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 (an inspiration for “Phantom Thread”) was given the commission, and the gown — with a 15-foot train of tulle embroidered with “York roses . . . star flowers, ears of wheat, jasmine blossoms, and smilax leaves,” 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, whose previous novels include “Goodnight From London,” 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: Ann is courted by an aristocrat; Miriam befriends a charmingly frumpy magazine editor and begins to design tapestries that open a window on her past. 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: We learn that in postwar London, “early trains cost sixpence less”; that soap (like food and clothes) was rationed; that fennel and oranges were rare; that olive oil was sold primarily by pharmacists to treat earache. When Ann seeks work at age 14, the jobs listed at “the labor exchange” include “trainee shirt machinist, assistant nursemaid, restaurant cashier” and, of course, apprentice embroiderer.
At its best, the novel is a gripping portrait of the aftermath of a war too often romanticized in American fiction and film; the privations of global conflict and its lingering weight — in bombed-out streets, in coupons for necessities — make vivid both the hardship and unequal distribution of suffering. The comfortable remain comfortable even in uncomfortable times.
What most charms is Robson’s portrait of the work itself: “Miss Duley’s eye was infallible: if a bead sat in the wrong direction, or one strand of satin stitch sat proud of the rest, or even one sequin was duller than its neighbors, she would notice . . . and her left eyebrow would arch just so.” Robson vividly depicts the “large, brightly lit workroom . . . its bank of windows generously supplemented by hanging electric lights” and “scores of drawings and samples and photographs pinned to the whitewashed walls, with one entire section given over to the women of the royal family and their Hartnell gowns. The low tables along the perimeter of the workroom, their tops messily shingled with trays of beads and sequins, boxes of buttons, and skeins of embroidery silk.”
Occasionally plot twists come out of nowhere (serendipitous meetings, sudden villainy), and the plotting seems effortful when Heather ponders what the reader is clearly meant to: “ ‘If [Grandmother Ann] wanted to leave everything behind, then why did she bring these embroideries with her? . . . Why didn’t she ever show them to us?’ . . . What if, in searching for answers, [Heather] discovered something unsettling, even disturbing?”
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: “She hadn’t flown all that much, and she’d been worried she’d get antsy on the way over [to England] . . . and after a really horrible supper of some kind of ersatz stir-fry she even managed to fall asleep . . . it was almost a million stops from the airport into the city center.” Heather seems a cliche of intellectual imprecision and entitlement, benumbed by comfort, a foil for her hard-working, highly skilled forebear.
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.
E.J. Levy is the author of “Love, in Theory,” which won the Flannery O’Connor Prize.
By Jennifer Robson
William Morrow. 400 pp. $16.99.