With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where Queen Elizabeth's extraordinary wedding dress is being created, and into the lives of three unforgettable heroines. We are thrilled to be able to ask author Jennifer Robson your questions after finishing this incredible novel.
The Gown is such a completely captivating novel. It truly felt like we were transported to London in 1947. What kind of research did you do to be able to so realistically depict this time and place?
For that I reverted to my history-nerd origins and dug into primary sources from the period: memoirs, diaries, recorded oral histories, as well as more material evidence such as advertisements, photographs, novels, movies, newspaper articles, and so on. The archives of the Mass-Observation project, which sent social scientists out to observe and record the day-to-day realities of ordinary life, were also a treasure trove.
The friendship and companionship between Ann and Miriam is so lovely and rich with respect. Their relationship also reminds us of the differences in how much we share with our friends these days, compared to when people perhaps showed more restraint and formality. Are social conventions what kept Ann and Miriam from telling each other more, sooner?
It’s easy to forget, in our world of omnipresent social media and heartfelt confessions via Snapchat, that earlier generations were profoundly reticent people. It was not usual, not at all, to confide in other people; and it was perfectly possible to be close friends with someone without ever discussing significant moments such as a bereavement or illness or trauma. So as much as I wanted Miriam and Ann to confide in one another right away, and as much as it was something I’d have done with my own friends, I knew it wouldn’t be true to their characters, nor to the spirit of the time in which they lived, to turn them into soul-baring, secret-sharing besties.
We didn't want The Gown to be over. So much so that we found ourselves reading more about Queen Elizabeth and her family history for weeks after. What do you think it is about the British Royal Family that continues to fascinate in this day and age?
I think the continuity is tremendously appealing. I mean, how many of us can imagine life without the queen? The royal family’s connection with history – the places they live, the works of art they own, the ceremonies in which they take part – all of it is fascinating. And then there are the young royals, who know how to leverage PR in their favour, and who have made a point of using their star power for the greater good. How can you look away when Harry and Meghan are crouching down to talk with elderly veterans and little kids?
We know all great writers are readers. Can you please share with us who some of your favourite authors are?
How much space do you have? I read pretty widely and across genres, with the exception of horror (because I’m a scaredy-cat), and I have my favourites in every genre. But if we’re sticking to historical fiction (brace yourselves): Janie Chang, Chantel Cleeton, Genevieve Graham, Pam Jenoff, Susan Meissner, Kate Quinn, Renee Rosen, Stephanie Thornton, Lauren Willig…I’m sure I’m missing someone, but that’s a fine start. (In the interests of transparency I should also add that I’m friends with many of these women!)
Why do you think reading and storytelling is so special?
If I may offer a simple answer to a complex question, I think it’s their ability to transport us to distant eras and events and even different worlds. Reading opens our eyes to the lives of others in the present, past, and even future. Most of all, reading nurtures our curiosity. I think many of our current ills – not to mention the character flaws in certain public figures – can be attributed, at least in part, to the emptiness fostered by incurious minds.