Book Reading

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

Join us in reading a book together! The selection is Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini, about the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a former slave who won her freedom by the skill of her needle.

The book was chosen from a list of suggestions by SCHS members. A survey was passed out at the October 2013 general meeting for members to pick the book or books that they would most like to read. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel edged out three other books;

Herman the German: Enemy Alien U.S. Army Master Sergeant by Gerhard Newmann
The Enemy Among Us: POW’s in Missouri during World War II by David W. Fiedler
Lee and Grant: A Dual Biography by Gene Smith

See the full list of books suggested by SCHS members, go to Book survey.

Another book title suggested is The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin.

If we enjoy reading this first book together and discussing it, one of these other three titles could become our second selection to read together.

In the meantime, our selection is Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini. You may buy the book on your own or borrow a copy form the St. Louis County library system.


Jennifer Chiaverini says about the book:
New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini’s compelling historical novel unveils the private lives of Abraham and Mary Lincoln through the perspective of the First Lady’s most trusted confidante and friend, her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley.

In a life that spanned nearly a century and witnessed some of the most momentous events in American history, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born a slave. A gifted seamstress, she earned her freedom by the skill of her needle, and won the friendship of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln by her devotion. A sweeping historical novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel illuminates the extraordinary relationship the two women shared, beginning in the hallowed halls of the White House during the trials of the Civil War and enduring almost, but not quite, to the end of Mrs. Lincoln’s days.”

To actually “look inside” the book as the photo above suggests, go to

 SCHS Winter programming theme: Women and Race

There is a theme in the programming and events this cold winter of 2014. The theme is women and race in America. The book Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel deals with women and race in the era of the American Civil War. Part of the appeal of the book is that these are issues of much relevance to all of us today, black and white, male and female.

General US Grant comes up a number of times in the book, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel. And then of course, Grant appears in a new role as post Civil War president, very much dealing with the issues left over from the Civil War, Reconstruction and race. The reading of the book, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker directly relates to two presentations that we are having this winter at Friendship Village Sunset Hills, as part of the SCHS at Friendship Village program.

The two talks will be given by Pam Sanfilippio, head historian at the US Grant National Historic Site, White Haven. The talks will be on February 6 and March 6. Descriptions of the two talks are below, and are also found on the page, Events – 2014.

SCHS at Friendship Village
Thursday, February 6, 2:30 pm.
Pam Sanfilippo speaks; “Sunlight and Shadow: Women’s Spaces at White Haven”
Ms. Sanfilippo’s talk examines relationships between enslaved women and their mistresses through the lens of the women of White Haven: women of privilege like Julia Dent Grant and her mother Ellen Wrenshall Dent, and enslaved women like Mary Robinson, Eadie, Phyllis, Kitty and others.  This talk highlights the inequalities that existed in close proximity, and how the things these women left behind allow us to tell their stories today.  Using excerpts from Julia’s memoirs and other writings, archaeological evidence uncovered at White Haven, an interview with Mary Robinson and more, this presentation places these women in the context of their times and explores women’s changing roles in the 19th century. Pam Sanfilippo is the lead historian at the Grant National Historic Site.

SCHS at Friendship Village
Thursday, March 6, 2:30 pm
“Ulysses and Julia: The White House Years” by Pam Sanfilippo
Did you know that the eight years the Grant family spent in the White House were the most they ever lived in one place? In this PowerPoint presentation, Pam Sanfilippo will share stories and pictures of Ulysses and Julia Grant’s White House years, from both a family perspective and their experiences as President and First Lady. Both Ulysses and Julia recognized and used their roles in the nation to reunite the country after civil war and political infighting and ensure civil rights for the newly freed African Americans. Through it all, they continued to call St. Louis home.

Read the book, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker to get the full effect of this series, or pick and choose. Any way you go about it, you will be looking at the issues of women and race so relevant and important to us today. Or if themes and heavy issues are too much for you to handle, think of the book and the presentations as being full of good stories full of human interest, because that is what they are and that is much of the appeal. Enjoy! Or learn and enjoy, either way, please come join us February 6 and March 6 at Friendship Village.

Book discussion dates:


The quilt Elizabeth Keckley made for Mrs. Lincoln which is featured in the book, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel.” See link below to view video about the quilt.

