by Jennifer Robson
William Morrow, 2019
The sumptuous dress Princess Elizabeth wore at her wedding to Philipp Mountbatten in 1947 was as much a national symbol as it was a sartorial triumph, and as such it was carefully stage-managed from start to finish. The gown, a fountain ivory silk shimmering with 10,000 seed pearls, was the creation of Court Designer Norman Hartnell, the pinnacle of his craft, an utterly arresting bolt of sunlight meant to pierce the gloom of a postwar Britain frozen by unprecedented cold and ground down with rationing. Conceived by some of the same canny old courtiers who'd successfully navigated the monarchy through the tangles of Abdication, the wedding gown was intended to be a very pragmatic real-world demonstration of the inspirational power of a fairy tale. The Palace bruited that the dress had been paid for with ration coupons just as though it were going to belong to a grocer's daughter from Bognor Regis, but the end result, kept secret until the moment of its unveiling, was a thing of staggering luxury.
Considering that this wedding gown debuted over 70 years ago, there's something faintly surreal about the fact the young princess who wore it still sits on the throne: Queen Elizabeth's reign has grown so long that its beginnings are now the province of historical fiction. And the making of this astonishing wedding dress is the kernel of Jennifer Robson's involving new novel The Gown, which splits its narrative focus between the London of 1947 and Toronto in 2016, stretching between those two moments the story of two women intimately connected with the making of Hartnell's masterpiece.
In 1947, Ann Hughes is living in a chilly, dreary flat in Barking with her sister-in-law Milly, whose husband Mike died in a fire during the Blitz, “burned beyond recognition, they'd been told, with even his wedding ring melted away.” Ann is part of the team working in Hartnell's studio on the elaborate embroidery the top-secret gown requires, and she considers it something of a dream job, despite Milly's skepticism about the worth of adding yet more luxury to the life of a young woman who's never needed to scrimp on flimsy stew night after night. Ann takes a more empathetic view:
The royal family had made sacrifices, same as the rest of them. Bombed out more than once, and the king's own brother killed. The princess deserved a proper wedding in Westminster Abbey with beautiful music and flowers and decorations, a troop of bridesmaids, and a glorious gown. Surely the government would understand. Surely the gray-faced men in Whitehall wouldn't insist on some dreary affair that conformed to all their tiresome austerity directives.
Ann's enigmatic friend Miriam Dassin stars in the novel's 2016 segments, which Robson interweaves very skillfully with the historical segments. By 2016 the gown has become a valuable artifact of a bygone era, and there are elements of its history that Miriam alone can clarify. These sections set in the present day are naturally far less compelling than the ones set on the eve of the royal wedding, and both Miriam and Ann are plaster-cast saints without a single interesting blemish between them. Robson actually manages to work a semi-tense plot around the jockeying of many parties to learn about the gown ahead of Hartnell's announcement of its look and details, and there are two scenes that deviate shockingly from the novel's generally genteel tenor. But the book's strongest element is its negotiation of the past slipping away from the present, something that's exquisitely pointed, for instance, when Ann's work is finally done and her creation is about to belong to the world:
Ann hadn't expected it to be such a bittersweet moment. She would see the dress again in a matter of hours, but her part in its creation was over. This was the last time she would touch the flowers she had sewn, and the last time she would be close enough to see the tiny sprigs of white heather, tucked below one of the York roses at the bottom of the train, which were her gift to the princess.
The Gown is a fittingly delicate piece of work, capturing with quiet assurance the London of a long-gone era and finding a fascinating story in the fold of one single dress. Surely comparatively few of Robson's readers will remember this particular royal wedding, but The Gown makes a tiny part of it come to life again.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.