Jennifer Robson's new historical novel centres on Queen Elizabeth's wedding gown
Her fifth book in five years, Jennifer Robson's new historical novel The Gown offers a fictional take on the making of Queen Elizabeth's wedding dress. The book moves between Canada in 2016, where a young woman looks into her grandmother's mysterious past, to Britain in 1947, where a country struggling in the aftermath of war prepares to celebrate the marriage of Princess Elizabeth.
In her interview with Shelagh Rogers, Robson discusses what drew her to writing this book and the fascinating stories she unearthed while researching it.
Looking for the next idea
"I was looking for something to write after my previous book, Goodnight from London, which ends on VE-Day in 1945. In Britain, the threat of the bombers had finally stopped and people could look back and say, 'We made it! But then, what next?' If you look at the aftermath of the war in Britain, indeed all of Europe, what you're looking at is smoking ruin across the entire continent. People were confronted with cities and livelihoods that had been destroyed. Apart from the human casualties and the emotional devastation, the economy was in ruins. The treasury was empty. Rationing became worse after the war. Clothing was heavily rationed.
"On top of that, there was this terrible winter in 1946 and 1947, which was cold as a Canadian winter but without insulation or central heating. People were freezing to death in their homes. When the thaw came, very late in the spring, there was mass flooding across the country. With all that as the backdrop, in July of 1947 comes the announcement of the engagement of the princess. I was really interested in delving into the contrast between the very grim reality of ordinary life and the glamour and stardust of this royal wedding. It was the contrast between the two I was interested in, but I also wanted to get as close to the royal wedding as possible — to go behind-the-scenes. We love going behind-the-scenes of these things. I think everyone does."
"The tricky part about finding out about how the gown was made was that Mr. Hartnell, the designer, had died in 1979 and his archives are privately held. I wasn't able to contact anyone who worked at Hartnell's at first. I thought, 'Well if I can't talk to anyone who was at Hartnell, maybe I can talk to someone who is an embroiderer today.' That led me to Hand & Lock, which is a little embroidery studio in London that still does this incredible work. I needed to have the sense of what it was like to sit at these long wooden frames and... I also wanted find out what it was like to be one of these women... These women weren't mindlessly following a chart. They were artists. Like a lot of artists who are women, their work, I feel, was overlooked. So that sparked an idea in me — the idea of one of these women being an artist to her soul.
"While I was at Hand & Lock that day, I got into a conversation with someone there and they put me in touch with one of the women who had worked on the princess's wedding gown. That's how I met this incredibly wonderful woman named Betty Foster, who I just love to bits. She is such a delightful person and her memories — oh! — she made the book for me."
The dress and the press
"One story that Betty shared with me was that when the royal ladies came to visit, Queen Mum and the princesses, they went to the sewing workroom. Mr. Hartnell was telling the royal ladies about the fuss and bother of journalists coming to the back door and accosting the ladies who worked there. One group of American journalists had gone so far as to rent the premises opposite and have their cameras trained upon the windows to try to get a sense of what was going on inside. Queen Mary was not impressed at all and she had a very deep voice with a dramatic accent. Her response was to say, 'Oh, how tiresome.' The response at Hartnell's was to whitewash all the windows and then they added curtains on top of that, and they had a nightwatchman who was there to guard the gown overnight."
The dress today
"It's a very fragile thing now. The silk that was woven specially for the gown was treated with, I think, a silver nitrate solution and that has caused the silk to erode quite badly. So the sleeves were remade a few years ago and Betty was involved with that because they were falling to pieces. I saw it on display for the Queen's 90th birthday celebrations and it's so fragile it can't be shown on a dress form anymore. It was effectively flat and it's yellowed quite a lot, but the embroidery is still extraordinary. We're talking hundreds of thousands of beads, little diamante chips and pearls, millions and millions of stitches all done by hand. They made it with love and care and a real sense of honour for the occasion and that's what affected me the most when I was standing in front of it. It felt in some ways like a relic of this care and affection for the beautiful young princess. The queen as she is today is very familiar to us, but maybe the queen as a 21-year-old princess is less familiar. I think the women in the workroom must have felt at times that they were working on something made out of stardust."
Jennifer Robson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.