Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Dressmaker includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Posie Graeme-Evans. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Ellen Gowan’s childhood in the wilds of Norfolk is a happy one. Ellen’s parents are deeply in love, and their quiet family life is rich with affection and respect yet poor in worldly goods. But a tragic accident on Ellen’s thirteenth birthday changes the course of her childhood forever, and Ellen must find courage and strength of will beyond her years to face the hardships that follow. But undeniable artistic talent, wit, and an indomitable spirit carry her from Norfolk to London, and in time she is transformed into Madame Ellen: dressmaker to the nobility of England, the Great Six Hundred.
Beautiful Madame Ellen is burdened by the secrets she has been forced to keep along her journey, ones that could destroy the success and happiness she has fought so hard to create. She will need all that she has—will, strength, talent, and passion—to find and hold a place for herself in an unforgiving era in which women’s involvement in the world of business is a rarity.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
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?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Read and discuss Posie Graeme-Evans’s previous works, the Anne de Bohun trilogy (The Innocent, The Exiled, and The Uncrowned Queen). Compare Anne to Ellen. Do you see any similarities between the two heroines? Is there a time period you prefer to read about?
2. Do some research on the fashions of Victorian England in the 1850s. Have everyone bring in an image of their favorite. If you’re feeling truly adventurous, have everyone re-create the styles and turn your club into a costume party for the evening!
3. Learn more about the author at www.posiegraemeevans.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH POSIE GRAEME-EVANS
When Ellen is attempting to discover her misstep in translating Lady Hawksmoor’s dress from paper to reality, she tells herself: “Method. Examine each aspect, each element of the gown. Then look at the whole” (p. 318). Do you feel a kind of kinship to Ellen in this approach, in regards to your writing process?
Yes I do. My whole working life, TV as well as writing novels, has been about trying to understand the structure of something. If you can make the structure work, you have a fighting chance of creating a satisfying whole, be it a script, a film, or a book. And taking things apart, piece by piece, helps you avoid panic when things aren’t working (and you just can’t avoid that truth!).
From Norfolk to London to Clairmallon, the novel is rich in sense of place and atmosphere. Is a lot of this “setting of the stage” created out of heavy research? Do you tend to gather all the research and map out your story before you begin, or do you prefer to make discoveries as you write?
I have always loved England—its landscape, its architecture, its history. I travel as much as I can to the places I’m going to write about, too. Not to take notes so much, more just to stand somewhere and look and feel, taste the air (somehow), sense what might have happened there. But then, yes, once I begin to write, I think the story discovers me. I do read around the subject and look at books and search on the net for details of the era I’m trying to conjure from thin air, but I don’t plot the story out. Television writing is always so disciplined, so plotted and pored over in group meetings, that it’s a relief for me, just a single person facing a blank page, to wait until words begin to form and characters step forward from the mist. Then I wait to see what they’re going to do and try to write fast enough to get it all down!
There are obviously gaps and missing pieces in historical evidence; how do you make the determination whether or not an imagined event, dialogue, or action is authentic or possible? What questions do you ask yourself ? Do you consult others for verification?
Each book is different, but I find I’m very influenced, always, by the writings from a particular era. I try to read as much as I can about the time I’m targeting, and also, perhaps, search for the authentic voices of the people who lived then—diaries, letters, etc. Then one of the most important things for me to do is to write myself into the “voice” of the book. With The Dressmaker, I knew I wanted, very much, to capture the different ways people used language in the mid-nineteenth century, however, I also did not want a contemporary reader to find the words
I used, or the ways the characters spoke, too hard to read. A tough balance, because I adore language, adore obscure but rich words. All I can say is that this book had draft after draft after draft and it took me a loooong time to feel satisfied that I had given the world I’d invented, and the people in it, reality in there, and my, terms. They won’t be told, sometimes. They’ll say what they say!
What responsibilities do you, as a writer of historical fiction, feel toward your audience? Do you think those responsibilities would be different if you were a nonfiction writer?
I want the worlds within my books to be as real as they can possibly be. But, also, I want the story to be engrossing and satisfying and for the characters to be as rich and multilayered as I can make them. These, above all, are my responsibilities to my readers, I think. However, I could not live with myself if I thought that the details of the world within the book were not correct. I really do try to make sure that I can answer every question that might be asked of me. And then, of course, like almost every novelist, I do give myself license, from time to time, to make facts bend a bit for the purposes of drama. Not too much . . . but some.
You say in the acknowledgments that Ellen began as a minor character in an entirely different story. What made you decide to abandon that original story and tell hers instead? Was she always a dressmaker? If not, why did you choose to make her one?
