When Princess Elizabeth’s engagement to Philip Mountbatten was announced in 1947, her wedding dress was the subject of speculation and intrigue in war-exhausted England.
English designer Norman Hartnell was given the commission, and the gown — with a 15-foot train of tulle with embroidery plus crystal beads and pearls — was a Botticelli-inspired work of art.
It’s the work behind that art that forms the through-line of Jennifer Robson’s compelling and informative novel “The Gown.”
Robson is skilled at creating drama; the braided narrative shifts among three protagonists: Ann Hughes, a 25-year-old embroiderer in Hartnell’s London workroom; Miriam Dassin, a French emigre and Holocaust survivor who becomes Ann’s co-worker and friend; and Ann’s Canadian granddaughter, Heather, who receives — after her grandmother’s death in 2016 — a box of exquisite, embroidered flowers and sets out to discover their significance and her grandmother’s secret past.
The story spans 70 years, as the embroiderers’ fates diverge. Part of the pleasure of the novel is to see how lives unfurl over nearly a century — and to learn the secrets that the characters never will.
An Oxford-trained historian, Robson has a fine eye for detail. At its best, the novel is a gripping portrait of the aftermath of a war too often romanticized in American fiction and film. Occasionally, plot twists come out of nowhere.
The novel stumbles in its glancing treatment of the Holocaust, which risks becoming narrative window-dressing. And Robson strains to evoke Heather’s millennial sensibility.
For all that, Robson succeeds in creating a riveting drama of female friendship, of lives fully lived despite unbearable loss, and of the steadfast effort required to bring forth beauty after surviving war.
Historical fiction is fraught terrain. Leo Tolstoy was nervous about getting the details right when he penned “War and Peace”; George Eliot dismissed the whole genre as “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” As Alexander Chee notes in his 2016 essay for the New Republic, “Children of the Century,” the historical novel has experienced a resurgence since the 1990s, which makes me wonder if we look to the past when we’re uneasy about the future.
Writing from history, facts can eclipse character, as occasionally happens here. But like the accumulation of satin applique flowers, sequins, seed pearls, crystal beads and invisible stitches on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress, “The Gown” grows weighty, impressive, captivating as its details build.
For fans of “The Crown,” looking for history served up as intimate drama, and those seeking another angle on royal lives, “The Gown” seems likely to dazzle and delight.