England after World War II was a grim place, and the winter of 1947 was one of the nastiest Britain had seen, which is saying something. The major cities, especially London, had been bombed to smithereens by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. There was still rationing of fuel to heat tiny rooms, and even soap and potatoes were scarce. The one bright spot was the upcoming wedding of the heiress presumptive to the throne, Princess Elizabeth. Then, as now, the royals gave good value in troubled times.
Jennifer Robson’s latest novel focuses on three women, with a few men and glimpses of royalty on the side. Ann Hughes is an embroiderer at the salon of Norman Hartnell, couturier to the royal ladies and designer of the princess’s wedding gown. Ann considers herself a plain girl that no one would notice. Her roommate and friend Miriam Dassin, another embroiderer, is a French émigré who arrived in London with a recommendation from Christian Dior in hand. She’s also a Jew and a Holocaust survivor, something she reveals but sparingly; this was a time and place when anti-Semitism was casual even after the Nazis had been routed.
Both women live to great old age, and when Ann finally dies, she leaves a box of embroidered flowers to her Canadian granddaughter, Heather. Heather has no idea why she’s received the box, or that Ann worked for Norman Hartnell and helped put together the royal wedding ensemble. Ann never spoke of her life in England or her friendship with Miriam, now a world-famous artist—why?
Robson, bestselling author of Somewhere in France, makes the reader eager to find out Ann’s secret. Ultimately, it’s one of those things you see coming, and yet you hope you’re mistaken. Did Queen Elizabeth know what Ann went through to make her wedding gown? Of course not. Nor does Heather. But Ann does the British thing: stiffens her upper lip and soldiers on.
The Gown is an inspiring story about strength, resilience and creativity.