Reader's Comments
The Dressmaker by Posie Graeme-Evans

The Dressmaker

by Posie Graeme-Evans

PBR Book Review:

The book starts when the protagonist, Ellen is thirteen years old and followers her journey to adulthood and success. Nineteenth century England is a harsh class-defined environment for a female without money and Ellen is tenacious and resilient as she faces these challenges. The descriptions and dialog are excellent and capture the mood and way of life in this era. The story is told in three parts; Ellen’s early life, her coming of age and finally her success. It starts slow lacking passion and substance in the first half with the sense that Ellen is a victim, rather than someone in control of her destiny. Everything comes together in the final section of the book and I was completely taken with the deep friendships, the descriptions of the beautiful fashions, and just generally being immersed in the period. In summary, although very predictable, it’s a fun light read for those who enjoy a good story.



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*Author Website: http://www.posiegraemeevans.com/

*Other Books by Same Author: “The Uncrowned Queen", "The Exiled","Innocent".

*Discussion Questions



1. The title of the novel is The Dressmaker. Discuss how Ellen's inborn talent impacts her life at its various stages. What do you think might have happened to her had she not possessed such a skill? Do you think she's defined by her role as a dressmaker? Do you think this title—her title—speaks to Ellen's role in the lives of those around her in a symbolic as well as a practical way?

2. Choose one adjective you think best sums up the character of Ellen Gowan and share it with the group. Were you surprised by how others in your group perceived Ellen? What are her strengths and her weaknesses? How are your perceptions of these altered throughout the story?

3. How do you view the various examples of marriage and romantic relationships in this novel (some to consider: Edward and Constance, Daisy and Isidore, Oriana and Connor, Ellen and Raoul, and Ellen and Connor). Based on your reading, what do you make of attitudes about marriage during this time? What about attitudes regarding fidelity, sex, or love?

4. The novel ends with Connor and Ellen together, though it seems, earlier on, that he never considered her in a romantic way. Did you see it as a marriage of convenience (normal at the time), or do you believe they had something more? Do you think they will eventually come to be truly in love, in a way comparable to what Connor and Oriana had?

5. When Daisy comes to Clairmallon upon Isidore's death, Ellen observes: "Cruelty. Weakness. Perhaps they were the same. In effect" (p. 293). Discuss power and weakness as related to gender and class in this novel. Do you agree with Ellen's insight? Why or why not?

6. Raoul de Valentin, though the antagonist, is a complex character. Do you believe that he truly loved Ellen, at least in the beginning? If so, discuss his motivations in faking the marriage. If not, why do you believe he went through the charade in the first place, when he could so easily have taken advantage of Ellen after Constance's death with the aid of Carolina? If their business attempt had succeeded, do you think Raoul would have stayed? Do you feel there was any point in the book where Raoul had a true opportunity for redemption and failed to grasp it?

7. Ellen and Oriana have very different childhoods and each endure unique hardships as they grow into womanhood, but in many ways they are also quite similar. Compare and contrast their characters as a result of the experiences that shaped them. Did you find yourself identifying more with one than the other throughout the book? What did you think of Oriana's request for Ellen to leave Connie at Clairmallon? Do you think Ellen would have asked the same of Oriana, had their positions been reversed?

8. The novel is full of examples of blighted ambition and characters trapped by circumstance. Do you feel that deep unhappiness excuses the scheming behavior or betrayals of some of the more antagonistic characters (consider Miss Wellings, Carolina Wilkes, Isidore Cleat, and Raoul de Valentin)? Or did you find them entirely unsympathetic?

9. The theme of appearance (versus reality) recurs constantly throughout the book, from the moment in Norfolk when Constance laments that Ellen is "too pretty" (p. 25) and will thus be feared. What are some obvious (and not so obvious) examples of this idea? Why do you think people put such stock in appearances at the time, when it was common knowledge that darkness and debauchery lurked behind many closed doors? Do you see appearance as a shield of sorts (in Ellen's case), or is it more of a mask (as with Raoul)?

10. Madame Angelique says " 'it is sad to find ability in the hands of one who will never use it to real effect . . . [you], with all that this world provides, do not have the need, or the hunger, to pursue such talent. God grant that remains the case' " (p. 114). What do you make of this assessment? Do you think, even if Isidore had not thrown them out, Ellen would have pursued her talent? Do you believe her life would have been better if she hadn't, as Madame Angelique seems to think?

11. The Dressmaker has a cast of strong, supporting female characters. Think about all the different women who impact Ellen's life: Polly, Oriana, Madame Angelique, Mrs. Ikin, Constance, Daisy, and even little Connie. What does Ellen learn from each of these women at various points of the novel? What do they learn from her? Think about the women who play a significant role in your life. What can you learn from them?

12. Consider this quote: " 'Mama? All will be well, will it not?' Ellen asked only what all children ask for: certainty in an uncertain world" (p. 88). Do you agree with the idea that everyone—not only children—seek out certainty in an uncertain world? Do you think that this desire greatly influences and motivates Ellen, who is forced to act more grown up than her age on multiple occasions? Is the quest for certainty an important one, for all the characters, in one way or another? What about for you?



Book Summary


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.

In The Dressmaker, the romance of Jane Austen, the social commentary of Charles Dickens and the very contemporary voice of Posie Graeme-Evans combine to plunge the reader deep into the opulent, sinister world of teeming Victorian England. And if the beautiful Madame Ellen is not quite what she seems, the strength of her will sees her through to the truth, and love, at last.
 
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