Pan | 2019 (21 February) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
Miss Charlotte is admired by many. She runs her own successful costumier business and dresses some of the grandest ladies in society. Not many women in London during the 1760s live such independent lives. But Charlotte’s life has not been an easy one. She was abandoned as an infant, given away to the Foundling Hospital, which, because the roll of the dice (or the coloured balls) fell in her favour, cared for her and gave her an education. Life didn’t get any easier when she left their care but Charlotte was saved when her elder sister, Louisa, found her and gave Charlotte the family and security she needed. But when Charlotte buys pieces of silk in an auction, she finds a small scrap that stirs within her memories that remain just out of reach. She knows it means something and she will not rest until she discovers what that is.
The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane is a novel that enchanted me. It takes us back to a world that has always fascinated me ever since I read of the Foundling Museum in London where you can see the tokens that distraught mothers left with their abandoned babies so that they might one day identify them and reclaim them. This so seldom happened. You can feel their pain and Liz Trenow brings that alive in this wonderful novel.
The dressmaking business is an aside. It gives Charlotte her independence to investigate the mystery that obsesses her, although, having said that, the vagaries of business, especially for a woman, are made clear here. Survival is so difficult. Destitution seems such a small step away. We also see the hardship that women suffer who have husbands they depend upon who are not worthy of them. Charlotte is spared that but she is well aware of the power that men can have over a woman. It’s a theme that runs through the novel and it is compelling.
We also see the other dangers that could face women – the peril of childbirth, the fear of losing a child to disease, their financial dependency on men. Charlotte wants to live a safe, independent life, but she is well aware of these dangers, she sees their impact on her sister and beloved nephew. She has experienced them herself. She also has women working for her. She feels responsible for them.
And yet, despite all of these concerns and fears, which form the heart of the novel, Charlotte is driven to discover the mystery of her past. I was enthralled by it and couldn’t wait to discover the truth. I loved the novel’s historical setting and its descriptions of the clothing that gives Charlotte her independence. The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane might be a gentle and relatively light read but there’s a power to it, as well as some disturbing moments. It contains a serious message – about the fragility of life in 18th-century England, especially for children and women in labour, and the misery of women who had no choice but to give their babies up to the Foundling Hospital, and this is well worth reading about, especially when it’s done as well as it is here.
The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane follows on from The Silk Weaver, which focused on Charlotte’s friend Anna, but it stands alone perfectly.