By Leslie Lindsay
Warm, glimmering tale of friendship, legacy, loss, and love featuring the women who helped sew the royal wedding gown, THE GOWN will immerse and capture your heart.
I fell into the folds of THE GOWN (William Morrow, December 31 2018) immediately. The writing is wholly immersive, the attention to detail superb, and the overall execution came across as meticulously researched with compassion; I loved every minute.
Royalty has become an obsession in our culture and around the world. Every event is anticipated (and critiqued)…but what of the people who act behind-the-scenes? For example, who designed the Queen’s wedding gown? Who sewed it? Who were the embroiderers? That’s what THE GOWN sets out to discover and I fell in love with these characters–they became like my own friends.
It’s 1947 in post-war London and times are a little bleak. Folks are adjusting. And rationing. Ann Hughes works at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell and everything there is pretty ho-hum until they get the commission to create the famed wedding dress for the then-Princess Elizabeth. The women are overjoyed, if not a bit anxious. During this time, a new embroiderer, Miriam Dassin, arrives in London from war-torn France and has her own secrets and worries.
Meanwhile, in 2016, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of why her late grandmother left behind a collection of embroidered flowers with her name on it. These two storylines are meticulously braided into a complete whole, bringing with it a legacy of loss and love, connecting families through generations, as well as a warm tale of friendship.
Overall, THE GOWN is an uplifting story of resilience and ingenuity, art, and so much more. It’s beautifully and lovingly rendered and I fell right in step with Ann and Miriam.
Please join me and Jennifer Robson in conversation:
Jennifer! It’s wonderful to have you. This book—what a sweeping tale! I understand it was a tiny bit of a challenge—you wanted a book set in post-war London, but what would your hook be? You weren’t entirely sure…until …[fill-in-the-blank]
It’s not often that writers get to have that wonderful A-HA moment (at least I don’t often experience them), but when the idea for THE GOWN came to me it really did feel like a lightbulb switching on. I was having lunch with my editor and literary agent, we’d each had at least one enormous glass of wine, and we decided to do some brainstorming. What was the singular event of the immediate postwar period, they wanted to know. What was important to people then? And that’s when it came to me: Britain’s royal wedding in 1947 captured the attention, and hearts, of people around the world.
From there it was a short leap to the notion of focusing on the women who made the wedding gown, since that’s something I’ve always wondered: who are the people who do the actual work of making the royal wedding gowns we all obsess over? We know the designer’s name, but the seamstresses and embroiderers are invisible. I wanted to make them visible. I wanted to learn their stories.
But that wasn’t the end of your challenges with THE GOWN. You’re a historian by training and wished the story to be accurate, but fictional. Can you tell us how the research played out and what difficulties you bumped into?
THE GOWN is set in the recent past, comparatively speaking, and I naively assumed it would be easy to research. How wrong I was! My main difficulty came when I tried to learn more about the people who worked at Hartnell – their backgrounds, their training, their working lives, and so on. But that’s where I ran into one brick wall after another.
The curators at the Royal Collection weren’t able to put me in touch with anyone from Hartnell, since the people they’d relied on for information over the years had become too elderly and infirm to be interviewed. On top of that, I wasn’t able to gain access to Norman Hartnell’s archive, which is privately held, and so I wasn’t able to find out more than the barest details of who worked in the embroidery workrooms, what the interior of the premises looked like, how a working day would unfold for the women, and so on. I’ll admit to a moment – actually many moments, if I’m honest – of anxiety. If I couldn’t get inside the Hartnell workrooms, even at a distance, how could I write my book?
That’s when I decided to try a different approach: I’d talk to someone who does the same sort of work today and learn from her. That led me to Hand and Lock, a bespoke hand embroidery atelier in London, where I spent a day with master embroiderer Juliet Ferry. And it was at Hand and Lock that I met a documentary film producer who offered to introduce me to a woman who had actually worked on the gown. The next day I was on a train to Essex for my visit with Betty Foster.
“A fascinating glimpse into the world of design, the healing power of art, and the importance of women’s friendships.”
I am so taken with the fact that you were able to connect and interview one of the women who worked as a seamstress back in 1947. Betty Foster graciously allowed you to chat with her at her home in the south of England. What can you tell us about Betty—and are any of your characters a composite of Betty?
Historians rarely get to meet, let alone interview, people with a first-hand knowledge of the events they’re studying, and that’s particularly true for anything set more than fifty years in the past. Betty is now 91, she worked on the gown more than 70 years ago, and yet she has the most vivid memories of her time at Hartnell and the events surrounding the royal wedding of 1947. Talking to her was pretty much the most satisfying and enjoyable moment of my life as a historian. The doors of Hartnell had been closed to me, figuratively speaking, and I’d begun to think I’d never get a peek inside. And then I met Betty, and she took me by the hand, and led me inside. It honestly felt that \ real to me.
