Editorial Note – I was given a copy of Jennifer Robson’s The Gown in return for a review.
The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson is a moving story about loss, survival but most of all—love.
While the story centers around the making of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown, it follows the people behind the scenes making her gown. These are the hardworking people that make all the beauty and glamour of the royals look so effortless. The story begins in London 1947 where the announcement of a royal wedding is a much welcomed distraction from a city still suffering post-war. We follow Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. The novel then takes readers to Toronto 2016, as Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers from her late grandmother, who never spoke of her old life in Britain. For more about the synopsis, click here.
The Gown is told from the perspectives of Ann, Miriam and Heather. Ann and Miriam’s storylines mainly take place in 1947 while we follow Heather’s journey in 2016 to uncover the mystery behind her grandmother’s untold life before Canada. Each of the three women are distinct, likable and have a solid story arc. You feel for each at them at certain parts of the story and it will tug at your heart strings. Ann starts off fairly optimistic; she enjoys her work as an embroider, is extremely talented and feels honored to work on the royal family’s clothing. She’s also kind and very trusting, and as we find out, perhaps a little too trusting.
Miriam is also a good-hearted character but she’s experienced the unimaginable during the war when she lived in France. But Ann’s friendship and encouragement changes the course of her life for good.
Heather works as a journalist and loves her family, especially her grandmother, Nan. But when her Nan passes away and Heather is laid-off from her reporting job, she’s at a loss of what to do next. Until she discovers that her Nan experienced quite a life—working on Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding gown—that she decides to visit London to find out the truth about Nan’s past life there.
Setting the scene
You can tell that the author Jennifer Robson did plenty of research for this book. The descriptions of embroiders working on the gown is so vivid and memorable that it feels as if the book was written while the dress was actually being made. Robson’s research for the novel was extensive, which included a chance meeting with the Betty Foster, a seamstress who had worked at Hartnell on the Queen’s wedding gown in 1947. Foster also ends up having a small role in the novel as well!
Beyond the actual work on the dress, Robson also focuses on the intense press attention surrounded the making of the dress, including reporters stalking the workrooms and trying to bribe any of the workers to spill something about the design. It definitely provides a reminder that not much as changed in that arena, as anything with the royals is covered by countless media and anyone can serve as a ‘royal source.’ Still, for royal fans, there are some truly lovely moments including a visit to the workrooms by the Queen and the princesses as well as the day of the royal wedding.
Robson also paints the image of what life was like in post-war London and it was quite bleak. People living on rations and an extremely cold winter that no one could find warmth in. It seemed dreary and depressing but things seemed to take a more positive turn when the royal wedding was announced.
Strength and perseverance
A big theme of the novel is centered around these women, particularly Ann and Miriam, persevering despite much loss and suffering. We follow those two in the era that tried to box women into specific societal expectations and they both have to find ways to rise above it. They experience plenty of hardship and there are some tough scenes to read. But their friendship is endearing and such strong point of the novel. I also very much enjoyed Heather’s journey to London where she uncovers the mystery behind her Nan and much more.
The Gown is a beautifully-written novel about female self-reliance and strength among three women whose lives are bound together through love and friendship.