The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

I was always fascinated by the story of the Titanic and her tragic fate ever since I was a little girl.

When I heard about this novel, I thought it might give me an idea of how things could have went down, even though it is fictionalized. This book is not only about the Titanic but about the well known British fashion designer, Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, who actually survived the sinking of the ship. The more unfortunate reality of the situation is that she had apparently saved her skin but did not allow others to join her rather empty raft, which carried her husband and several other passengers.  Alcott’s novel focuses on what happens to Lucy Gordon and her secretary (or in this case, her maid and later seamstress) once they are safely on American soil.

Tess Collins is the maid who is hired by Gordon last minute, just before they go on board the Titanic in England.

We see the complicated relationship that forms between them throughout the book andThe Dressmaker how Tess struggles to be on Gordon’s side, despite the fact that she wasn’t a witness to what happened on the lifeboat in question.

We also see how Tess must decide between being in high society or choose a simpler, quieter life.  She is tested with these decisions in two ways: by choosing the right man for herself and also determining whether she should stay with Gordon’s franchise or spread her own wings in design, by going solo.  When Tess is on the ship, she meets two men who are equally charming yet from different classes of society: the older gentleman from Chicago, who is a millionaire (Mr. Jack Bremerton) and the young sailor, who is part of the ship’s crew (Jim Bonney).  She eventually begins to realize which man she favors in terms of her outlook on life.

As for her support of Gordon, Tess is constantly reminded of how she should tread carefully—with the help (or interference) of reporter/journalist, Pinky Wade from The Times.  A friendship blossoms between the two young ladies and Pinky also becomes a link to the relationship that is forged between Jim and Tess.
We meet Gordon’s younger sibling, Elinor, who comes up with a way to save her sister’s dignity (if not reputation) by getting Tess to understand why Gordon acts the way she does.  As well, we get a sneak peek at how the case of the Titanic was viewed by the U.S. Inquiry, which is certainly entertaining and intriguing.  Alcott uses many of the real dialogues from transcripts of the real case in her story, when survivors are being questioned in the novel.  The women’s suffragist parade takes place in the book too, so there are never any dull moments.

Even 100 years after the marked event,  this tale will undoubtedly leave you feeling sympathy for those who never made it alive and force you to contemplate how many more could have survived if there were people willing to help others in need, instead of being selfish and panicking.

This is the first novel that I have read about the Titanic and I have to say I really enjoyed it.  It is a nice mix of history and fiction that dives into what happened during the Titanic’s final hours and the people who survived—including the nasty consequences for some of them.

When I saw that Lady Lucile Duff Gordon was featured in the book, I was kind of confused.  I thought she had died way before the Titanic ever set sail—and from what I knew, she was no designer.  Then I realized that there were in fact two Lucile Duff Gordons.  The one I was familiar with was the writer who lived from 1821-1869 and who was the topic in Kate Pullinger’s novel The Mistress of Nothing.

I have to say that The Dressmaker did make me think of Pullinger’s book.

Indeed it is quite neat to see how in The Mistress of Nothing, the relationship between the other Gordon and her mistress is very similar to the one that forms between Tess and the designer Gordon.   It is funny that both stories have a Lady Lucile Duff Gordon who share the same kind of personality and who have troubled relations with their helpers.  A more recent novel that I thought about was The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan.  Of course, just the issue of surviving a sinking boat and having the survivors fight for their right to live is an obvious reason to think of it.

Next month I will be discussing The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  Hope you are looking forward to it!

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