Wednesday, January 15, 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm

First book discussion date
Anne Morrow Lindbergh Room at Lindbergh High School – see map to high school
Borrow or buy the book now, read it and we will meet in January to discuss it. The date is January 15, a Wednesday night at 7:00 pm in the Anne Morrow Lindbergh Room at Lindbergh High School. If you would like to bring snacks or drinks for yourself or to share, please feel free. Feel free to bring a warm comforter!

This program is free and open to the public. It is hoped that the price of admission is for each person attending to have read Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel. If you have questions about this book discussion event, call Stephen Hanpeter. See Contact Us page.

Watch a video about Elizabeth Keckley and the quilt she made for Mrs. Lincoln which is featured in the book, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel.”

Wednesday, February 17, 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Second book discussion date

Anne Morrow Lindbergh Room at Lindbergh High School
This second date may help out those who had trouble getting the reading done over the holidays.

Participating in the discussion long distance:
Please note that for those of you who are separated from ordinary SCHS events by distance, this is an event made for your participation. Participating is a book discussion by long distance can be done in a number of ways, whatever you feel most comfortable with:

Easiest is to send comments by email.
* Also easy is calling on the phone the night of the discussion. Skype would work the same way.
There are more complicated ways, but why not try easy first?

If you want discussion questions sent to you the day before the “Diiscussion Day” please email Stephen Hanpeter. See Contact Us page.

Resources and background information about “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel.”

Listen to radio interview of Jennifer Chiaverini about “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” January 22, 2013 on St. Louis Public Radio.

Jennifer Chiaverini’s official website presents information on all the Chiaverini books, but see especially the page about Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker which lists reviews of the book and other links related to “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.”

Jennifer Chiaverini’s Facebook page.

Elizabeth Keckley entry on Wikipedia.

The Reading Guide includes both an interview with Jennifer Chiaverini and a list of discussion questions for the book. The same questions are posted below.

The New York Times book review, January 9, 2013.

St. Louis Post Dispatch book review, January 13, 2013.

The, January 28, 2013.

Watch a video about Elizabeth Keckley and the quilt she made for Mrs. Lincoln which is featured in the book, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel.” See photo of the quilt above.

Discussion questions

Two sets of discussion questions follow; one general and one for specifically for Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel.

General questions for fiction from

Use our general fiction questions to get your book club discussions off to a good start. They’re basic but smart.

1. How did you experience the book? Were you engaged immediately, or did it take you a while to “get into it”? How did you feel reading it—amused, sad, disturbed, confused, bored…?

2. Describe the main characters—personality traits, motivations, inner qualities.

• Why do characters do what they do?

• Are their actions justified?

• Describe the dynamics between characters

(in a marriage, family, or friendship).

• How has the past shaped their lives?

• Do you admire or disapprove of them?

• Do they remind you of people you know?

3. Do the main characters change by the end of

the book? Do they grow or mature? Do they learn something about themselves and how the world works?

4. Is the plot engaging—does the story interest you? Is this a plot-driven book: a fast-paced page-turner? Or does the story unfold slowly with a focus on character development? Were you surprised by the plot’s complications? Or did you find it predictable, even formulaic?

5. Talk about the book’s structure. Is it a continuous story…or interlocking short stories? Does the time-line more forward chronologically…or back and forth between past and present? Does the author use a single viewpoint or shifting viewpoints? Why might the author have choosen to tell the story the way he or she did—and what difference does it make in the way you read or understand it?

6. What main ideas—themes—does the author explore? (Consider the title, often a clue to a theme.) Does the author use symbols to reinforce the main ideas? (See our free LitCourses on both Symbol and Theme.)

7. What passages strike you as insightful, even profound? Perhaps a bit of dialog that’s funny or poignant or that encapsulates a character? Maybe there’s a particular comment that states the book’s thematic concerns?

8. Is the ending satisfying? If so, why? If not, why not…and how would you change it?

9. If you could ask the author a question, what would you ask? Have you read other books by the same author? If so how does this book compare. If not, does this book inspire you to read others?

