The Winter Dress

Written by Lauren Chater
Review by Marina Maxwell

In 2014 there was an amazing discovery off the island of Texel in Holland. Shipwreck divers found a chest containing a woman’s silk dress that was in remarkably good condition. This is the inspiration for this fictional imagining as to who might have owned the dress and how it ended up at the bottom of the sea. The novel has tandem narratives, one in the present day, the other in mid-17th century.

With family links to the area, textile historian Jo Baaker is uniquely placed as the person to study and preserve the fragile garment. As she slowly unravels the background of the owner of the dress, she must face both academic rivalries and personal issues that she has avoided for years. And then there is the underlying mysterious question as to the “true circumstances of the dress’s miraculous survival” that could not be explained just by science. Was the discovery luck or destiny, or “was there something else at work … something that could not and would never be explained?”

Anna Tessletje is the daughter of a once-wealthy Dutch merchant who fell on hard times and she barely survives doing laundry. Although it would fetch a good price, she is loath to part with her mother’s beautiful dress. Anna is offered the post of companion to a woman artist and polymath, Catharina van Shurman. Once she joins the household, her life begins to blossom as does her relationship with Catharina’s brother, Crispijn.

Both Jo and Anna are likeable protagonists and the dual narratives are smoothly executed and complement each other well. The historical research is impeccable, as is the exploration of the misogynistic attitudes that intelligent women have always faced no matter the era. This highly memorable and absorbing tale is another cracking read from Lauren Chater.