Today on the blog we have a special Q&A with historical fiction authors Meredith Jaeger and Kristina McMorris! Read on for their discussion about Meredith's new novel The Dressmaker's Dowry, on sale in trade paperback now. This gripping historical debut novel tells the story of two women: one, an immigrant seamstress who disappears from San Francisco’s gritty streets in 1876, and the other, a young woman in present day who must delve into the secrets of her husband’s wealthy family only to discover that she and the missing dressmaker might be connected in unexpected ways.
About The Dressmaker's Dowry:
San Francisco: 1876
Immigrant dressmakers Hannelore Schaeffer and Margaret O'Brien struggle to provide food for their siblings, while mending delicate clothing for the city's most affluent ladies. When wealthy Lucas Havensworth enters the shop, Hanna's future is altered forever. With Margaret's encouragement and the power of a borrowed green dress, Hanna dares to see herself as worthy of him. Then Margaret disappears, and Hanna turns to Lucas. Braving the gritty streets of the Barbary Coast and daring to enter the mansions of Nob Hill, Hanna stumbles upon Margaret’s fate, forcing her to make a devastating decision...one that will echo through the generations.
San Francisco: Present Day
In her elegant Marina apartment overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, Sarah Havensworth struggles to complete the novel she quit her job for. Afraid to tell her husband of her writer’s block, Sarah is also hiding a darker secret—one that has haunted her for 14 years. Then a news headline from 1876 sparks inspiration: Missing Dressmakers Believed to be Murdered. Compelled to discover what happened to Hannelore and Margaret, Sarah returns to her roots as a journalist. Will her beautiful heirloom engagement ring uncover a connection to Hanna Schaeffer?
Q&A with Meredith Jaeger and Kristina McMorris:
Kristina McMorris: San Francisco is definitely as strong a character as any person you created in THE DRESSMAKER’S DOWRY. What inspired you most about this city and its history? Did you discover any notable surprises while doing your research?
Meredith Jaeger: I grew up across the bay from San Francisco, its lights sparkling in the distance, so the city has always enchanted me. What inspires me most about San Francisco is its history as an open-minded and welcoming place, drawing artists, musicians and free spirits from around the globe. I love that a Mission District Victorian might have housed grunge rockers in the 90s, civil rights activists in the 70s, flower children in the 60s and immigrants like Hannelore and Margaret in the 1800s. One of the notable surprises I discovered during my research was that some San Francisco streets are (rumored to be) named after Gold Rush-era prostitutes. (Minna Street after Minna Rae Simpson and Cora Street after Belle Cora, a notorious madam). I also learned that anywhere from 40 to 75 ships are buried beneath the Financial District, abandoned by captain and crew during the Gold Rush. Back in 2001, the General Harrison was uncovered during construction, and then another ship from 1810 was discovered in 2005. Towering condominiums now cover both, hiding this fascinating piece of history.
KM: Part of THE DRESSMAKER’S DOWRY is set in 1876 and the rest in present day, but both narratives explore the divide between the ‘haves and have-nots.’ Which societal similarities and differences stood out to you most?
MJ: I’ve always been drawn to the theme of “haves” versus “have-nots.” 1876 San Francisco mirrors San Francisco today in that immense wealth is concentrated among very few. The present tech boom rivals the silver rush of the 1870s, only this time young men are moving to San Francisco for jobs as software engineers. Their high salaries have driven up housing prices to the point where middle-class families can no longer afford to live in San Francisco. We also have a homeless epidemic, and some of the new residents view the homeless as an inconvenient eyesore, rather than as people in need.
In Hannelore’s day, four Irishmen known as the “Bonanza Kings” formed a business partnership, the Consolidated Virginia Mining Company, which dealt in silver stocks and the operation of silver mines. In 1873 they discovered the “big bonanza,” and became multi-millionaires.
Like the Bonanza Kings, San Francisco startup founders dream of striking it rich with a bit of luck and strategic thinking. However, having worked for a socially conscious startup, I can say that today companies are giving back to the local community, doing things like providing meals for the homeless and reading to children in low-income neighborhoods.
