Saturday 26 August 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Dressmaker’s Dowry, Meredith Jaeger (2017)

Meredith Jaeger’s debut novel, The Dressmaker’s Dowry, has a lot going for it — an unusual setting (1870s San Francisco), a well-paced plot and the perfect mix of intrigue, violence and romance.

Yet, getting to the end, I couldn’t help but feel the novel, which alternates between the stories of Sarah, a modern-day MFA student whose past holds a dark secret, and Hanna, a nineteenth-century dressmaker investigating the disappearance of her friend, could have done with better editing.

Reading the novel is a revealing experience for an aspiring novelist, as its cracks expose some of the challenges of writing successful historical fiction:


Jaeger has clearly studied her setting, immersed herself in stories of San Francisco’s poverty and crime and pored over contemporary maps. She weaves facts about the setting into her historical storyline well, bringing the world Hanna lives in to life through sensorial details.

But it’s in her nineteenth-century characters’ dialogue that the illusion slips. Their speech reads as very stiff and lacking in humanity, with old-fashioned phrases (‘lucky wench’, ‘I fret for them’, ‘feminine ailments’) peppered in the midst of twenty-first century sentences.

Building a Connection Between Past and Present

Adopting a dual POV is a common technique among writers of historical fiction today. It allows for more exposition and explanation of the past than a novel entirely set in another time period and gives readers a character to identify with, who ‘could be them’.

Jaeger though makes two fatal errors in how she uses this technique to build a connection between past and present.

First, she not only makes her present day character, Sara, a mouthpiece for expressing opinions about the 1870s (forgivable since this is a character whose actively researching the period), but also uses her to over-emphasize the parallels she wants to draw between the divided society of nineteenth-century SF and the city we see today. Sara drifts into Mary Sue territory, making her own story less emotionally impactful and leading the novel to feel, in parts, like a lecture, where little trust is placed in the reader.

Second, the tie between Sara and Hanna is fraught with coincidence, setting the very premise for the novel on shaky ground, and there hardly seems to be enough contrast between the women — here we are, over one hundred years later, and women are still being ‘saved’ by rich men from one particular, privileged family.

Good and Evil

Finally, Jaeger struggles to keep her novel from slipping into cliché, especially when it comes to depicting her characters. They are all very clearly good or bad, with no reversals in our expectations. Take this description of Robert Havensworth:

'Though he had a handsome face, his green eyes sent a chill down to her bones. His long fingers, adorned with gold rings, wrapped around the head of his cane, radiated power — and the darkness beneath it.'

I mean, would you trust this man?!

Sarah and Hanna are infallible judges of character, and thus so are Jaeger’s readers, making what should be a thrilling race to uncover the ending all too predictable.

Meredith Jaeger
What twenty-first century novel about the nineteenth century would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know — here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.