Publisher: Atria Books
Ellen Gowan is the only surviving child of a scholarly village minister and a charming girl disowned by her family when she married for love. Growing up in rural Norfolk, Ellen’s childhood was poor but blessed with affection. Resilience, spirit, and one great talent will carry her far from such humble beginnings. In time, she will become the witty, celebrated, and very beautiful Madame Ellen, dressmaker to the nobility of England, the Great Six Hundred.
Yet Ellen has secrets. At fifteen she falls for Raoul de Valentin, the dangerous descendant of French aristocrats. Raoul marries Ellen for her brilliance as a designer but abandons his wife when she becomes pregnant. Determined that she and her daughter will survive, Ellen begins her long climb to success. Toiling first in a clothing sweat shop, she later opens her own salon in fashionable Berkeley Square though she tells the world – and her daughter - she’s a widow. One single dress, a ballgown created for the enigmatic Countess of Hawksmoor, the leader of London society, transforms Ellen’s fortunes, and as the years pass, business thrives. But then Raoul de Valentin returns and threatens to destroy all that Ellen has achieved.
I picked this book up off of the bargain reads shelf at my local bookstore based solely on the cover. It is absolutely lovely! I have seemed to develop a weakness for historical fashion novels. I had never read a book by Ms. Graeme-Evans before and I have to say, based on this novel, I will definitely keep my eye out for more of her novels. Her details of the time period and the setting allowed for the story to jump off of the page. It was as if you were sucked into the pages, back to Victorian England. The description of the dresses created were grand enough for you to see the gorgeous creations before your very eyes. Amazing imagery!
This was not simply a story. Ms. Graeme-Evans created a life in her writing; she managed to create the life of Ellen Gowan in a time where women were often oppressed. She created a believable protagonist who faces many difficulties because of class, wealth and circumstance. The author brings Ellen Gowan to life and does not hesitate to show the real challenges of life in Victorian England for those not of the upper class. The inequalities and hardships for women in the mid-19th century are clearly put on display.
I utterly enjoyed Ellen Gowan as a protagonist. She persevered through many trials and tribulations of being a woman in such a tremulous time for such. Not only is she at a disadvantage because of her gender, but also because of her class and to some extent, her intelligence (an educated women!? What a bizarre concept!). Despite all of the challenges she must face throughout her life, she is not a victim of her circumstances. She strives to create a better life for herself and for her family. She is also not a heroine, she works hard to create her own life and to create her own happiness. Ellen never gave up, no matter how desperate her circumstances were, she simply worked with them and managed to transform her life into something as beautiful as the dresses she created.