I was beyond thrilled to receive an ARC of Jennifer Robson’s The Gown. I’ve mentioned how much I love The Crown TV show before, so a novel featuring the women who made Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown sounded like it’ll be right up my alley!
The Gown begins by taking its readers to post-WWII England. The year is 1947, and even though the war had ended a few years ago, the rationing is still continuing. This is when we meet one of the protagonists, Ann Hughes, an embroiderer working for the famous fashion designer Norman Hartnell. Ann is a hard worker, but other than her work there’s nothing that brings joy to her life. Ann’s parents are dead, and she had lost her only brother to the war. So she is living a life full of hardship with her sister-in-law Milly in the outskirts of London – not only they don’t have coal to survive the cold winter nights, but they also live in constant fear that they’d be evicted from their council house.
After Milly moves to Canada, Ann befriends Miriam Dassin, the newest embroiderer at Hartnell’s who later moves into Ann’s place. Miriam is a Jewish woman from France who had recently arrived in England to get away from painful memories of the war. Although Miriam is not forthcoming about what happened to her family at first, working on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown alongside Ann brings them closer together. And when Ann finally realizes that Miriam is suffering from survivor’s guilt, she does all she could to help Miriam by encouraging her to turn her pain into art, even while her own life ends up in tatters…
Now more than half a century later in Toronto, Heather is devastated by the sudden death her beloved grandmother, Ann. Ann had left Heather a box of embroidered flowers, and a little research on the internet shows that these flowers are quite similar to flowers on the royal wedding gown. Heather’s family had never known anything of Ann’s life in England – Ann had always shied away from those details. So taking these flowers as a sign that Ann probably wanted Heather to know of her past, Heather hops on a plane and visits England to uncover Ann’s long-held secrets.
As a story of love and friendship, The Gown is a quick, satisfactory read. However, I wouldn’t say I loved it for two reasons. Ann and Miriam are two strong independent women who overcome adversity, but unfortunately, there were times in the novel I ‘saw’ them going through difficult times without ‘feeling’ their pain. I was also disappointed by the plot owing to my expectations – I thought it would contain heaps and heaps of information about the dress/ wedding and less of everything else, which is not the case.
On the upside though, I admired Robson for making two seamstresses her protagonists. It made me pause and think about the women who must have spent months working on the intricate details of this beautiful wedding dress, although their contribution is rarely mentioned. At the end of The Gown, Robson tells us how difficult it was for her to gather information about the seamstresses – even though she had managed to find many newspaper articles written about the wedding dress, she notes that she couldn’t find a single one referring to the four seamstresses who worked on the gown. So I greatly appreciated her inclusion of the interview she had with Betty Foster, one of those four embroiderers in The Gown.
Note: Many thanks to William Morrow Paperbacks for sending me an ARC of The Gown.