Just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic comes a vivid, romantic, and relentlessly compelling historical novel about a spirited young woman who survives the disaster only to find herself embroiled in the media frenzy left in the wake of the tragedy.
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.
Tess Collins was a maid for a family in Cherbourg, France in April of 1912 but was tired of being underappreciated and fighting off the advances of their adolescent son. The thing about Tess was, she was also an extremely talented dressmaker who cut her own patterns and did such delicate sewing by hand that one would hardly believe the perfect stitching wasn’t done by machine.
On April 10, 1912 Tess decides to walk away from her maid job and try to get a position on the new ship, the Titanic which was leaving today and sailing to New York. Tess hightails it down to the docks and begins approaching various families asking if they needed a companion or a nanny for their trip. People’s reaction to this woman was one of shock and avoidance. She was becoming desperate knowing the ship was going to set sail soon and she needed to be on it.
A few feet away from where she was standing she noticed these two impeccably dressed women and overheard their conversation that someone had backed out of their trip and the one woman was frantic. It suddenly dawned on Tess that the frantic woman was none other than Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, the most famous clothing designer in the world. The other woman with her was Lucile’s sister, Elinor who was a famous Hollywood novelist. Tess immediately approached Lady Duff Gordon telling her how much she admired her and her work. Tess told her that she herself was a dress designer and begged for Lady Duff Gordon to hire her to replace her missing counterpart on the trip. After some questioning and a promise that she’d only hire Tess as her maid and that Tess MUST call her ‘’Madame’’, Tess accepted the job. She was going on the Titanic AND going to New York with Lady Duff Gordon! With excitement overwhelming her, Tess scrambled up the gangplank toward the ship without waiting for her new employer. Tess felt like she was living in some fantasy.
Together Madame and Tess listened to the “…slow rumble, the vibration, of the great ship’s engines gathering momentum far below where they stood” in first-class. The women stopped unpacking and went back outside and watched as the ship began to recede from the land. They only had one more stop in Ireland and then the Titanic’s first voyage would truly begin. Tess then headed down to ‘steerage’ hunting for the cot that had been assigned to her.
During the first few days of sailing, Tess did well and made quite an impression on Lady Duff Gordon. She had sewn the pieces of a jacket together with no instructions and so impressed Madame that after trying it on she packed it in her suitcase. Tess diligently ironed gorgeous silk evening gowns and hung them on silk hangers. She and Madame were getting along well and Madame had taken notice that Tess was indeed a formidable seamstress but made a lousy maid which Tess proved after dropping a china tea service on the ship’s deck floor and ended up slipping in the mess, crashing to the floor herself spread eagle on all fours.
Then on April 15, 1912 the Titanic hit an iceberg in the sea and sunk underneath the ice cold water at 2:20 in the morning. Tess was in one lifeboat while Madame was in another. Tess looked to the bottom of the lifeboat and found a woman lying face down holding what looked like a pile of rags but it wasn’t rags it was a baby wrapped in cold, damp, blankets. Tess immediately removed her own jacket in the frigid air, picked up the baby to wrap it in her jacket then suddenly realized the baby was dead. Tess then checked the mother and realized that she too was dead. Part of Tess was relieved the woman was gone as it would spare her the pain of mourning for her child.
After their rescue there were ‘hearings’ on the sinking with special attention paid to the goings on in the inadequate number of lifeboats. The scrutiny was directed toward Lady Duff Gordon in lifeboat number one. Did she push people back into the sea to prevent being rescued although her lifeboat would hold fifty people but only had twelve on board? Will Tess stay true to Madame at the expense of her own feelings?
A lot of the testimony in this story was taken directly from the transcripts of the U.S. senate hearings. According to the author, the “basic bones of the story are true: Lady Duff Gordon, a world-famous designer, escaped with her husband and secretary in a lifeboat that, according to various reports, could have held between forty and fifty people instead of only twelve.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel of part fiction and part fact and would highly recommend it to my friends. Kate Alcott has managed to write beautifully about a sad and tragic event in history. Well done!