Tess Collins can hardly believe her good fortune when the famous designer, Lady Lucille Duff Gordon, not only impulsively hires her to be her maid, but tells her they are departing for America immediately on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, the largest and grandest luxury liner ever built. Although she'd originally been hired as a seamstress for a local family, they'd used her as a lowly servant, so she quit and ran away, hoping to get a sewing job on the new ship. Even working as Lady Duff Gordon's maid might give Tess the opportunity to pursue her dream of learning about fashion and of becoming a successful dressmaker. The haughty Lady Duff Gordon's imperious, demeaning treatment of her cannot dampen Tess' appreciation of her new opportunities or her loyalty to the woman who is making them possible. As she explores the luxurious vessel she encounters 2 very different men who will become important to her--a handsome and wealthy businessman and a simple seaman. Just a few nights into the journey, on April 15, 1912, the USS Titanic strikes an iceberg, disappearing beneath the sea, but the legacy of that event endures through this story of how the horrific disaster shaped the lives of the survivors.
Although Tess is a fictional character, many of the featured players in this fascinating historical novel existed and if they were not well-known before, they became famous for their actions during and following the tragedy. Knowing that Bruce Ismay, the Titanic's manager would likely try to return to England in order to escape American jurisdiction, Senator William Alden Smith convened a panel to investigate the maritime disaster as soon as the Carpathia delivered the 712 survivors to New York harbor. Tess's benefactor, Lady Duff Gordon and her husband were vilified when witnesses charged that they commandeered a life boat built to hold 50 or more and ordered the crew to leave the sinking ship with only 12 aboard.
Kate Alcott's story is told through the points of view of Tess and Pinky (Sarah) Wade, a fearless, relentless reporter for The NY Times. The two meet and become friends as Pinky investigates and exposes the shortcomings of the Duff Gordons and Tess tries to help Lady Duff Gordon save her design studio, all the while balancing the attentions of the Titanic gentleman and the sailor. The story is entertaining, but Alcott goes beyond simple storytelling, by detailing how the laws and attitudes of the time affected fashion, politics, maritime reform and women's rights. Pinky and the "unsinkable" Molly Brown invite Tess to a suffragette rally and open her eyes to the idea of equal rights and equal pay for women. Tess observes working women risking their lives by trying to board trolleys wearing long, flowing skirts and she begins to design shorter, more practical dresses.
This audio book more than satisfies on several levels. Susan Duerden's British-accented presentation provides an air of authenticity to the largely historical account. The fact that she can assign American accents to the American characters enhances the realism of the listening experience. Because historical facts are intermingled so expertly with the story details, the listener is tempted to research people and events, resulting in new understanding of this iconic moment in history. The Dressmaker is an appropriate and thoughtful tribute to the men and women who sailed on the Titanic, and listening to this audio book is a fitting way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.
The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott
Read by Susan Duerden
Random House Audio, unabridged: 11 hours on 9 CDs