The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson is a historical fiction set in Canada and England. This is the first novel I’ve read by this author. The story centers around three women, two from the past and one in our present day.
London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.
Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?
With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.
All three main characters are lovely, but I connected the most with Frenchwoman Miriam. Miriam is a survivor of Ravensbrueck, a concentration camp for women. (If you want to learn more about this concentration camp, then visit this page on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.) It is clearly obvious the author did her research and she did it very well. Miriam reminded me of my mother who also survived the Nazis (though unlike Miriam, my mother was not sent to a concentration camp).
Even though Miriam was kind, well-spoken, a diligent seamstress and never gave anything away about her past (at least initially) I could sense her sadness and despair. I really bonded with Miriam as a character. This is what makes Jennifer Robson such a good author.
What I love
I love the history and background about the Queen’s wedding dress. We (the reader) are literally in the sewing studio, watching the seamstresses hard at work. I was able to visualize every stitch. The author got everything right because she interviewed one of the four seamstresses who worked on the actual royal wedding dress. Again and again, it becomes obvious that serious research went into this story. But in a seamless way, which made this book so enjoyable to read.
There is one scene, where Heather, the modern-day character, spends an afternoon shopping at Fortnum & Mason. This really made me smile as I love Fortnums and was happy it played a small part in the novel.
What I don’t love
There is a rape scene. It’s not graphic or detailed, but it’s a major reason why one of the characters ends up on a different path in life. Had I known there was a rape scene in this book, I probably would not have read it. I’m really sensitive to scenes where women and children get hurt. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t know about it, because I’m happy I read The Gown. It was heartwarming and touching and I will be thinking of the characters for months to come.
I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but all three women have their happy ending. I guess I just want to throw that out there in case you think the subject matter is too sad. It was a phenomenal book and the months-long library hold was worth it.
Will you be reading The Gown?
First image of the novel and a peek of my own wedding dress by me. Second image via Pexels.com