What Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding gown meant to post-WWII England (London 1947; Toronto, Canada 2016): Historian and bestselling historical fiction author Jennifer Robson makes fashion design so interesting when she takes us inside who/what was involved in creating Queen Elizabeth II’s dazzling wedding gown during Britain’s austerity program in the aftermath of WWII, when even the royal family rationed their clothing. Desperate for a show of optimism for their bankrupt nation, British citizenry went so far as to send their ration coupons to Buckingham Palace, only to be returned to them.
In an elucidating author’s note, Robson explains how she was put to the test researching The Gown, her fifth historical novel. All she had were the “barest details” about the famous British fashion designer, Norman Hartnell, whose design was chosen for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten on November 20, 1947. Similarly, very little was known about his senior staff and embroiderers, and the process for making the exquisite gown at Hartnell’s embroidery workroom in London’s tony Mayfair district.
“Swirls of tiny gold beads, translucent crystals, and matte copper sequins” were embroidered onto silk satin, along with appliquéing hundreds of flower motifs using a tambour hook and a frame. Delicate, meticulous work completed in just six weeks, with the added pressure of not breathing a word about what they were doing. Keeping the gown under wraps reached a feverish pitch, with consequences for anyone who breached their word of honor.
Robson is a persistent researcher because some of the Hartnell characters ended up being real ones. She’s also a detailed researcher and writer who doesn’t rush through scenes, rather, takes her time describing them. The effect is to put the reader into the bleak world of 1947 London when the British were grieving significant losses and still enduring major hardships.
We view this world through the lens of three fictional women, told in alternating chapters and time periods. Two are Hartnell embroiderers: Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin. Miriam, who went on to become an embroidery artist in her own right, felt so authentic I googled her, to no avail. I wasn’t satisfied until Robson confirmed in her explanatory note that they were imagined, though a bona fide embroiderer did inspire them.
The third female character, Heather Mackenzie, brings us into contemporary times. In her opening chapter, Heather’s grandmother Nan passes away. Nan was ninety-four, yet it was hard to believe she was gone. “All those people who lived through the war. You’d think they were made of cast iron.”
Nan leaves Heather pieces of embroideries. Heather (and her mother) haven’t any clue what they are or where they came from. Like the author, Heather travels to London to piece together Nan’s embroidery story. Stunned that as close as they were Nan kept part of her life secret. Why? Neither Heather nor her mother hadn’t even known Ann once lived in London. They’re all from Toronto, like the author.
Ann and Miriam are talented embroiderers. Ann had been working at Hartnell for over a decade when they met; Miriam was an embroiderer before she emigrated from France. While the novel focuses on England in the immediate years after WWII, Miriam’s French-Jewish refugee backstory brings the horrors of the Holocaust into the plot.
The two women become fast and best friends when Miriam lands a job at Hartnell’s and moves in with Ann, into the same council house she’d been living in since childhood, located in a working class suburb of East London. Council housing was part of Britain’s public housing program that began after WWI, blending more British history into fiction.
Early on we learn that Miriam fled her homeland after she was freed by Americans from the all-women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück. Ann and Miriam both lost family in the war. Both are surviving quietly. Both are anxious and reserved, for different reasons: Miriam is hiding from her past; Ann is keenly aware of the “gulf between classes” to the point of painfully accepting her destiny.
Ann and Miriam find comfort in each other as they go about their daily lives, rationing food and other needs, calling forth strength, humility, and a stiff upper lip. The pride, gratitude, and camaraderie they found at Hartnell’s cannot be overstated.
Theirs was a friendship bonded over commonalities and vulnerabilities. Differences in their European cultures and religions they bridged easily. There was, though, one huge difference between the two: Ann’s past was ordinary, whereas Miriam’s was historically extraordinary and haunting. At Harnell’s, they worked together on something luxurious, optimistic.
Which is why the glamor and excitement of a royal wedding – including the gorgeous gown – meant so much to a battered nation.
Heather is the one who brings Ann, Miriam, and Britain’s past alive. At first her dilemma was whether to ignore looking into the bequeathed embroideries out of respect for Nan’s privacy. It doesn’t take her long to realize Nan left them for her because she wanted Heather to know there was more to her grandmother than she could ever dream of. Heather discovers that because she’s a fine researcher who gets lucky.
The Gown is also a modern day example of how the beauty and pageantry of a fairy-tale royal wedding can boost an entire nation, if only briefly. Recall how the world was captivated last year by the courtship and marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. As of this writing, it seems British media has turned against the Duchess of Sussex, whereas Queen Elizabeth II is still beloved seventy years later. We may not be royal watchers, like Heather, her mother, and apparently the author, but we certainly felt the magic, love, and a sliver of optimism the new royal couple heralded.
Amidst the chaos in our country and around the world, the goodness and decency of Robson’s characters – kind in both deeds and prose – is a perfect novel for ushering in 2019.
Of course, there’s got to be a character whose trouble. In this novel he’s 1947 Jeremy with movie-star looks, “silver-blue eyes,” and a “top secret job.” He goes out of his way to court Ann, who can’t fathom why. She’s one of the “plain girls” and he’s so clearly upper-class. Let’s just say he’s not what he seems.
On the other hand, Ann, Miriam, and Heather will warm your heart. So will Ann’s widowed sister-in-law Milly, Miriam’s outside-of-work friends, plus a charming fellow connected to Miriam Heather fortuitously meets in 2016.
Starting off in 2019 with these kind, decent characters uplifts us. We welcome their warmth, goodness, and perseverance.