Readers who decide to pass on Alcott’s The Dressmaker
do themselves a great disservice. Regardless of the press coverage touting the novel as women’s romance fiction, the author does a fine job of capturing the essence of her subject matter, giving us a realistic and humanistic account of the sinking of the
RMS Titanic and the accompanying investigation in New York.
Alcott’s emphasis isn't so much on individual details but rather an overview, particularly the evolution of the survivors and how the disaster had such profound effect on them--especially ambitious young dressmaker Tess Collins, who joins the ship in Cherbourg, eager to get away from her life as a lady’s maid. With her dark, tousled hair and shabby boots, Tess pleads for a place, eager to work for leading fashion designer Lucile Lady Duff Gordon and her husband, Sir Cosmo, who have booked first-class passage on the doomed ocean liner.
The first chapters of The Dressmaker are soaked with available facts and details. When the slight bump comes, it’s nothing alarming, “just a jolt as if the ship were quivering.” Then there’s the sudden silence of the ships engines as Alcott unfurls that fateful night in full
Technicolor detail. The Duff-Gordons escape in Lifeboat 1--built to hold forty people, but lowered with just twelve and most of them crewmen. Then there’s the “the shabby and bedraggled, the famous and glamorous survivors," and the way cold bites deep into Tess’s bones while all across the black sea lay “the spurs of white”: the faces of the dead.
Most of what follows is a cat-and-mouse game between Tess and Lady Lucile. Even after the tragedy, both easily fit into the roles of master and servant.
The same rules apply even when they find themselves in New York, where Lucile is desperately trying to keep her fading fashion empire going amid rumors of corruption and bribes in which smooth liars and the power of money seem to rule the day. Lucile’s imperious
stance is astounding, this “not-too-nice doyenne of the fashion world"---and for sure something shady happened on that lifeboat, the shape and truth
of which Tess might never know.
Tess hates the shiver of “needed subservience” that sweeps over her, “her own inner pride quavering and mixed with shame.” Only independent
New York Times reporter Pinky Wade, who befriends Tess and plies her for information about the tragedy, can help her take the first tentative steps to stand up to challenges to do what you want. Pinky is positive the Duff- Gordons are the perfect foils for the real issue: that on the
Titanic, mostly poor people died and mostly rich people were saved.
Telling her story through the eyes of poor characters as well as the privileged, of young people as well as old, Alcott balances Tess’s growth in America against the rapidly changing world of fashion, the bourgeoning suffragette movement, and the congressional investigation which revealed a mess of inept people, bungled jobs and selfishness. From the descriptions of New York to the famous characters who populate this great city, there is a constant shifting in the balance of power between all of the participants. Tess
also finds herself blinded by two very different romantic choices.
Alcott's moving recreation of the Titanic is the highlight of the novel, but just as compelling is Tess’s journey as she moves though a harsh world, running on her own iceberg while, like the delicate silks she so admires, she attempts to stitch her life together in a society that is cracking apart with change.