Synopses & Reviews
A vibrant social history set against the backdrop of the Antebellum south and the Civil War that recreates the lives and friendship of two exceptional women: First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her mulatto dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly.
I consider you my best living friend, Mary Lincoln wrote to Elizabeth Keckly in 1867, and indeed theirs was a close, if tumultuous, relationship. Born into slavery, mulatto Elizabeth Keckly was Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, confidante, and mainstay during the difficult years that the Lincolns occupied the White House and the early years of Mary's widowhood. But she was a fascinating woman in her own right, independent and already well-established as the dressmaker to the Washington elite when she was first hired by Mary Lincoln upon her arrival in the nation's capital. Lizzy had bought her freedom in 1855 and come to Washington determined to make a life for herself as a free black, and she soon had Washington correspondents reporting that stately carriages stand before her door, whose haughty owners sit before Lizzy docile as lambs while she tells them what to wear. Mary Lincoln had hired Lizzy in part because she was considered a high society seamstress and Mary, an outsider in Washington's social circles, was desperate for social cachet. With her husband struggling to keep the nation together, Mary turned increasingly to her seamstress for companionship, support, and advice--and over the course of those trying years, Lizzy Keckly became her confidante and closest friend.
With Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, pioneering historian Jennifer Fleischner allows us to glimpse the intimate dynamics of this unusual friendship for the first time, andtraces the pivotal events that enabled these two women--one born to be a mistress, the other to be a slave--to forge such an unlikely bond at a time when relations between blacks and whites were tearing the nation apart. Beginning with their respective childhoods in the slaveholding states of Virginia and Kentucky, their story takes us through the years of tragic Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the early Reconstruction period. An author in her own right, Keckly wrote one of the most detailed biographies of Mary Lincoln ever published, and though it led to a bitter feud between the friends, it is one of the many rich resources that have enhanced Fleischner's trove of original findings.
A remarkable, riveting work of scholarship that reveals the legacy of slavery and sheds new light on the Lincoln White House, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly brings to life a mesmerizing, intimate aspect of Civil War history, and underscores the inseparability of black and white in our nation's heritage.
Almost no one knows about the mulatta seamstress and ex-slave Elizabeth Keckley except professional historians and biographers of the Lincolns. "Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley" is the first book devoted exclusively to the friendship that existed between these two women during the Civil War.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 327-360) and index.
Reading Group Guide
The questions that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Elizabeth Keckly and Mary Todd Lincoln’s story, as well as help you examine the tumultuous era in which their friendship thrived, and the social issues surrounding their relationship.
1. The story of Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly gives a view into the vexed and ambiguous relations between the races in antebellum and post-Civil War America. How were the lives of these women shaped from childhood through adulthood by the complexities of race relations? Do you think that Mary and Lizzy being women played a part in their ability to relate across the color line? Would you call their relationship a “friendship”?
2. One of the themes of the book is the development of Elizabeth Keckly’s sense of self. In what ways do you think being mixed-race affected her identity? How did her relationships to her family, white and black help and/or hurt her? How did relationships outside of her family help and/or hurt her? As a freed woman, how did she come to terms with her past?
3. How did Elizabeth Keckly cope with the traumas of enslavement? She claimed that slavery had its bright side as well as its dark side. How do you understand her point of view?
4. If we think about freedom as not only a legal, but also a psychological condition, what were the stages in Elizabeth Keckly’s becoming free? Do you think she ever became truly free? Do you think she was freer in some ways than Mary Lincoln?
5. Mary Lincoln inspired contradicting reactions in her contemporaries, while today people still argue over her character. Why did she inspire such conflicting reactions in her own time, as well as ours? Did your feelings about her change over the course of the book?
6. When Elizabeth Keckly arrived in Washington, she established herself in the local black middle class. What were your impressions of this community?
7. The author argues that Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly became closer as Mary Lincoln’s life deteriorated. Yet events in Lizzy’s life may have also contributed to their growing friendship. How did their relationship evolve? And how did the dynamic between the two women change over time?
8. Why do you think Elizabeth Keckly wrote her memoir, in which she revealed so much about Mary Lincoln’s recent private life? Was Mary Lincoln justified in feeling angry and betrayed?
9. Has reading this book changed your thinking about race and race relations in America?
10. Consider Mrs. Lincoln’s and Mrs. Keckly’s lives. Are there any parallels you can draw between the two women’s experiences from childhood onward?