In these two books, we meet three prominent women of the 1860’s, two of them very well-known in Washington, D. C. society, another highly respected as a tradesperson during a time when fashions were complicated, custom-fitted, and sewn by hand. Ms. Lincoln, a character in both books, is regarded most kindly in the Dressmaker, but her inconsiderate actions, foolish decision-making, and ferocious temper are also recorded. Kate Chase, although she expected her politically experienced father, Salmon P. Chase, to be elected instead of Mr. Lincoln, had anticipated being the First Lady’s friend, but instead Mrs. Lincoln regarded Kate, “the Belle of Washington, her ultimate social rival. Elizabeth Keckley, a popular Washington dressmaker, or “modiste,” was a former slave, who eventually became a sort of personal assistant and sometime companion to Mrs. Lincoln.
These books explained the social traditions of the time, how highly intelligent woman had to work behind the scenes, while in public reflecting only charm and gracefulness. Kate, whose mother and stepmother had died young, became the lady of her father’s house, encouraging manners and moderation, supervising their social calendar and her younger sister while still a young lady herself. Mrs. Lincoln discussed many matters of government with her husband, who would always, listen, but did not always agree. Mrs. Keckley mostly listened as she stitched, occasionally answering questions when asked, but behind the scenes, founded the “Contraband Relief Association,” which helped the former slaves learn to live on their own.
Based upon several memoirs, resources from historical societies, several biographies, Mrs. Keckley’s memoir “Behind the Scenes” and the Lincoln and Chase Family letters, this book was an enjoyable peek into the lives of three important women whose lives turned out as no one could ever have predicted when they were young.
What stood out to me, while reading these two books, is the power of a hand-written note. Kate Chase, who was universally acknowledged to be a well-mannered and kind person of Washington society, wrote many letters, of welcome, condolence and thanks, as well as those to keep up with friends and family in Columbus, Ohio and New York. She wrote notes to the Lincolns when their son died, and to Mrs. Lincoln after the President’s assignation. Mrs. Keckley, who had taught herself and others to read and write, while not having confidence in her literary abilities, wrote many notes as well. Mrs. Lincoln appreciated the many condolence notes she received, especially one from Queen Elizabeth, whom she had never met. Some of them she treasured, and read out loud to Elizabeth Keckley. The absence of a condolence note or call from President Andrew Johnson rankled. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to say, “I’m sorry for your loss” is adequate, and gives the bereaved both a distraction and a visual validation for their feelings. The important thing is taking the time to express that you acknowledge and care.