An example of what Jennifer Chiaverini does so well in her enlightening new historical novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, occurs late in the book, when a newly widowed Mary Todd Lincoln shares a letter of condolence from Queen Victoria with her dressmaker, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley.
Mrs. Lincoln feels a kinship with the queen, who lost her own husband four years earlier, but she points out that Victoria wasn’t expected to leave her home when Prince Albert died: “‘That, Elizabeth,’ she noted with a sad, tearful smile, ‘is the difference between being a widowed First Lady of America, and a widowed Queen of England.’”
Set in the White House during Abraham Lincoln’s embattled tenure, the novel centers on the relationship between the “peculiarly constituted” Mrs. Lincoln and Keckley, whose fine skill and reasonable rates earned the First Lady’s business and whose loyalty and kindness won her friendship. For a time, at least.
Each of the women feels caught between two worlds. Mrs. Lincoln is married to the man who must save the Union, but her brother, three half brothers, and three brothers-in-law are fighting for the Confederate Army. “Union and Confederate alike,” Chiaverini writes, “each side believed her loyal to the other, and thus neither would claim her.” Meanwhile, Elizabeth—a member of Washington’s black elite by virtue of her position at the White House—finds herself “suspended in that strange middle ground between the white world and the black.”
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker vividly imagines how the Civil War touched daily life in Washington. A strong rain delivers “corpses of Union Soldiers killed weeks before at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff,” down the Potomac. Later we hear that one “undertaker fell so far behind as he raced to work through his backlog of deceased that he was briefly arrested and cited for causing a public nuisance.”
Mary Lincoln was by all accounts a difficult, complex woman. But Chiaverini—best known for her Elm Creek Quilts novels—ultimately treats her sympathetically, no doubt inspired by Keckley’s 1868 memoir. “Mrs. Lincoln may have been imprudent,” Keckley wrote, “but since her intentions were good, she should be judged more kindly than she has been.”
This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.