KM: Another similarity between 1876 and the present day involves the influx of immigrants into the city and, by extension, the United States. Do you think immigrants of today face the same challenges as they did over 100 years ago?
MJ: Yes, unfortunately I think that this is true. In 1882, The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first major law restricting immigration to the United States. In the West, newly settled Americans resented the Chinese (who’d come during the Gold Rush to build the railroads) and blamed the Chinese for unemployment and declining wages. This law effectively halted Chinese immigration for ten years and prohibited Chinese from becoming US citizens. Ethnic stereotypes also applied to Irish immigrants like Margaret. Irish were caricatured in newspapers as illiterate drunks and met by signs reading, "Irish Need Not Apply." Even without a language barrier, the Irish had difficulty advancing beyond unskilled labor. I think there has been a frightening resurgence in the nativist movement of the 19th century—the belief that immigrants do not contribute to American society, and that they are dangerous. We must work hard to overcome these stereotypes and to remember that many immigrants want to provide better lives for their families. They’ve sacrificed everything to live in the land of liberty.
KM: In this time of mass-production clothing, I found it fascinating to learn about dressmakers of the 19th century. Can you share a little about the lives of the women who sewed, by hand, and of their typical work conditions? What other jobs were realistic options for working-class women at that time?
MJ: When I visited the California Historical Society while researching my novel, I was excited to find a “Miss O’Brien—dressmaker” who lived at 221 6th street in an 1876 San Francisco directory. In the Victorian era, dressmakers like Hanna and Margaret worked to support their families, in addition to their unpaid work cooking, mending and cleaning.
In the cramped rooms where they sewed, lighting was poor, fingers ached, hours were long, wages were low and seasonal dresses (for balls and society events) were in high demand. They worked under the scrutinizing eyes of a mistress (like Mrs. Cunningham) under tight deadlines, to meet the exacting standards of their wealthy clients. Women earned less than their male counterparts and sometimes worked 16-hour days. Dress shops for the elite could be found along commercial streets, however some dressmakers operated out of their own homes, or traveled to the homes of their clients. With fashion in the 1870s changing quickly, women paid for their dresses to be altered, to keep up with the day’s trends.
There weren’t many job options available to working-class women in the 19th century. Many went into domestic service, or worked in textile factories. In San Francisco, there were female boardinghouse managers, peddlers and washerwomen. Some working-class women performed burlesque in Barbary Coast dancehalls, or turned to prostitution.
KM: Present-day Sarah and Hunter are from different social classes, just like Hannelore and Lucas. Do you suspect it’s easier or more difficult for people today to marry outside their social class than it was in 1876? What might be different or similar?
MJ: I think it’s easier today for people to marry outside of their social class than it was in 1876. But that doesn’t meant it’s without its challenges. An article in The Atlantic reflects on the unique tensions these couples face, stating that spouses from different backgrounds struggle to reconcile their views on work, family, and leisure. In The Dressmaker’s Dowry, Sarah talks about how in her home feelings were expressed honestly, even when she ended up yelling, whereas in Hunter’s family, emotions are carefully controlled. Similar to the social conventions of the 1870s, a parent who grew up wealthy today might want their young child to take piano lessons and French lessons (like Lucas’s distinguished younger sister, Georgina), whereas a working–class spouse would rather the child play freely. Fortunately, in today’s world people have more opportunities towards upward mobility—they can reinvent themselves through their professions and interests, becoming who they want to be. In fact, many people move to San Francisco for this very reason!
KM: On a fun note, if a movie was ever made of THE DRESSMAKER’S DOWRY, who would you want to play the major roles?
MJ: This must be every author’s favorite question! If The Dressmaker’s Dowry were made into a movie, I would want Mia Wasikowska to play Hanna, Emma Stone to play Margaret and Eddie Redmayne to play Lucas. I think Blake Lively would make a good Sarah, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt would be great as Hunter (he’s my celebrity crush. I love his dimples. My husband has dimples too!).