Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

Good historical fiction weaves intense research in with excellent characterization, so that the reader not only gets historical facts, but also the flavor of what life was like and a sense of the people who inhabited the era. Unfortunately, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker doesn’t even come close to doing justice to a fascinating time period, characters, or historical issues.

The book is set just before the Civil War up through the later 1800s, and purports to tell the story of a former slave (and actual historical figure) who had purchased her own freedom, built a successful dressmaking business, and wound up creating the gowns of Jefferson Davis’s wife before the War and Abraham Lincoln’s wife during it (plus dressmaking for lots of other important people).  The subject matter is rich–I would have thought this novel would practically write itself–I was looking forward to really getting a feel for what life was like for freed slaves in Washington, DC during the Civil War, how that status, plus being a woman, influenced and impacted the main character’s entrepreneurship, what the relationships were like between high status white women and the dressmaker, details about fashions and the art of dressmaking at the time, and insight into Mary Todd Lincoln, who was an interesting and somewhat notorious figure.

Sadly, and incomprehensibly, the novel doesn’t go into any of that.  The characters remained two dimensional (if that) throughout the book and the first three-quarters of the book was almost purely a data dump with a light overlay of pasted on bits about the dressmaker or the other figures.  It read like an elementary level history textbook, and not a particularly well written one at that.  The author gave the main characters anachronistic views and actions, credited them with having knowledge they almost certainly would not have had for the sake of dropping in more historical information, and completely skipped anything that might have offered insight into the characters or issues or details of the era.

I read this book on in Kindle format, and by about 20% in I wanted to quit.  However, one of the book clubs I’m in is reading this book for July so I pressed on.  Mostly I watched the percent counter eke upward, longing for the book to end.  Finally it did, to my relief.

To be honest, I’m perplexed about this book.  The author has written some 20 other novels, which are reported to be good.  The subject matter is rich, the premise excellent, and the title intriguing.  However, the book completely fell flat in my opinion and I would not recommend it.  If you’ve read the book and felt differently, please feel free to chime in and let me know what I missed, or, if you have other favorite historical fiction with a similar subject, please share your suggestions!


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3 thoughts on “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

  1. Thanks for your review. I was wavering on whether to read this or not, since I cannot make it to the book club meeting for our discussion. I did read on-line somewhere that if you are wanting the story, your best bet is to read Elizabeth Keckley’s book, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (what a horrid title). I was able to get it for free on Amazon, although I don’t know if that offer still stands. Haven’t read it either, but thought it worthwhile to access it anyway.

  2. I have not read that book in particular, but I have read some of her Elm Creek books which are okay for somewhat mindless reading.

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