On November 19, Vaughan Public Libraries is proud to present In Conversation with Jennifer Robson in partnership with our friends at Hoopla and HarperCollins. Pour yourself a cuppa and join us!
If, like me, you are still missing Downton Abbey, or are not-so-patiently waiting for the next season of The Crown (November 15 on Netflix!), why not sate your appetite with some historical fiction? Jennifer Robson’s The Gown is a fascinating peek into a largely overlooked part of history. I can tell you exactly what Kate Middleton’s and Meghan Markle’s wedding dresses looked like, but I could not tell you who designed them (upon googling: Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, and Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy, respectively). Even less could I tell you who made those gorgeous gowns by hand.
The titular gown here refers to the one worn by then-Princess Elizabeth during her wedding to Prince Phillip. Robson’s novel follows three women: Ann and Miriam in 1947, and Heather in 2016. Ann and Miriam are both embroiders working for the prestigious British designer Norman Hartnell, tasked with creating a wedding gown befitting a future queen. In modern day, Heather is left behind an expensive piece of embroidered silk by her grandmother, and sets out overseas to piece together the life of this mysterious woman. Robson’s tale takes us from war-ravaged England to current-day Toronto and London, tracing the lives of these three very different women.
Fans of historical fiction are in for a treat with The Gown; meticulously researched, the novel’s sense of place and time will envelop you, like the warm and welcoming glow of Hartnell’s workshop. And it’s no wonder Robson recreates this setting beautifully, as she is a scholar of the economic and social history of early 20th century Britain. Particularly apt is her doctoral thesis, which focused partially on the rationing of clothing during WWII. This academic background is seeped into her writing, in small details that bring a sense of tangible reality to this historical tale. Interestingly enough, one of the doubts of my reading experience was just how nice everyone at Hartnell is. I thought, there’s no way everyone gets along this well. Where’s the workplace drama? Where are the rude superiors? Surely, at a prestige fashion house like Hartnell, everyone would be posh and snobby? Not the case, it turns out! In an interview with the Thunder Bay Public Library, Robson recounts a story from her on-the-ground research at the former Hartnell location in London, in which the head seamstress (overseeing the making of Elizabeth’s gown) “invited every woman in the sewing workroom to add a stitch to the princess’s gown; that way they could all rightly say they had helped to make it”.
Even in real life, Hartnell’s legacy’s shows up in heartwarming places. The most recent royal wedding took place in July of this year, between Princess Beatrice and Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi. Just as her grandmother—the current queen—was married following the devastation of the war, and thus had to ration the cloth for her own dress, Beatrice was married in the midst of a pandemic. Rather than source a new dress, Beatrice chose to rework an old gown of Elizabeth’s—a 1960s Hartnell design. This sense of warmth, of teamwork and just general loveliness saturates every page of The Gown. Even when Ann is freezing in her little council house, in a winter so cold it might as well be Canadian, the coziness of the house, the hearth of the fireplace, and the kettle on the stove are a comfort to read about.
Just in time for gloomy November, we’re happy to bring some much needed comfort into your homes. Robson will be interviewed by local writer, author, and podcaster Louise Johnson. Johnson has written for The Globe and Mail, Flare Magazine, and The Huffington Post. If you are one of the millions of quarantine bread bakers, you might want to check out her article on the science behind the phenomenon. Johnson has also worked as a professional speaker for the University of Toronto and the Harvard Business Association, among others! Her bookish podcast, the Word Weaver Podcast, is available on Apple, Stitcher, and Spotify.