The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane

Written by Liz Trenow
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

Spitalfields, 1768: costumière Miss Charlotte buys a sample of chinoiserie silk at an auction job lot, and disturbs a long-buried memory. Taking a supporting character from her earlier novel The Silk Weaver, Trenow tells the story of this resourceful young woman, abandoned as an infant to the Coram Foundling Hospital and subsequently sent into service, but who overcomes adversity to set up her own business at a time when economic independence for women was a rarity. The author herself descends from three centuries of silk weavers, and there is little she does not know about the garment industry in 18th-century London.

With her love for her older sister, her nephew Peter, and her friends (though not for her pious and tyrannical brother-in-law), Charlotte appears to be content. Through her connection to the Foundling Hospital, she mixes with the widow of William Hogarth and with the Garricks. But all is not what it seems: who really is she, and what is her sister hiding from her?

Trenow convincingly evokes the interiors of her time, the discomforts of travel, the medical treatments amounting to quackery, but there are anachronisms. A clergyman wears a clerical collar when he would surely have worn bands. An unmarried mother gives birth in a convent: these were suppressed at the Reformation and that injunction only lifted in 1829 (the Bar Convent in the recusant north had to operate for many years in secrecy). There is a reference to registering a baby; this was not English law until 1837, though probably baptism is intended. These quibbles aside, Miss Charlotte’s story lets the reader into a vanished world. One can almost feel the materials of her trade pass through one’s hands.