A stunning novel set in the Edwardian era about a seamstress working at Buckingham Palace. Full of drama, betrayal and addictive real-life detail – The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow is perfect for fans of Kate Morton and Joanne Harris.
When Caroline Meadows discovers a beautiful quilt in her mother’s attic, she sets out on a journey to discover who made it, and the meaning of the mysterious message embroidered into its lining.
Many years earlier, before the first world war has cast its shadow, Maria, a talented seamstress from the East End of London, is employed to work for the royal family. A young and attractive girl, she soon catches the eye of the Prince of Wales and she in turn is captivated by his glamour and intensity. But careless talk causes trouble and soon Maria’s life takes a far darker turn.
Can Caroline piece together a secret history and reveal the truth behind what happened to Maria?
Having read the publisher’s release for “The Forgotten Seamstress”, I could hardly wait to get started; historical romance plus an exquisite patchwork quilt with royal connections? Yes, please! I’ll try not to throw in too many needlework puns, but I have to say I was “hooked” from the start… There’s something intriguing, nay chilling, about a prologue written as a clinical letter, in which we are tacitly informed that “existing and former patients may not be the most reliable of informants.” Yet Maria, primary narrator, seems quite lucid as she relays her sorry tale: a doomed love affair with a very young Prince of Wales- later crowned Edward VIII- resulting in personal tragedy and a lifetime’s forced incarceration in a mental institution. According to “official evidence”, of course, she is an unreliable narrator; yet her voice, captured on cassette recorder by a pHD student in 1970, is so charismatic, so warmly sincere, it’s hard to know how to respond. This dynamic certainly adds an edge to an already compelling narrative. Touching, heart-rending, and incomprehensibly painful at times, Maria’s story remains plausible, poignant, and ultimately worthwhile, despite the magnitude of her sufferings. I was particularly moved, as a female reader, to contemplate the mistreatment of women like Maria, locked away from the world as the best part of a lifetime’s opportunities seem to disappear forever… (Paradoxically, there’s a happy ending, of sorts.)
Plot-wise, the juxtaposition of modern day heroine Caroline’s narrative works really well; there’s a strong sense of destiny unravelling from past to present which makes for a satisfying read. Maria herself is a strikingly courageous and colourful character; there’s no mistaking her strength of spirit as her voice echoes down the decades with all the vigour of a former self. Her masterful creation, the extraordinarily executed patchwork quilt seems to embody some of this spirit as its story becomes inextricably linked with hers. This astonishing piece of needlework is actually the star of the show in this book, playing the role of destiny as all the loose threads come together…(sorry! But true.) – as it’s through her attempts to uncover more of the quilt’s history that Caroline meets her new love interest, and the subsequent disappearance of her beloved heirloom stimulates her creative talents in unexpected ways, opening doors to an exciting new career.
If all this sounds too good to be true, believe me, it isn’t- the characters and plot are drawn in very real terms; I felt myself sympathising with each character’s trials and dilemmas to the extent that I had to stop reading a few times to remind myself that it was “just a book”! It’s easy to identify with intrepid 30-something Caroline, and Maria’s story is equally vivid; the descriptive passages are excellent, and really make you feel as if you are right there with the characters in the palace, the hospital, Caroline’s mother’s cottage etc.
Overall, this is a well-written, superbly researched and highly evocative novel. It’s well worth the read, and may even have you reaching for your long-lost handicrafts bag/basket/box with a view to conjuring your own creation, who knows- Read it and see..?!
Reviewed by Tilly