Lauren Chater – The Winter Dress

Simon & Schuster, Australia, 2022
Cover design Nada Backovic
Cover images Beata Banach/Trevillion Images

Lauren Chater’s third historical novel is as finely woven as the 17th century silk dress which inspired it.

Lauren Chater talks to Barbie about The Winter Dress

In the real world – brought up in 2014 as salvage by divers off the coast of Texel, a small island in North Holland, Netherlands, the dress immediately became an international sensation, the only known such fully preserved garment. An article in The New Yorker sparked the author’s imagination and she undertook a research trip to Texel and other parts of the Netherlands to build the material for her fiction.

In the story-telling world – The Winter Dress tells the parallel stories of contemporary textile historian Jo Baaker, whose childhood friend Bram is one of the Texel divers who salvage the dress, and 17th century Texel woman Anna Tesseltje, posited as the owner of the dress at the time of its loss to the sea.

The story is rich in metaphor, fluidly told in both time frames and superbly evocative of time and place. Family is central to this tale, both thematically and for the plots. The concept of the orphan is central. Jo is orphaned as a teenager and it is only her return to Texel as an adult that allows her to reframe her childhood memories.

Anna is orphaned and then loses her only sister in a string of misfortunes which she sees as part of a curse bestowed upon her from birth. She is named for a shipwrecking storm. Both women will eventually find and build new forms and ideas of family.

Then there is the all-dominating sea which takes people and objects and casts them back at will. It’s a notion common to islands and islanders, the will of the sea. The shipwreck coast yields treasure and everyday items and the finding of wrecks is as seemingly random as the wild weather that moves the seabed sands.

The diver has a closeness to nature, an existential understanding of its power to take and give – there is also an understanding of the balance between independence, self-sufficiency and reliance on others, on teamwork.

The discovery of this dress leads Jo back home but also raises issues of academic rivalry and subterfuge, muddied memories of her parents’ lives, a sense of not being loved as a child. She embarks upon work to solve the mystery of the provenance of the dress.

For Anna, the dress is the only remaining vestige of her dead mother’s love, her connection to family and former happier, more comfortable times before she was forced into the drudgery of being a laundress. The death of her sister ironically frees her to change her life and she becomes a lady’s companion to artist Catharina van Shurman.

The compromises required in this role are balanced for her by the comfort of a warm bed, clean clothes and a little time to think of things other than day to day survival.

The 17th century story provides an interesting picture of the times, delving into the domestic but also into the significance of clothing and textiles, along with the political machinations in England. The theme of exile plays out with Elizabeth, the Winter Queen.

With the lightest of touch, Lauren Chater also sweeps across same sex love, betrayal, loyalty, domestic abuse, family disintegration, mental illness, the class system and governmental one-up-manship.  The international laws of salvage are also explored and there’s a more than a nod to men behaving badly. The vast themes, however, never weigh the work down.

The heroines in both time frames are thoroughly believable and for me, likeable. I want the best for both of them and am not disappointed. Stylistically I think this is the best so far of Lauren Chater’s work – and her previous works are indeed magnificent (The Lace Weaver and Gulliver’s Wife).

This reads like a book that wrote itself – it’s easy and flowing, seductively so. Of course, this is a false impression – we all know the hard labour involved in these things. But to disguise it with such a ready entrée to the story for the reader is a consummate skill.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for my review copy and Lauren for spending time with me to talk about this beautiful work.