Book Review – The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker
A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the Titanic.  I’ve often thought about the ship’s passengers.  In my younger years, I gobbled up everything I could find on the vessel’s unfortunate demise and those on board.  I devoured anything I could read about those lost at sea, as well as those who survived.  And I’ve often wondered “what happened the next day?”  A lot of books focus on the days leading up to the ship’s voyage and the tragic events of April 14, 1912, but few focus on the survivors and what happened in the days following their rescue by the Carpathia.

Several weeks ago, I stumbled across The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott.  When I realized it was about the Titanic, I knew it would immediately go in my queue to read.  What I hadn’t realized is that the story would focus less on the events and lives of the passengers leading up to (and ending) with the sinking of that great vessel, and more on the heroism and/or greed of the survivors. For instance:  with all of the lifeboats that were launched in those last few moments, most were filled far from capacity.  Why, then, did only one lifeboat go back to pick up survivors?  Alcott addresses these basic questions in her historically-based work of fiction, The Dressmaker.

As the first pages open, we meet Tess Collins – a young woman of very limited means who has walked away from her job as a servant that very morning.  She has great dreams for her future, and the talent to take her the distance.  When she approaches the Titanic on the morning it disembarks from Cherbourg, England, she talks her way into a position as a maid with the infamous Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, an influential and well-known dress designer who would become one of the most notorious and despised of the rich elite survivors.

The Dressmaker is the story of a young Titanic survivor as she begins her new life in a new world, and her relationship to Lady Duff Gordon who, together with her husband, are accused of bribing White Star officers on board their lifeboat to not go back for survivors.  And, while historical data tells us that this part is true, there seems to be some disagreement regarding whether Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon actually bribed the officers not to return for survivors, or whether he simply gave them a charitable contribution after the fact as a “thanks” for their roles in saving their lives.  The truth is that we’ll never know the truth, but Alcott examines this question closely and draws reasonable conclusions.

In the midst of all of this is Tess Collins.  Though she boarded the ship as a short-term maid to Lady Duff Gordon, her skills as a seamstress don’t escape the famous designer’s notice.  She is quickly taken “under the wing” of the great designer with new and greater opportunities available to her in this new country.  But what is Lady Duff Gordon’s incentive?  What has motivated her to choose Tess as her prodigy?  And, if those motives are less than honorable, how honorable will Tess be when faced with a successful future, fame and riches versus an honorable and humble life without lies and deceit?  Will Tess stay true to herself to achieve her goals, or will she be influenced by the lies and deceit of her mentor in her quest for success?

The Dressmaker is a beautiful story about human character.  It asks the question, “what would you do?”  In times of crisis, would you be an “each man for himself” person, or would you lend a hand to your fellow man if the consequences might mean your own death?

This book is available through the Rochester Public Library in traditional format and audio CD.

Check out this YouTube Trailer for Kate Alcott’s Book, The Dressmaker

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