Monday, July 2, 2012

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. In her work of historical fiction, The Dressmaker, Kate Alcott weaves a fictional story with real events that took place during the ill-fated voyage and its aftermath.

Tess is a young English girl and aspiring seamstress who is fed up with her life in service (anyone who has seen Downton Abbey knows what this means.) Tess is a maid in a large English house and feels that she is treated poorly and should be paid for the wonderful dresses she makes. Somehow Tess manages to talk her way onto the Titanic as a maid for renowned fashion designer Lady Lucille "Lucy" Duff Gordon. While on board, Tess meets two very different men who treat her as more than just a maid. The first is a Chicago millionaire named Jack and the second is a younger crew member by the name of Jim. We all know what happens next; the Titanic hits an iceberg, the ship sinks, some survive and many do not. If you would like to review some facts about the Titanic, check out the website Titanic Facts.

As the ship sinks, Lucy and her husband, Cosmo, end up in Lifeboat 1 with only 12 passengers, 7 of which are crew. Tess ends up in Lifeboat 6 with none other than Margaret Brown. It just wouldn't be a Titanic story without Margaret Brown.  Anyway, while in their lifeboat, Margaret and Tess take control of the boat, both showing courage, strength and compassion. Once they are rescued and taken aboard the RMS Carpathia, Tess learns that her young sailor friend was in the same lifeboat as the Duff Gordons and that something happened in Lifeboat 1 that nobody wants to talk about.

When the Carpathia reaches New York, a spunky newspaper reporter by the name of Sarah "Pinky" Wade picks up enough information to realize that there is more to the story and the Duff Gordons are at the center of the mystery. Tess must decide where her loyalties lie, who she believes and decide if she is willing to compromise her principles so that Lucy can make all her dreams come true.

I have luke warm feelings about this novel.  I liked the historical details, such as the author never referring to Margaret Brown as "Molly".  She was never called that until after her death in 1932.  There were several inquiries on the sinking of the Titanic and Alcott is able to put her fictional characters right in the middle of the action so-to-speak.  Lucy Duff Gordon was a real passenger on the Titanic, which prompted me to do a little digging into her history (more on that later).  Finally I did enjoy the character of Sarah "Pinky" Wade.  Her tenacity and determination to uncover what really happened on Lifeboat 1 drives the plot.  I really wanted Pinky to be a real person, too. 

Now on to what I didn't like about The Dressmaker.  I found the characters to be two-dimensional.  Initially I thought this could be an adult book written for young adults, but really I think it just suffers from lack of character development and a thin plot. The love triangle was pretty boring, even though it did turn out a bit differently than I anticipated.  I just couldn't make myself care who Tess ended up with, if anyone. 

The Dressmaker is supposed to be Tess's story but the title describes Lucy's profession and Tess' desire.  I found Lucy to be the more interesting character (perhaps because she was real) so for me The Dressmaker is her story.  What I love about historical fiction is that it usually prompts me to do some additional reading about the time period, characters and events that serve as the basis for the story.  Here are a few of my favorite Lady Duff Gordon tidbits: in 1875 while returning to Jersey, after a visit to relatives in England, Lucy and her sister Elinor survived the wreck of their ship when it ran aground during a storm. Also, Lady Duff Gordon was booked on the final voyage of the RMS Lusitania but at the last minute canceled her trip due to illness. The Lusitania was destroyed by a German torpedo on May 7, 1915. This woman had some seriously bad ship karma.

Lucy's sister, Elinor Glyn, was a British novelist and scriptwriter who apparently pioneered mass-market women's erotic fiction. I'm sure by today's standards it was relatively tame, but I guess we can indirectly thank Mrs. Glyn for the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. CSPL has a movie that is based on Elinor Glyn's novel of the same name, Beyond the Rocks.  The movie is a silent film originally produced in 1922, restored in 2005, starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. 

As for the scandal surrounding Lifeboat 1, (stop reading now if you don't want to know) Lucy's husband supposedly bribed the crew to not search for survivors. There was also a rumor that at one point, someone tried to get into the lifeboat and was pushed off with an oar. None of the rumors were substantiated although Cosmo did offer the crew members from Lifeboat 1 £5 each (about $760 today) to assist them until they found new employment.  The final report of the inquiry stated that the Duff Gordons did nothing to deter the crew from rescue attempts.

~ Amy, Adult Services

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