the attention of Mrs. Lincoln. Jennifer Chiaverini conveys Keckley's strength, religious faith, compassion and skill with the needle, qualities that made her invaluable to the unstable, insecure first lady. The dressmaker also became part of the Lincoln family inner circle, and so, through Keckley's eyes, we see Lincoln's presidency. We also see the widowed Mrs. Lincoln's tragic collapse. The result: an effortless history lesson filled with details about the intricate art of sewing 19th century women's clothing, as well as African-American life.

— USA Today

Chiaverini steps away from her popular "Elm Creek Quilts" series to explore this relationship in this absorbing stand-alone historical novel. Taking readers through times of war and peace as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary woman, the author brings Civil War Washington to vivid life through her meticulously researched authentic detail. Chiaverini's characters are compelling and accurate; the reader truly feels drawn into the intimate scenes at the White House. Historical fiction fans will enjoy this one, while Chiaverini's devoted readers may be adventurous enough to try something new.

— Library Journal

All the characters are brilliantly written, and readers will enjoy getting to know each and every one of them. [Chiaverini] brings to life long-forgotten snapshots of America’s past with style, grace and respect.

— RT Book Reviews

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a wonderful novel...Jennifer Chiaverini has researched her history well, and writes elegantly and formally. The perspective is third-person and emphasizes the historical and real over image and gossip. The novel paints a broad picture of what it must have been like to live in America during that age, and revisits the lives of the remaining members of the former First Family after the assassination and the election of the 17th President, Andrew Johnson. We learn of the scandals and motives behind the events that ended the long, very dear friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, and also a great deal about the First Lady and the Lincoln children in the years following the President’s death...Any reader interested in President Lincoln, Civil War history, or historical fiction should love this book.

— Bookreporter

Nuanced... a welcome historical.

— Publishers Weekly

A compelling fictional account of Keckley’s life.

— Bookpage

Chiaverini’s latest is based on the true story of Elizabeth Keckley, who bought freedom from slavery for herself and her son and went on to become a well-known modiste in Washington. Keckley had a front-row seat to history: she dressed Washington’s A-list, including Jefferson Davis’ wife before they left D.C., and, most intimately, Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln is mercurial, scheming, extravagant, and troubled, but Elizabeth stands by her as she is lambasted in the press.  Elizabeth Keckley is an admirable heroine—successful, self-made, and utterly sympathetic. Readers of the Elm Creek Quilt series who have enjoyed Chiaverini’s narrative jaunts into Civil War and Underground Railroad history will be interested in Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker—and there is even a little bit of quilting in the story. This is also a good choice for readers of Christian historical fiction, as both Elizabeth’s and Mr. Lincoln’s faiths are important elements in shaping their characters.

— Booklist

Chiaverini has drawn a loving portrait of a complex and gifted woman.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Especially good winter reading.

— Detroit Free Press

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