Reviewed by Gail Murray
On September 30, 2018, one hundred lucky readers enjoyed a festive cream tea at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel as Canadian author, Jennifer Robson, launched her most recent novel, The Gown. Such is the impact of social media that this event sold out in one hour! What a treat sitting at circular tables with tiers of tasty treats - tarts, finger sandwiches, scones - as the Harper Collins author was interviewed. Imagine having your publisher promote you like this!
Later Robson circulated, sitting at each table, chatting with readers – a nice personal touch. Each time I’ve heard Robson speak I’ve been impressed with her professionalism and approachability.
The Gown is a slight departure as her initial successes were set during world wars which increased the tension and drama. This story takes place in 1947 as Britain struggles with shortages (coal, sugar, meat, even potatoes), rationing and rebuilding the country.
There are three main characters, two being Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, seamstresses employed by Norman Hartnell, designer to British nobility. Hartnell’s fashion house has the task of preparing Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown. Robson’s painstaking research involved a trip to London and hours spent at Hart and Lock, a renowned London embroidery studio learning the craft from master embroiderers and producing after many hours, a single flower similar to the princess’s finery. By perseverance and sheer luck, Robson discovered Betty Foster, now an elderly woman, who had been fourteen at the time of the royal wedding. Having worked on the gown, Betty filled in precious details about attitude, working conditions and how thrilled everyone was when each seamstress was called to place a stitch so they could say they had worked on the magnificent gown.
A condensed version of Robson’s interview is at the back of the novel along with an extensive bibliography, something readers have come to expect from this scholar in British economic and social history. Robson has fashioned this research into a piece for Time Magazine – Buttonholes for a Royal Bride.
The storyline of the novel follows the lives of Ann, an ordinary working-class British girl living in a council house in Essex, and Miriam a French émigré and survivor of Nazi persecution. The third character, Heather Mackenzie, a young Canadian, inherits an exquisite set of hand stitched flowers from her late grandmother and discerns that these motifs match those decorating the queen’s stunning wedding dress. Her grandmother had never spoken of her early life in England. Heather sets out to uncover her grandmother’s secret, giving the novel a sense of solving a mystery.
Shy Ann agrees to go dancing at the Astoria along with other girls from Hartnell’s to celebrate a fellow employee’s engagement and meets dashing aristocrat Jeremy Thickett-Milne.
Ann had never expected to be the girl in the fairy tale. She didn’t believe in them for a start, and she wasn’t certain she believed in this . . . He did seem nice and perhaps he was the sort of man who wouldn’t care that she lived from pay packet to pay packet and spent her days making clothes for women like his sister.
Later that evening Miriam’s heel catches in a grate and is rescued by an unlikely knight, Walter Kaczmarek – the editor and journalist that we met in Goodnight from London. Thus a romantic element is added. The essence of the novel is the friendship that develops between the women. Their triumphs and challenges form the heart-warming part of the novel.
As we have come to expect, Robson’s prose is fluid as she flawlessly transitions between 2016 and 1947. This is the first time she includes a twist – personal violence.
When the elegant gown is completed: “Ann hadn’t expected it to be such a bittersweet moment…her part in its creation was over. This was the last time she would touch the flowers she had sewn”. In dreary post-war London, it had been a bright moment, an act of creativity and a boost to her self-esteem. She kept the samples, “the single York rose, the star flowers and the ears of wheat” She packed them when she left for Canada along with the thank you gift from the queen mother – white heather from Balmoral. In fact, heather becomes a recurring symbol in the novel.
The Gown proves a fascinating glimpse into designer fashion, the power of art and the enduring value of friendship.
The Gown is published by HarperCollins.