The Winter Dress by Lauren Chater

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

In 2018, author Lauren Chater received a research grant to travel to the Netherlands for her latest book, The Winter Dress. This book was inspired by a 17th century gown retrieved, in reasonably good condition, from a wreck off the Dutch coast near the island of Texel in 2014.

Lauren Chater is the author of two previous historical fiction novels, The Lace Weaver and Gulliver’s Wife. A baking compendium, Well Read Cookies – Beautiful Biscuits Inspired by Great Literature, has also been produced by her.

In her latest novel, the dress, rescued from the sea by local divers, becomes a time traveller, holding the keys to thousands of years of human history. When the find is made, one of the divers notifies his playmate from earlier times, Jo Baaker, who now lives in Australia. She is a dress historian and has no hesitation in returning to the place of her childhood with her parents before their death. Here she will reassess some of her own feelings about those early years.

The chapters in the book alternate between two storylines. The modern storyline is set in 2019 and follows Jo’s search for clues into the history of this recent find. During the process, the reader becomes privy to the work involved to preserve precious artifacts and the various places relevant information can be found. They also learn much about life on this part of the globe, especially for the deep-sea divers. To help in her work, Jo needs the expertise of others in the fields associated with recovered treasures.

The second storyline is that of the dress and its owner, set in the 17th century. Here the reader is introduced to a young woman, Anna Tesseltje, who is the only surviving member of her family. She began her life as a merchant’s daughter but was forced to become a laundress after her father’s death. This time in Europe was the Golden Age for colonialist traders or settlers but there were many whose survival depended on the goodness of others. The gap between the groups within society in Amsterdam and The Hague, at this time, permeates the early story. An opportunity for work has Anna leaving Amsterdam and she takes with her a beautiful gown which belonged to her mother. She has been offered a position in the home of the artist Catharina van Shurman at her property outside the Hague.

Throughout the stories, storms and shipwrecks play a central part, in the weather, paintings and plays. Many individuals of renown in the 17th century are highlighted, from court life, businesspeople, and artists.

The author depicts the characters in her story well. Anna often acts like ‘someone hunted, always glancing behind at the shadow of fate darkening her heels’ (254). The past haunts her and she believes she has been cursed since birth to bring tragedy to those who love her. The woman to whom she has become companion is an artist, playwright, poet and though she could not be called beautiful she had the temperament one would expect of such a person. She was moody and not afraid to state her opinion. Her twin, in contrast, is handsome with a gentler disposition, one used to keeping the waters calm around his sister.

Anxieties and the stubbornness of adolescence are part of Jo’s background as well as of another teenager on Texel who grieves her mother’s departure. All these personalities add light and shade to the narration as does the arrogance of some males in both storylines, like the brutish senior officer of The Dutch East India Company and the academic Jo works with, who doesn’t even realise his actions are so self-centred and offensive. He believes just by saying, ‘I apologised, didn’t I’ (336) that this should excuse his behaviour with no more effort required on his behalf.

I loved reading this novel, The Winter Dress, although I could not see the relevance of the season in the title. I enjoyed sharing the experiences with the main women in both eras and discovering that Anna was a ‘woman of many secrets. Like a well-made dress, (she kept) them tucked within the boundaries of her person’ (343-344).

Extensive research into the retrieved gown and the rest of the collection has been continuing since 2016 and will be put on permanent display in Museum Kaap Skil on the island of Texel in 2022. Lauren Chater, in her novel The Winter Dress, has invented an interesting, plausible story that would explain the journey taken by this time traveller dress. The dress was later found to have belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria (Book Review: Emily Paull, April 22, 2022).

This is an enjoyable story of grief, loss, and love which reveals history from a past era and I have no hesitation in recommending it to other readers.

The Winter Dress


By Lauren Chater

Simon & Schuster Australia

ISBN: 9-781760-850227

$32.99; 368pp

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