Monday, December 6, 2010
The Dressmaker Review
Set in 1850s London, at the height of Victoria's reign, Posie Graeme-Evans' glorious fourth historical novel tells of a woman ahead of her time. Ellen Gowan is a famous dress designer for ladies of high society and one of the very few women in England who owns her own business. But her life wasn't always one of such privilege.
The only surviving daughter of a Cambridge scholar-turned village minister and a beautiful woman who was disowned by her family for marrying for love, Ellen had a childhood plentiful in affection, if not in currency and dresses made of fine silks. Tragedy strikes on her thirteenth birthday, when her father dies suddenly, leaving Ellen and her mother penniless and dependent upon the kindness of her mother's estranged family.
Life takes Ellen down various roads of opulence and depravity until she lands in the arms of the devlishly handsome Raoul de Valentin, whom she marries. Just when Ellen realizes that she is with child, Raoul abandons her. Determined to survive, she begins her long climb to success, first by toiling at a dress factory, then opening up her own salon in the fashionable Battle Square.
Years pass, and Ellen has evolved into Madame Gowan, dress maker to royalty and the Great Six Hundred. All is truly well, until the day Raoul de Valentin unexpectedly arrives at her doorstep once more, threatening to destroy all that she has achieved.
The Dressmaker is a romantic odyssey that takes readers into the most luxurious of ballrooms and the most squalid of brothels. It is the sweeping story of a true heroine and her quest to live life fully-to find success, love, and to find herself in an era when such ideas were unheard of for a woman. Brimming with romance, social intrigue and rich, detailed illustrations of Victorian London and its varied inhabitants, he Dressmaker will captivate readers.
My Take: This took me a few chapter to get into but when I did, I was swept up into Victorian England. Just to clarify, it isn't a pretty sight. Poverty is something to be truly feared, as the women of this time period well know.
I hesitate to call it a story because it trivializes what the author has accomplished. She has created the life of Ellen Gowan during an oppressive time period for women. She intricately weaves aspects into the book to create a believable protagonist who faces the difficulties of class and money within and without society.
The book consists of 3 parts; Ellen's latency including her 13th birthday where tragedy strikes, up to age 15. Part II is Ellen's coming of age. Again, not pretty. More death and sorrow, marriage, pregnancy, destitution, lasting friendship, and survival. Part III is Ellen's success story intertwined with the continuation of earlier stories from Parts I and II.
What is striking about this book, besides the fact that the author brings a character to life, is the way the story unfolds and shows the reader the real challenges of Victorian England when one is not affluent or cleverly dishonest. This book is Pride and Prejudice if the Bennetts had no money or estate and Mr. Darcy never arrived. Yet for all the grit, this is not a sad tale. Ellen is not a victim even though her circumstances merit the title. She is also not a heroine who unrealistically rises above it all. She is a woman who finds herself despite circumstances beyond her control. She is a woman who discovers lasting friendship from other women who suffer differently than herself. She is a woman who creates happiness.