Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

Written by Jennifer Chiaverini
Review by Eileen Charbonneau

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Keckley rose out of slavery to become the dressmaker for both Mrs. Jefferson Davis and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. Her life gets a fictional treatment by this author of the popular Elm Creek Quilts series. Lizzie’s story begins just before the Civil War. To stay in her tight-knit community and continue her thriving dressmaking business, she passes up the chance to travel South with Mrs. Jefferson Davis. Through her connections with the wives and daughters of the Washington elite, she becomes known to Mrs. Lincoln, who insists she accept the job of a combination of dressmaker, hairstylist, and confidante.

From then on Lizzie’s life revolves around the First Family and, after the assassination, Mrs. Lincoln in her devastating grief. Mrs. Keckley decides to write her own life story in 1868, and the revelations within cause a breach with the Lincoln family that lasts the rest of their lives. Only in her impoverished old age is Lizzie’s manuscript rediscovered and appreciated as an historical document.

Although the life of Elizabeth Keckley is full of drama and incident, this retelling suffers from a disappointing lack of intimacy, both in her own and the Lincolns’ lives. Many incidents, both historical and personal, are presented as a flat retelling instead of in-the-moment scenes. Occasional anachronisms (“friendly fire”) and clichés might pull the reader further out of the narrative. Details of the crafting of Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses (which had to fit like wallpaper), Lizzie’s feeding of information from the White House to her church members, and the reconciliation quilt she lovingly constructs are among the exceptional moments when the story of this remarkable woman comes to vibrant life.