Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she’s had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be a personal maid on the Titanic’s doomed voyage. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men, one a roughly-hewn but kind sailor and the other an enigmatic Chicago millionaire. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes.
Amidst the chaos and desperate urging of two very different suitors, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat. Tess’s sailor also manages to survive unharmed, witness to Lady Duff Gordon’s questionable actions during the tragedy. Others—including the gallant Midwestern tycoon—are not so lucky.
On dry land, rumors about the survivors begin to circulate, and Lady Duff Gordon quickly becomes the subject of media scorn and later, the hearings on the Titanic. Set against a historical tragedy but told from a completely fresh angle, The Dressmaker is an atmospheric delight filled with all the period’s glitz and glamour, all the raw feelings of a national tragedy and all the contradictory emotions of young love.
What a thrill! This historical novel had everything I could ever hope for: a few days’ events on the Titanic, the sinking and its utter chaos, the rescue on the Carpathia, the hearings that followed the arrival in New York City, the fashion industry and its fluctuations in 1912, suffragists and women’s rights movements, journalism tactics, the law of the time, British class divisions and America’s lack-thereof, and finally a love triangle.
What sets The Dressmaker apart from other Titanic literature is Alcott’s focus on the aftermath of the sinking, rather than setting sail and the events on the ship. Roughly twenty pages were spent on the ship, and the following 280 included everything about the rescue, the hearings, and historical context of the changing dynamics in New York City. So many newspaper headlines, so many specific characters, several recognizable events – I was completely fascinated and had to put the book down several times to research the accuracy (rest assured, Alcott’s extremely accurate on the hearings) and information on the characters presented. In fact, in Alcott’s author’s note, she states:
Much of the testimony in this book is taken directly from the transcripts of the U.S. Senate hearings in the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic.
It was from these hearings that ocean-liners are now required to have equipped and experienced crew, a sufficient number of lifeboats, and lifeboat drills before departure.
The sinking of the Titanic has always been an interest of mine, but I was wholly ignorant of the hearings or even what happened to all the survivors. I know more about the ship itself than the people. This book sheds light to the era, dropping familiar names, places, and events, providing a complete cultural and historical experience.
For any who may avoid the novel because of the hint of a love triangle, do not worry. That aspect of the story is most certainly not the main point or dominant thread of the novel. Tess is a strong character, a bold woman set to escape the class system and become independent. Imagine all the things she’s exposed to in New York City, a place without classes and full of opportunity. She seizes these moments.
Goodreads: 3.44 of 5
EDIT: “The Smithsonian” magazine has a whole article dedicated to the Titanic and its survivors. In this article is a spotlight on twins Michel and Edmond, both of whom are mentioned in this novel as well. I really do mean it when I say Alcott worked hard for historical accuracy!