The Forgotten Seamstress, by Liz Trenow, is an interesting story regarding familial threads, but also a story that brings the reader a hard look at women patients and mental asylums.
The novel opens with a 1970s recorded conversation between a former mental asylum patient and a research student. Maria is the former patient, and she has a tale to tell. Her background is told with frankness, bits of humor and melancholy, and through it all it is apparent that she is a survivor. A survivor in more ways than one, beginning with her childhood in an orphanage.
Maria Romano, while under the care of the orphanage, learns the intricacies of being a seamstress. She and her friend Nora (also an orphan) are the best at their skill. They both eventually are sent to Buckingham Palace, at the age of fifteen, to work as a seamstresses for the British Royal Family. From there, the story line unfolds, and Maria’s life is changed in ways she could never imagine.
Maria eventually meets Prince David within the walls of Buckingham Palace. He favors her for her naivete, her honesty and the fact that she is not a superficial individual. From their first encounter, Maria falls for him, head over heels. The forthcoming meetings prove to be the beginning of the end for Maria, as she eventually becomes pregnant.
While at Buckingham Palace, she begins to sew a quilt, not just an ordinary quilt, but one made from the heart and soul of her life. She sews threads and appliques of life into the quilt, and it holds a story that will eventually unravel, through Maria’s recordings detailing her decades of time spent at a mental asylum, where she was sent to spend her life out of the public eye.
At the asylum she is considered to be fanatical and delusional. Her stories regarding Buckingham Palace are considered by the staff to be ramblings of an insane person. She is given the nickname “Queenie”, because of her tales. She is eventually permitted to continue sewing her quilt. The quilt contains her life within the fabrics and threads of time. Time is given significant meaning throughout the pieces and patterns that define Maria’s life and experiences at Buckingham Palace.
Caroline Meadows is another major character, and she has been handed down the quilt. The quilt mystifies Caroline, and she is determined to find out the story behind it. The tale behind its creator and creativity begin to unfold through a set of circumstances.
The story line fluctuates between Maria telling her story, via recorded episodes, to the research student, and between Caroline’s attempt to find the answers to the person who sewed the quilt, a quilt made from amazing silk threads, appliques, patterns and designs. Some of the fabric pieces are considered to possibly be from the Royal Family.
In this fashion (Maria’s story being recorded, and Caroline’s attempts at discovery), the tapestry of time becomes fused. Decades are blended. I won’t go into more details regarding events depicted in the story, as I don’t want to spoil it.
I enjoyed reading the details regarding the quilt-making process and the details regarding fabrics and threads. I found that to be absorbing. Trenow’s writing left vivid impressions in my mind. I also gained insight into the mental asylum system and the whys and wherefores of patients being sent to one. Some were not ill at all, and were sent there by family members or others in authority in order to be secreted away. Many were never released, and their lives were spent in captivity, so to speak. Women, especially, were susceptible to this form of inhumanity.
Some of the novel seemed burdened down at times, but overall I liked the story line. Caroline, as a person, is someone who is unsure of herself, who is defined through her flaws, and is a person who is floundering. While, Maria, seems to be more determined and has fixed goals, despite her circumstances.
Trenow makes a definite and defining statement regarding mental illness, mental asylums, and the treatment (or lack of) of individuals caught in the throes of the mental health systems. From this perspective, The Forgotten Seamstress is a brilliantly produced story line. The word images are vivid in many aspects.
I enjoyed the insights into quilt-making and the efforts that went into creating a quilt. Liz Trenow incorporates the entire endeavor within the pages in a masterful fashion. I recommend The Forgotten Seamstress to every reader.