The Gown (Robson)

The Gown:  A Novel of the Royal Wedding 
Jennifer Robson, 2018
400 pp.

An enthralling historical novel about one of the most famous wedding dresses of the twentieth century—Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown—and the fascinating women who made it.

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel." —Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London, 1947:
Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory.

Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016:
More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother.

How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created.

Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—January 5, 1970
Where—Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
Education—B.A., University of Western Ontario; Ph.D., Oxford University
Currently—lives in Toronto, Canada

Jennifer Robson is a Canadian writer and former journalist living in Toronto, Canada. She has written three books—Moonlight Over Paris (2016), After the War is Over (2015), and Somewhere in France (2013)—all novels that use as their starting point, or background setting, Europe's Great War.

Perhaps it was her father, noted historian Stuart Robson, who passed on his love of history to Jennifer, a "lifelong history geek," as she refers to herself. In fact, it was her father from whom she first learned of the Great War, (1914-1918, which Americans refer to as World War I). Later she served as an official guide at the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France, one of the war's major battle sites.

Jennifer studied French literature and modern history as an undergraduate at King’s College at the University of Western Ontario, then attended Saint Antony’s College at the University of Oxford, where she earned her doctorate in British economic and social history. While at Oxford, she was both a Commonwealth Scholar and a Doctoral Fellow of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Before turning to full-time writing, Jennifer spent time as an editor. She and her husband have three children, a sheepdog and cat, and live in Toronto. (Adapted from the author's website.)

Book Reviews
(Starred Review) [A] satisfying multigenerational epic…. Robson’s meticulous attention to historical details—notably the intricacies of the embroidery work—is a wonderful complement to the memorable stories of Ann and Milly… a winning, heartwarming tale.
Publishers Weekly

Alternating time lines between 1947 Britain and 2016 Canada, Robson vividly brings to life… three women's struggles. Historical details about fabric, embroidery, and the royal family… with light romance round out this charming work. —Lynnanne Pearson, Skokie P.L., IL
Library Journal

(Starred Review) Robson deftly weaves issues of class, trauma, romance, and female friendship with satisfying details of Ann and Miriam’s craft. This unique take on the royal wedding will be an easy sell to fans of Netflix’s The Crown.

[Robson] shifts deftly between Heather's world… in 2016, and Nan's world, giving meticulous attention to the historical detail of post-World War II London.… A fascinating glimpse into the world of design, the healing power of art, and the importance of women's friendships.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for THE GOWN … then take off on your own:

1. How would you describe Ann Hughes? What affect did her mother's frequent criticism of her embroidery work have on Ann? How would you describe Ann's emotional state in the aftermath of the war?

2. Ann and Miriam Dassin become friends as the two work on the gown together. What do the women have in common, and in what ways are they different from one another? What forms the basis of their friendship—why are they drawn to one another?

3. How were both women, perhaps especially Miriam, scarred by the war, and how does each woman bear her scars? Why is Miriam so reluctant to tell Ann about Ravensbruck?

4. In what way does the friendship between Ann and Miriam ultimately lead to healing for both women? Do you have a friendship as nurturing as Ann and Miriam's?

6. Talk about the symbolic importance of the gown with regards to the British public. With its 10,000 seed pearls sewn into ivory silk, the gown seems to be an extravagance that might be considered excessive in a time of rationing. What was the public reaction to its luxuriousness?

7. Follow-up to Question 6: Ann's view of the the gown's excess is positive:

The royal family had made sacrifices, same as the rest of them.… The princess deserved a proper wedding...with a glorious gown.… Surely the gray-faced men in Whitehall wouldn't insist on some dreary affair.

Is Ann biased because she is working on the gown? Or is she right in that the Royal family "deserves" a beautiful wedding? What are your thoughts?

8. Talk about Ann's "bittersweet moment" after she has completed the gown? Do you understand her feelings of nostalgia?

9. Were you surprised by the frenzy surrounding the secrecy of the gown? Does it remind you of today's obsessive celebrity watching? Why was absolute secrecy important? Would you have been able to withstand the pressures of maintaining silence?

10. Was Ann right never to have revealed her past over the decades to her family? Would you have done likewise?

11. Do you find Heather Mackenzie's 2016 storyline as engaging as the historical part of the novel? Why or why not?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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