Betty herself is a lovely person in every way – she is so warm and friendly, and so willing to share her extraordinary experiences with others. She’s now the matriarch of a large and extended family, many of whom live nearby, and she and her husband, Bill, recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.
I was nervous about including Betty in THE GOWN, but I also felt really strongly that she ought to be present in its pages, so with her permission I added her to several scenes. On the day of the royal wedding, Betty accompanies my character Miriam to Buckingham Palace with some other people from Hartnell, and together she and Miriam look out the windows of the palace and are awestruck by the thousands of people stretching back along the Mall. Here I’ll admit to some creative embellishment (done with Betty’s permission): on the morning of the royal wedding, Betty wasn’t inside the palace but rather just outside, in a special area reserved for people who’d worked on the gown, and her central memory of that day is seeing the princess go by in her carriage.
I felt like I knew all of these women—Miriam, Milly, Ann, especially—but I also felt for Heather [in 2016]. Can you give us a few hints and tips for character development? Because the last thing we want—as readers (and writers) is to hear that the characters were ‘cardboard.’
When I’m first discovering a character, I let them talk to me – I hope this doesn’t sound too ridiculous, but it’s only by living with characters and really letting them get under my skin that I can write about them in a convincing fashion. Sometimes I hasten the process by having my characters answer a shortened version of the Proust Questionnaire, but just as often it’s by letting them noodle around in my head for a while.
In the case of Heather, I’ll admit to her being a younger (and significantly cooler) version of myself – and there are certainly elements of my own life that I drew upon when writing her story. Even the hotels she stays at in London and New York are based on hotels I know and love: Hazlitt’s in Soho and The Marlton in the West Village.
There’s some darkness to the story, too. And I think that’s indicative of just about any time period…any book, too. We live for art and goodness when there’s a bit of emotional, political, and social upheaval. Can you talk about that, please?
THE GOWN is set in a dark time. The war had been won, but at such a cost, and Britain—most of the world, really—was on its knees. People really weren’t certain if life would ever get better, and that is certainly true of my characters Ann and Miriam. Both have suffered so much, both are scarred in ways they are only just beginning to understand, and my instinct was to wrap them both in cotton wool and feed them delicious things and wrap up their stories in a big, red bow. But that wouldn’t have been fair to the time in which they lived, nor to the past they’d endured. THE GOWN isn’t a sad book—far from it. But I do believe it’s an honest book, and part of the honesty comes in my refusal to sugar-coat the fairly grim reality of life in 1947.
I think that’s why the royal wedding, and the princess in her beautiful gown, resonated so deeply with people in 1947. Life was the farthest thing from a fairy tale for most people, but they were still drawn to beautiful things and happy stories and the prospect of fairer days ahead. We all want to feel hopeful. We all need to believe that tomorrow will be a better day.
Here we are at the first of the year. I am thinking about how I’m going to be proactive. Doors and windows…coincidence, opportunities…in fact, much of THE GOWN came together due to tiny little pieces falling into place. If you had a word or phrase to describe what you most hope for in 2019 (personally or globally), what would it be?
I would be very grateful if people in general, and our leaders in particular, would open their hearts to the suffering of others. Ann and Miriam’s friendship is grounded in their empathy for each other’s sorrows, both past and present; and their experiences as victims of violence and prejudice, as migrants, and as women—which is to say, groups who are often overlooked, ignored, and abused—are mirrored in the stories we see in the news every day. So what I really want for 2019 is empathy, and plenty of it.
Jennifer, it’s been most delightful. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
I’d like to mention my late mother-in-law, Regina, who died as I was finishing work on THE GOWN. I didn’t realize how much she’d influenced me in its creation until after she was gone. Like my characters, she was an immigrant (from Italy to Canada in the early 1960s), a seamstress, and a beloved grandmother whose life was centered on her granddaughters and grandson. Like my characters, her life was difficult at times—she left her family behind when she came to Canada, and she was often lonely and homesick—but she persevered, and made a wonderful life for herself, and taught me most of what I know about cooking and gardening and needlework and being a mom. I miss her more than words can say.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE GOWN, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Robson is the USA Today and #1 Toronto Globe & Mail bestselling author of Somewhere In France and After The War Is Over. She holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from Saint Antony’s College, University of Oxford, where she was a Commonwealth Scholar and an SSHRC Doctoral Fellow. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and young children.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of William Morrow and used with permission. Artistic cover photo designed and photographed by L. Lindsay. Follow her on Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1]