I didn’t really decide to abandon the other story—it just became clear that I had to. It wasn’t working, simple as that. And my Australian editor, Nicola O’Shea—who is good at tough love—pointed out that inescapable fact. Boy, did I find that truth hard to hear! But she was right. She very often is. And, in a way, when I surrendered and stopped trying so hard, Ellen’s story flowed on to the page, and I just scrambled to keep up with what she was doing. And, yes, she always was a dressmaker. I became interested in the fact that for the longest time, the whole world thought fashion began and ended in Paris (has anything changed? Maybe.). The English of the nineteenth century just didn’t value their own creators and designers. I decided Ellen would break that mold, but I wanted it to be a real journey. The things that matter are not easy, they do have to be practiced and learned, I believe.
Do you have a particular interest in the fashions of the age in which Ellen lives? Or just a general fascination with Victorian London? Was it fun delving into the details of the styles and fabrics of the time (particularly the decadent description of Lady Hawksmoor’s ball gown)?
I adored it all! It was the best fun looking at the clothes of the time (the crinoline, uncomfortable as it must have been to wear, what with corsets and all, has to rank as one of the most flattering and romantic garments of all time). And then, placing those clothes in their time, almost as a symbol of that time, was like composing a painting. All color and movement and texture—fleeting glimpses of this and that to think about and draw upon. When I write, it’s as if a movie plays in my head—and I loved looking through the highways and byways of Victorian England with Ellen beside me.
Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Which character do you identify with most? Are any of the characters in The Dressmaker based on people you know?
An interesting observation. But I’ve been a storyteller in another form for a very long time and I find it hard to untangle the various influences that inhabit and form my characters. I know that I’m watching and listening all the time. People I meet, places, events, bits of conversations in public places (are all writers born voyeurs? I think so!). So, is any of it me? Hmm. Attitudes here and there perhaps, in various characters. I don’t look like any of them, I know that. But, rather than taking elements of myself, I think the characters are amalgams of many, many people—and then they become themselves as they are written. I certainly identify with Ellen’s struggle, however, and I like Polly very much, too. And I think Mrs. Ikin, a minor character though she is, would be someone I’d like to know. Raoul interests me, too, and Carolina Wilkes. Love the baddies as much as the goodies. I could go on and on! But all the characters develop so much as they are written, draft to draft, and I think that’s what we all do in the course of a life.
Was it always your intention to end the novel with Connor and Ellen together? Do you believe it’s truly possible for them to fall in love with each other without the shadow of Oriana—someone they both loved—coming between them (especially for Ellen)?
What an interesting question. Did I always intend for them to be together? Hmmm. Perhaps I did, but then I never know until I come down right toward the end. By that, I mean the ending declares itself. I think Ellen does truly love Connor, right from the start. It happens. Though rarely. And he is loyal to Oriana, so she chokes off any feeling she might have had for him. I think the human heart is a very enigmatic but flexible organ. Would Oriana come between them? Actually, I don’t think so. Ellen seeks permission to love Connor, somehow, and gets it from her cousin. But she dithers right until the last moment. In the end, I’m glad she takes the plunge. People do that: throw the dice. And she’s brave enough and strong enough to do it. I like, though, that she tells him the truth and says she could not bear it if he did not love her. He doesn’t have to marry Ellen, but he does. I like to think he’s sincere. I like to think that they will be happy. But maybe that’s because I believe happiness and love are both possible between people.
All of your novels feature a female protagonist. Do you find it easier to write from a woman’s perspective? Do you imagine that women at the time had more interesting stories to tell?
I like writing about women because . . . I do. The obvious answer, I suppose, is because I’m a woman. But then, I like writing about men as well. If I write about the past, at the moment, it’s because I enjoy the look of the canvas, i.e., the appearance of things—clothes, buildings, food, everyday life. But most of my TV drama is contemporary. I think people always have interesting stories. My next book is set in the present (in North East Scotland) and a thousand years ago. Perhaps that counts as moving closer to now. Strangely (!) there’s still a bunch of strong women in this next story. I suppose that’s not a coincidence.
A significant idea in the book is learning to live in the present, for the future, instead of dwelling on the past. Is that a mantra you live by?
Yes, it is. It’s what producers do all the time—and I’ve been a producer for thirty years. However, I’m also trying to teach myself to just live in the present and not to think so much about everything that might go wrong in the future.
This is your fourth novel. Your previous three novels all center on Anne de Bohun, who was a real historical figure. Was the experience of writing Ellen, a completely fictionalized heroine, very different?
You bet it was! In the previous book I had a real framework to hang things on—and the architecture of actual events and people. Here everything blurred and spread out without defined boundaries—until I learned to corral the story a bit better. It wasn’t harder as such, but it sure was different.
The story of Anne was a trilogy; do you plan to do the same with Ellen and/or the Moncrieff family? If not, what are you working on next?
I think The Dressmaker is a one-off—at the moment (never say never!). I’m currently working on a third draft of The Island House. It’s set on a small imaginary island off the northeast coast of Scotland in the present and, in parallel, around 850 AD, the time of the Viking raids. It’s about the discovery, in the present, of a buried Viking ship. Two skeletons lie in that boat, surrounded by treasure, and the girl in the present who finds the grave has a link to those men. It’s a love story and a ghost story, and I hope to have the novel finished early next year.