10. Has this novel changed you—broadened your perspective? Have you learned something new or been exposed to different ideas about people or a certain part of the world?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)


Discussion questions specifically for Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel from The Reading Guide

1. What are Elizabeth Keckley’s most admirable qualities? What makes her such an appealing figure?

2. Mrs. Lincoln and Elizabeth both suffer terrible tragedies. Elizabeth was born into slavery, raped by her white master, and betrayed by her husband. She lost her only son in the war and was the victim of a scandal that damaged her reputation and left her in poverty. Mrs. Lincoln lost three of her four sons, as well as her husband, and was also the victim of devastating scandals and financial distress. How do they respond differently to the trials that life throws at them?

3. What picture of President Lincoln emerges in the novel? In what ways does the novel deepen our understanding of Lincoln, both as a political leader and as a husband, father, and friend?

4. Elizabeth likes to think “that she too had played some small part in helping President Lincoln know the desires and worries of colored people better. She hoped she had used, and would always use, her acquaintance with the president and her time in the White House for the good of her race” [p. 192]. In what ways—direct and indirect—did Elizabeth helpe the cause of people of color during her time in the White House? How might her personal example of dignity, compassion, and integrity have helped her cause? What actions does she undertake on behalf of her race?

5. Why is the press so eager to vilify Mrs. Lincoln? Are any of their criticisms deserved?

6. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Lincoln tells Elizabeth, “You are the only good, kind friend I have anymore, and I don’t know how I shall get along without you” [p. 259]. Why does Mrs. Lincoln come to rely so heavily on Elizabeth? In what ways is Elizabeth a loyal and generous friend to Mrs. Lincoln? What does she offer Mrs. Lincoln beyond dressmaking?

7. Late in her life, Elizabeth tells the reporter, Mr. Fry, “When I am most in distress, I think of what I often heard Mr. Lincoln say to his wife: ’Don’t worry, Mother, because all things will come out right. God rules our destinies” [p. 349]. Does the novel itself seem to confirm Mr. Lincoln’s belief in divine providence? Does Lincoln’s death seem fated?

8. What are some of the novel’s most moving scenes? How is Chiaverini able to bring the era, as well as the Lincoln family, so vividly to life?

9. What are Elizabeth’s intentions in writing her memoir? In what ways does the editor of Carleton & Co., Mr. Redpath, take advantage of her?

10. One reviewer of Elizabeth’s memoir, Behind the Scenes, writes that “The Line must be drawn somewhere, and we protest that it had better be traced before all the servant girls are educated up to the point of writing up the private history of the families in which they may be engaged” [p. 321]. Why do the critics respond with such hostility—and inaccuracy—to her book? Why would they feel threatened by it?

11. How does Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker complement and add to the portrait of President Lincoln in the recent, Oscar–winning film “Lincoln”? Wikipedia article about the Spielberg movie.

12. Elizabeth learns from Mrs. Lincoln’s negative example that “the only way to redeem oneself from scandal was to live an exemplary life every day thereafter” [p. 325]. In what ways is her life, not just after the scandal but her entire life, exemplary?

13. Reflecting on her teaching at Wilberforce University, Elizabeth feels that “Her greatest legacy could not be measured in garments or in words but in the wisdom she had imparted, in the lives made better because she had touched them” [p. 339]. In what ways does Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker also strengthen Elizabeth’s legacy? How much did you know about her before reading the novel?

Photos from movies and plays featuring Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.

The images below are from the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie, “Lincoln.”


The images below are from a recent play about the Lincoln family, “Mary T. & Lizzy K.”


Below left:
Velvet gown made by Keckly and worn by Mrs. Lincoln for the Washington, D.C. 1861 winter social season. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute. SMITHSONIAN — The Smithsonian Institute

Below right:
Elizabeth Keckley shown dressing Mary Todd Lincoln Image: Lincoln Library and Museum

Chiaverini book signing in our area:

Jennifer Chiaverini visits St. Peters on Sunday, January 19, 2014 to do book signing for new novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. See more on Related Events in Area page.

Other recent novels by Jennifer Chiaverini that may be of interest and there is more up to date information on Jennifer Chiaverini’s official website.

Editorial note

The number of times that the name Elizabeth Keckley appears on this page may be small compared to uses of the Lincoln name. This may reflect the support role that Elizabeth Keckley held and it also follows her demeanor. But just to state for clarity that the book, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel, is told from the view point of Elizabeth Keckley and the book is very much about Elizabeth and her relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln.
Stephen Hanpeter – copy editor for this page and book discussion leader


schs green book photo bar graphic combo

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