Years ago, while researching a historical fiction novel, Jennifer Chiaverini became captivated by the story of Elizabeth Keckley, the real-life former slave who achieved the coveted role of dressmaker to first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
“I had come across a photo of a quilt that was very elaborate and embroidered, full of patriotic symbols, very typical of the Civil War era,” said Chiaverini, who lives in Madison and is the prolific author of the Elm Creek Quilts books.
That particular quilt was said to have been made by Elizabeth Keckley from fabrics left over from making Mrs. Lincoln’s gowns.
“I thought of all of the conversations that would have gone on in the White House, all of the events that Elizabeth would have witnessed while making dresses for Mrs. Lincoln,” Chiaverini said, expressing a wish to know more details about the day-to-day life lived in the nation’s most powerful house.
Later, when she was researching another book, “The Union Quilters,” she kept running across research that cited a memoir written by a former slave who had worked as Lincoln’s dressmaker. The memoir, titled “Behind the Scenes or, Thirty Years as a Slave, and Four Years in the White House,” was published in 1868 and is still available in print.
“When I saw her name, I remembered the quilt I had seen years before,” she said. “To have wished that I could know what had gone on in the White House, and then to find out that she had put that in a memoir, I was so thrilled. I immediately got my hands on the book and devoured it.”
All of that research yielded Chiaverini’s latest novel, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” (Dutton, $26.95), which will be released on Tuesday.
The relationship between the first lady and her personal dressmaker makes rich fodder for historical fiction. Who was this woman who saved all of the precious fabric scraps of her employer’s dresses and stitched them into an opulent quilt? It seems that she was the first lady’s only friend at times.
“Mary Lincoln was this outsider from the frontier of Illinois,” Chiaverini said. “There was an established, very tightly knit social hierarchy in Washington, D.C., at the time. To them, the Lincolns were these bumbling countryfolk coming in and invading.”
While Mrs. Lincoln indeed possessed a sharp intellect, she still needed to be fashionable, to put herself out into society in the best possible way. To do that, she needed the best dressmaker, someone to give her social credibility, “that extra edge,” Chiaverini said.
For Elizabeth Keckley, the position of personal dressmaker to the most important woman in Washington was very significant to her reputation. At first, the two women needed each other.
As the Lincolns’ time in the White House wore on, Lincoln and Keckley became closer as they shared confidences. Keckley became so much more to the family than someone who simply made beautiful dresses for the mother of the household.
“She would help nurse the family through illnesses, she would help care for the children, she would take on all these other roles,” Chiaverini said. “She was someone that Mary Lincoln could absolutely rely upon.”
Beyond that, Keckley could put up with Lincoln better than most.
“Because of her erratic personality, Mary tended to drive other people away,” Chiaverini said.
“Elizabeth had a natural self-possession. She also spent most of her lifetime in slavery and had learned to get along with difficult people,” she said. Keckley could tolerate Lincoln when her friends and family just couldn’t deal with her anymore.
There were times, Chiaverini said, that Lincoln expressed that “sometimes she felt utterly alone, except for Elizabeth.”
In “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker,” Chiaverini imagines the friendship from the perspective of Keckley, taking the women’s relationship from the moment the Lincolns arrive in the White House through the president’s assassination and aftermath.
The timing of the book release is serendipitous, as the 16th president is experiencing a resurgence in popularity with the release of the acclaimed biopic “Lincoln.” Chiaverini speculated that the recent interest in Lincoln isn’t all that unusual.
“He is never far from the forefront of the American imagination,” she said. “He is, for most Americans, a revered figure.”
The issues he faced in the 1860s are still problems for Americans today.
“As far as we have come, we still have not achieved true racial equality in our country. The varying opinions on how much power the president should have and the role of government are questions that came up during the election,” she said. When we think about the crises that we face as a nation today, we can take hope and inspiration from the Lincoln White House.
“He saw the nation through so much, and we endured,” she said. “Surely we can find a way to resolve the problems and crises that we are facing today.”