In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, a historical fiction novel that profiles the life of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini resists telling Keckley’s story as a hero’s journey arc in favor of a more complicated, seering heroine’s journey. Keckley, an African American lived from 1818 to 1907. She lived as a slave for thirty-seven years before earning her freedom by becoming an expert seamstress for wealthy women in the pre-civil war Washington D.C. area.
When Abraham Lincoln is elected President, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln selects Keckley from among numerous applicants to be her personal “modiste.” As her modiste, Keckley has the responsibility for designing and creating the First Lady’s gowns and dressing her for important occasions. Mary Todd Lincoln is viewed as an outsider by Washington society women, and Keckley becomes the First Lady’s trusted confidante. If the story had ended here, it would be a hero’s journey arc – e.g., former slave overcomes great odds to become a member of the White House’s trusted staff through her own ingenuity and skill during the years in which Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation. But Keckley’s life and Chiaverini’s story are more complex and don’t end with Keckley becoming a celebrated seamstress and Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante.
Mrs. Lincoln was a complicated woman with many physical maladies who never fully recovered from her grief of losing her youngest son shortly after Lincoln was elected President. Keckley’s son dies in the Civil War, but but Mrs. Lincoln is so fraught by her own grief that she cannot empathize with Keckley or the thousands of other mothers whose sons are killed in the war. Her husband’s assassination as she sits next to him is yet another terrible blow. Mrs. Lincoln is portrayed as being unprepared to leave the White House and live on her own after her husband’s assassination. She has grown psychologically dependent on Keckley’s support, so Keckley reluctantly agrees to accompany her to Chicago although Mrs. Lincoln is unable to consistently pay her.
Chiaverini chronicles Keckley’s post-White House life with the increasingly debt-ridden and mentally compromised Mrs. Lincoln. When the money runs out, Keckley tries to earn a living by writing her remembrances of her time in the White House, by writing her remembrances o her time in the White House, but is betrayed by her publisher. Although Keckley intends her portray Mrs. Lincoln with sympathy, the book causes a public outrage in large part because Keckley, an unschooled African American, has dared to give voice to her impressions o the inner workings of the White House. Moreover, her publisher ignores her instructions and adds the contents of Mrs. Lincoln’s confidential letters to Keckley. Not only does Keckley fail to earn any much-needed money from the book, she is scorned by the public and Mrs. Lincoln refuses forgive her, see her, or believe in her good intentions. The novel follows Keckley’s subsequent efforts to recover her life as an independent seamstress and her years as a dressmaking instructor in a college. When she suffers a stroke, she is gain without means and is forced to reside at the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children a few blocks from the White House. Keckley endures a multitude of hopes and heartbreaks, and Chiaverini offers no “final” triumph (or failure).
In the book’s final chapter, Chiaverini depicts Keckley, then in her 80’s, being interviewed by a young reporter who asks what it is like to be so famous. Keckley is described as being fully aware of the world as it is—fame and fortune can wax and wane. Effort, intention, and justice play a role, but success is often short-lived and followed by heartbreak. Keckley informs the reporter that knowing famous people does not mean that she herself was famous, and that it would be fool hardy to take pride in something so fickle and fleeting as fame.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker closes with an affirmation of the complexity and dignity of Keckley’s whole life, including her losses. Instead of focusing on Keckley’s unusual role in the White House, Chiaverini observes that “[Keckley] had lived a full and fascinating life. She had known the most remarkable people of the age, and she had never refused to help the humble and down trodden. Despite its disappointments and losses and heartbreaks, she would not have wished her life a single day shorter—nor, when the time came for her to join the many friends and loved ones who had gone on before her, would she demand an hour more.”
To learn more about Jennifer Chiaverini and/or read Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, consult your local library or go to https://jenniferchiaverini.com.