Today I am excited to share my review of The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson. I was really excited to read this book about Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress because I love the British royals. When William and Kate got married several years ago, my mom woke us up early to watch the Queen come in, then the bride and groom. It was magical. I was even on study abroad in London the summer after William and Kate got married and you better believe I bought Royal Wedding souvenirs.
This book tells the story of two women who worked on the embroidery on (at the time) Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress in 1947 to Prince Philip. This is the original global royal wedding in that it was the first to be broadcast around the world. Also, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip have now been married for over 70 years which is the most beautiful part of this story.
- While historical figures like Queen Mary, Princess Elizabeth and the designer Norman Hartnell are characters in this book, the main characters are all fictional. This was disappointing to me at first. But by the end I came to appreciate the way Robson created this intricate story within a well known historical time period.
- I wish I could see Miriam’s famous embroidery panels in person (which also make them real). They sound stunning!
- The descriptive details in this novel are gorgeous. From the description of Ann’s first bite of spaghetti to the intricate detail of the heather design on the gown to the garden at Kaz’s friends home, I felt like I was experiencing the small details of these characters’ lives. They felt real because of those details.
According to Goodreads, “London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.
Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?”
I enjoyed the dual timelines in this novel although the 1947 plot was more fascinating to me. Dual timelines are a favorite motif of mine lately because it’s engaging to discover the way the plots are connected throughout the novel. In this one, we must piece together how the characters’ relationships in the 1940’s change based on their different situations in 2016. I think both timelines were well done. I was fascinated by the descriptions of life in England after WWII. I haven’t read much that gives so much detail about the rationing and difficult winter of 1947. I would have liked even more discussion of how the people lived and what the Royal Wedding did for their spirits and hope at this time. There is a brief conversation between Ann and Miriam about it. But I would have loved more.
Miriam was my favorite character because of her thought provoking background and quiet strength. I haven’t read many novels that explore how Jewish concentration camp survivors continued their lives after WWII. I was fascinated by the ways she coped with her traumatic experiences and rebuilt her trust and strength again. I felt her fear and her pain as she worked towards building a new life in London amidst her grief and guilt. I absolutely loved her relationship with Kaz and the tender, kind way he treated her. He is a keeper! I love how he builds her up and helps her find peace from her past. Her interactions with Heather years later are as tender and kind as I hoped!
I really loved all the details about Queen Elizabeth’s dress and how they made it. From the samples and drawings to hand stitching the many roses, wheat, and other flowers, the details were incredible. I can’t believe how much time was spent on the dress and the amount of work that was necessary to complete it. Wow! Ann and Miriam (and the real women who worked on the dress) had unique talents and gifts that were shared with the world. I enjoyed the surprise visit from the Queen and princesses to see the progress on the dress. Robson creates an emotional feast for readers as we feel anxiety, fear, pride, hope, and joy during the course of their visit. The end of my copy of the book had an interview with the author where she discusses her research process and who she talked to about the construction of the dress. That was really neat to read!
Skip the last part of the review if you don’t want to know the ending!**
However, the ending really didn’t work for me. A friend told me about the violent rape scene later in the book so I could avoid it. I don’t like reading stuff like that. I don’t like the way Ann is taken advantage of because it doesn’t really make sense with the rest of the story. Why did Jeremy single her out in the first place? Why does he suddenly decide to steal her drawings? It felt like a cop out instead of a clearly developed ending to the story. It didn’t add anything to the story for me. Overall, I think I would have been fine without Heather’s perspective. Perhaps just a focus on the two women through the years and how they lost touch and reconnected or something. Ann could have left England without being disgraced like that. In a novel where there is so much beauty, deep friendships, difficulties overcome, this didn’t fit. But it didn’t ruin the whole novel for me which I was relieved to discover.
Overall, a beautiful tribute to the women that made the gown for the royal wedding and the British spirit post WWII. I loved the historical details and Miriam’s story was especially beautiful. If you are a fan of British Royals especially Royal Weddings, this is a book for you!
How do you feel about Royal Weddings?
Have you read any historical novels based in post WWII England?