“But I have changed… I do not have to be who I was.” In Victorian England life is not kind to Ellen Gowan. Her father, a vicar, is killed in his church during a lightning storm when the roof caves in and buries him. Bereft and penniless, Ellen and her mother Connie must move to Shene House in Richmond to live with her mother’s sister Daisy and her cousin Oriana. There both Connie and Ellen witness spousal abuse as Daisy’s cold husband Isidore controls his family through hostility and intimidation. As Connie grows weak from tuberculosis, she and Ellen leave the abusive home and find lodging at the house of Madame Angelique, a dressmaker in Richmond. There they work as dressmakers, successfully contributing to the household of Madame and her son Raoul. Ellen’s mother is determined to go to London to open a dressmaker’s shop. They go to London, where Connie dies, and that is when life really gets hard for 15-year-old Ellen. Tricked into a fake marriage by Raoul, young Ellen finds herself penniless and pregnant, abandoned by her so-called husband. Determined to make a life for herself and her baby daughter in London, Ellen’s strong will overcomes even more obstacles in her fight for survival.
The novel engages from the first page with lush description and vivid period detail. The reader gets a sense of the styles of clothing and life in both rural England and the streets of Victorian London. Ellen Gowan is an engaging character whose strength and wit grow as she finds her place as a strong, independent woman—the dressmaker—in a time when women were often pawns of men. Well-researched with many a twist and turn, this novel is hard to put down.