‘Dressmaker’ tells early 1900s story

Posted March 29, 2013

‘The Dressmaker”
By Kate Alcott


When looking at the cover of “The Dressmaker” by Kate Alcott, you may think you are about to read a delightful story about a young dressmaker back in the early 1900s.  After all, the cover is adorned with a beautiful tulle gown.

But, what you are about to read is a novel subject to so many rejections from publishers that the author had to sell it under a pen name.

Although the cover seems too good to be true (with that woman adorned in a purple gown bustled with a bow, and an author whose name so coincidentally sounds like an 18th-century woman) the author of the book is not actually Kate Alcott, but a woman named Patricia O’Brien.

After 13 rejections from different editors, her agent, Ether Newberg, proposed the idea of selling the book under a pen name and it actually worked.  The book sold in three days.

And no wonder she did. Although the book is enthralling through its non-fiction elements ,which surround the sinking of the Titanic, the author confuses readers with multiple story lines and difficult-to-read characters.  However, even though the book is not exactly a page-turner, it is a light-read that is easy to get through and can provide subtle entertainment.

The story begins in Cherbourg, France, where a maid named Tess imagines leaving her life scrubbing and making beds and becoming a woman of the upper class, as a designer in America.  Hearing about a colossal ship that is about to leave for New York with jobs available on board, she abruptly quits her job as a maid and makes her way to the dock in order to get on board.

Upon her arrival, she is braced with the gleaming vision of Lady Duff Gordon, one of the most famous couturieres of her generation and, above all, her idol and a woman whom she coincidentally saw outside the window of the home where she was working.  Tess decides to approach Gordon— which is highly doubtable due to the class system of the era— and bursts out her admiration, in hopes for a job sewing buttonholes, but instead she reluctantly accepts Gordon’s proposal to become a maid once again.

Tess is than thrust into the life of the Titanic, and Alcott does a decent job in describing the glamour upon the ship.  The railings, the marvelous dining rooms, and other overly adorned rooms are somewhat depicted although they could be enhanced as the reader may have trouble with the imagery (her descriptions are nowhere close to the those of the 1997 film by James Cameron.)

However, the book tends to be less about the ship itself and is more about the sinking and the effect it had on the survivors.  The other storyline is Tess’s yearning for the American dream, in which she is longing to be a dressmaker.

One of the more confusing parts of the book, however, tends to be the relationship between Tess and Lady Duff Gordon.  Gordon treats Tess like a maid one second, going so far as to insisting that she calls her Madame, and incessantly correcting her when she fails to do so.

But, there are times with Duff Gordon lifts her mean spirit and switches from her sardonic tone to one of a more caring and gentler self.  This confuses Tess, but all the more confuses readers as Lady Duff Gordon comes off as having some sort of personality disorder.

One relationship that is clear-cut and all the more expected is the relationship that Tess has with Jim Bonney, a sailor aboard the ship of whom she had a few brief encounters with before the sinking.  They share a common ground of being at the bottom of the class system in Europe, in hopes to come to America for brighter futures.

But, what keeps Tess from Bonney is her feelings for another man — a man named Jack Bremerton who sweeps her off her feet by letting her peer into the dining room of the rich and giving her a glimpse of the upper class life.  The obvious and expected cliché to the story is that Tess loves the man with less money, but feels like she should be in love with Bremerton because of all that the relationship can offer her.

Alcott does a satisfactory job mixing fact and fiction as it provides a strong background to the reader, but fails to do so correctly at certain points of the book.  If done properly however, O’Brien really could have pulled it off.  When making the class-system in that century such a focal point of the book, which she references page by page, how is it supposed to be believable?

Tess, a low-class maid, would likely be unable to approach a woman like Lady Duff Gordon, at all — let alone ask for a job.  Think of a homeless person approaching Diane Von Furstenberg and asking for a job in New York City — I don’t think so.

The one thing that O’Brien does do well, though, is give the true accounts of the trials that took place after the sinking.  The novel casts a strong light on the survivors, focusing on why certain lifeboats that were able to fill up to 60 passengers were nearly empty, and goes through the suffering and pain the survivors felt during he most difficult decision of their lives — whether to go back and save other people or risk getting swamped and potentially pulled down.

Intriguing and more of a light read, this novel may be a little hard to get through but it is not a total back-of-the-shelfer.  It does provide insight into the class system of the early 20th century in Europe and it is an interesting twist on the Titanic story.

O’Brien does a good job of humanizing Tess and all of the dilemmas she was faced with when coming to America as a young girl with big dreams.  However, next time O’Brien decides to publish a novel she may just want to use a different pen name.  This one was a little obvious.

  • Title: The Dressmaker
  • Author: Kate Alcott
  • ISBN-13: 9780307948199
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: Jan. 1, 2013
  • Availability: Amazon.com and local bookstores.