Tess Collins is a maidservant desperate to escape the narrow class boundaries of 1912 England in Kate Alcott’s historical fiction novel The Dressmaker. Tess knows there is no future as a maidservant to women who treat her disdainfully, especially with sons with roving hands.
Her plan is to find a job aboard a ship sailing to the United States where she might have an opportunity to fulfill her dream as a seamstress. Tess has talent, developed during childhood, while she spent endless hours with her mother who taught her excellence.
By fortunate chance, the Titanic is readying to set sail for New York. By even more fortuitous happenstance, Lady Lucile Duff Gordon and her husband, Cosmo, are passengers on the Titanic travelling to New York, where Lady Duff Gordon will showcase her exclusive designer dresses. On impulse, Lady Duff Gordon hires Tess as a personal maid for the voyage.
Tess meets a sailor, who she dismisses as a “village boy”, and a Chicago business tycoon who show interest in her on board the Titanic.
We all know the Titanic’s fate, so this is not a spoiler. The Titanic sinks and the Duff Gordons, first class passengers, survive by being privileged travellers who are put into a lifeboat. Tess, manages to jump into the last lifeboat lowered.
In due course, the survivors are picked up by the Carpathia and transported to New York. On the Carpathia, Tess once against meets up with the sailor and feels a bond, but fights it. She wants more than a village boy. The tycoon, initially presumed dead, is later identified as one of the injured on the Carpathia.
Senator Smith determines an inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic and loss of life will begin as soon as the Carpathia docks. Mysteries and questions abound regarding the chaos as the Titanic went down. The Senator is determined to discover what actually happened during those horrific minutes and hours.
Lady Duff Gordon keeps Tess on, but not as a personal maidservant. She puts Tess to work on her designer dressmaking floor. Tess is delighted but soon discovers Lady Duff Gordon is a rather mercurial character, one moment mentoring and the next disparaging.
Pinky Wade, daughter of a news reporter, is one of the few women reporters in the business. She is assigned to the Titanic hearings. Her instinct and contradictory witness reports drive her to investigate the last moments on the Titanic. Rumors Lady Duff Gordon left others to die to save herself circulate.
Tess feels bound by loyalty to Lady Duff Gordon, but her sailor friend plants suspicions in her mind about Lady Duff Gordon’s actions. Meanwhile, Duff Gordon throws tantalizing tidbits Tess’s way so Tess will remain in her employ. This is one situation where I had difficulty with this novel. Why was Duff Gordon intent on retaining Tess? The answer, when it arrives, is trite. It seems the author threw in the explanation without much thought to giving this nagging question depth.
Then there is the overused menage a toi. Both the tycoon and sailor vie for Tess’s heart. Who will she choose?
Overall, I found The Dressmaker a lightweight and predictable novel. I read it in practically one day which, for me, signals a lack of substance. If you’re looking for a fast beach read, The Dressmaker may satisfy.
For these reasons, I give The Dressmaker:
My rating: *** 3 Stars (Good)