Friday, January 18, 2019

Royal Wedding Revisited

No, I’m not writing about Meghan Markle or Kate Middleton or even Princess Diana, lovely as those weddings were to watch—in whole or as highlights—on television. This wedding took place before I (and, I’d assume, most of you) were born, in November 1947, when Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain, twenty-one years old and not destined to assume the throne for another half-decade, married Lieutenant Phillip Mountbatten of the Greek royal house. Britain was still suffering from the destruction inflicted by World War II, with food, clothing, and fuel strictly rationed. If any country needed an excuse to party, the United Kingdom did in those years.

Decades later, when I married Sir Percy, my mother still recalled with fondness the garden parties held as part of the national celebration that marked the royal wedding. Among other details, she remembered the dress that Princess Elizabeth wore, purchased with ration coupons but a glory to behold: a glamorous creation of off-white satin covered with embroidered roses, sheaves of wheat, and other symbols of good luck and fertility. Pearls and beads surrounded the appliqués. A long train, similarly embroidered, fell from the princess’s shoulders and extended behind her down the aisle. To this day, the dress, a triumph of British couture, remains on display at Buckingham Palace.

So when the publicists at William Morrow offered me an advance review copy of Jennifer Robson’s new novel, The Gown (released December 31, 2018), how could I resist? I had no room in my interview schedule, alas, because I would love to discuss this novel with its author. I dove in a few nights ago and devoured it faster than a pint of peppermint stick ice cream, my all-time favorite. And this even though I have to struggle to produce a decent chain stitch of my own.

What makes the book so entrancing? Well, there are the descriptions of the gown itself, of course. The attention paid to the seamstresses who produced this work of art in six weeks draws readers in with its detail without overwhelming us. But the bigger pull comes from the story and, as is always the case for me, the characters, whose secrets I want to discover and whose life choices I’ve become all too caught up in. When you find yourself telling a fictional character she’d be making a mistake if she did that, it’s safe to say you’re over-involved.

The novel begins with Ann, the main character, returning home after dark to the council house she shares with her sister-in-law, Milly. It’s the end of January 1947, and Ann works for the London fashion house run by Norman Hartnell, the man who dresses the women of the royal family. Ann has just received a gift of white heather from the queen (the woman we know as the Queen Mother, at this point still the wife of King George VI) in gratitude for the Hartnell seamstresses’ work. Ann plans to plant the heather in her tiny back yard, reclaimed from the Victory Gardens necessary to feed people during the recent war.

The action soon switches to Miriam, a refuge from France and survivor of the infamous concentration camp Ravensbrück. Miriam, a skilled embroiderer, has just arrived in England. She bears a reference from Christian Dior, but that’s not enough to land her a job. Within a short period of time, though, Miriam ends up at Norman Hartnell’s and becomes Ann’s new roommate after Milly takes off for Canada, where she has family.

Fast forward to 2016, where Heather Mackenzie of Toronto has just lost her grandmother Nan and discovers a curious legacy: a box with Heather’s name on it containing a set of exquisite appliqué flowers that, thanks to the Internet, she soon identifies as identical to those on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress. How is this possible, when Nan had never mentioned embroidery, let alone a past in dressmaking or a job at Norman Hartnell’s? When Heather’s position as a journalist is abruptly terminated as the result of a corporate takeover, she decides to take part of her severance pay, travel to London, and find out.

And we’re off, following these crisscrossing paths through time and across space as the lives of the three women—Ann, Miriam, and Heather—intersect and separate. Somehow the princess’s wedding gown lies at the heart of the mystery, but how churlish it would be for me to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering the answer. Instead, I urge you to read the novel yourself and find out. If you enjoy books about resilient women, female friendships, royal weddings, or the unsung art of the needle, I promise you won’t regret the choice. You can also learn more about the book and author at Jennifer Robson’s website.

Please note that although William Morrow sent me this novel for consideration as the host of New Books in Historical Fiction, the views expressed in this post are my own. I had no obligation to review the book,  and any review I write in any venue reflects my honest opinion of the work.

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