I read two books set in post-WWII Britain last month – The Other Windsor Girl by Georgie Blalock, and The Gown by Jennifer Robson. I enjoyed them both, but since I mentioned The Other Windsor Girl in February’s Round-Up, I’ve chosen to review The Gown for this month.
Like a lot of recent historical fiction books, this story was told using a dual timeline – 1947 and 2016. In 1947, when everything was still rationed and recovery from the war was slow, Ann Hughes lives with her widowed sister-in-law in a council house just outside of London. She travels into the city every day to her job as an embroiderer at royal dress designer Norman Hartwell’s shop, where the steady paycheck is almost more alluring to her than the occasional glimpse of the queen and Princess Elizabeth. When Miriam Dassin, a French refugee who worked for the Resistance, comes to London with a reference from Christian Dior, Hartnell promptly gives her a job and the women become fast friends – and roommates, once Ann’s sister-in-law emigrates to Canada.
When Princess Elizabeth announces her engagement to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, Norman Hartnell is chosen to design the wedding gown and Ann and Miriam are assigned the jobs of chief embroiderers. And at a time when the economy is struggling to recover, information on the gown’s design can bring a big payday. The women have to learn the hard way who they can and can’t trust.
In Canada in 2016, Heather Mackenzie is left mysterious embroidery samples by her beloved late grandmother, about whose past she knows next to nothing. Heather quickly realizes that the samples are nearly identical to the embroidered designs on Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress. Having just lost her job as a journalist, Heather takes the opportunity to visit London to find out more about her grandmother and hopefully connect with those who knew her so she can fill in the gaps of her grandmother’s past.
I really enjoyed this story. Stories told using the dual timeline technique don’t always appeal to me, as it sometimes seems as if the author feels they don’t have enough material and need to pad the main story. But in this case, the juxtaposition between Ann’s England and the one Heather came to know worked well. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about the British Royal Family and, of course, watching The Crown.