This historical novel, by the author of the Elm Creek Quilt series, is the story of Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln during her White House years. Keckley, though not a well-known historical figure, will be familiar to many from her appearance as a minor character in last year’s hit movie “Lincoln.”
Keckley (1818-1907) was born into slavery but educated herself and later bought her freedom. When the book begins, she is working in Washington as a seamstress in 1860 and already has among her clients numerous wives of major historical figures, including Varina Davis, wife of the future President of the Confederacy. She has a long-estranged husband we never meet and a grown son conceived in rape by her former owner.
Elizabeth’s dressmaking work is exceptionally high in quality and her reputation grows rapidly. Eventually she is recommended to the incoming First Lady Mary Lincoln and thus begins an extensive and close relationship, or about as close as an African-American and the wife of the President could be during the Civil War.
Mary Lincoln is presented as a fairly emotional woman, prone to overspending, bouts of depression, and other periods of instability. She gradually comes to depend more and more emotionally on Elizabeth, to the point of expecting her to leave her other clients and tend to her full-time. Mrs. Lincoln calls Elizabeth her “best” (and sometimes her “only”) friend. Leaning heavily on Elizabeth on numerous occasions, she even pressures her into accompanying her to Chicago where she moves after her husband’s death requires her to leave the White House. Mary Lincoln could not have been an easy person to work for, but Elizabeth always handles her with integrity and respect.
The book presents many events of the period through the eyes of this freedwoman with access to high places. For example, she has great respect for Abraham Lincoln and his role in ending slavery, though sometimes she cannot quite understand why he does not move faster down this line. The juxtaposition of Elizabeth overhearing policy discussions about emancipation in the White House and later celebrating with her friends on the streets on Washington makes gripping reading.
Elizabeth is clearly in some sense a product of her years in slavery but she does not let that define her. One incident which will strike many readers as very curious was when she was eager to visit her former owners’ family in Virginia after the Civil War. Although she was clear that she had no time or desire to see the man who had raped her, she relished seeing the female members of the family on an extended visit. These were the girls she had helped raise, and she cared about them. She also showed interest in contacting Mrs. Jefferson Davis after the war, although she never succeeded in doing so.
Probably the only reason Elizabeth Keckley is known to us at all today is that she wrote her memoirs “Behind the Scenes” in 1868. Her friends had encouraged her for years to write her story but she had resisted. Finally encouraged by a less-than-scrupulous publisher after the war, she finally did so, although only with the promise that it would not reveal private aspects of the Lincolns or compromise their trust in her. Ultimately, however, it brought her little happiness and less financial compensation. Some critics panned the book as poorly written, while others thought there was no way an ex-slave could have written that well. Both accused her of taking unfair advantage of her access to high places to write tell-all gossip. Although the last thing Elizabeth wanted to write was a scandalous expose of the Lincoln White House, that is, in fact, how many saw it. The fact that the publisher included verbatim letters from Mary Lincoln which Elizabeth had given him in confidence with the understanding that they would not be published, led to her final estrangement from Mary Lincoln, who apparently felt betrayed by the memoir, in spite of Elizabeth’s explicit intent to use it to help rehabilitate Mary’s lagging reputation. Ironically, it did so, though at the expense of casting Elizabeth as the opportunistic villain taking unfair advantage of access to the Lincolns. She never spoke with or saw Mary Lincoln after her memoirs appeared, in spite of numerous unanswered letters sent to her.
Elizabeth comes across as an intelligent, sensitive, and sympathetic character. In retrospect, she was probably a bit naïve regarding both Mary Lincoln’s emotional fragility and the ruthless realities of the publishing business, but her story, as related by Chiaverini, is a fascinating and thought-provoking read. You won’t want to put it down!
Richard Harris is professor of psychology at K-State and a Manhattan resident.