The Dressmaker's Gift

This extraordinary dress – this piece of living history – has helped to tell the stories of Claire and my great-aunt Harriet. They were ordinary people, but the extraordinary times that they lived in saw them step up to become extraordinary too. No matter how tough it got, no matter how dark the night, they never gave in.

And their stories have helped to illuminate the truth about my mother. At last the fog of anger and pain that have enveloped my feelings for her for all these years have dissipated, letting compassion shine through. She was the daughter that Claire and Larry had, late in life once Claire’s broken body had finally healed enough to bear a child. They named her Felicity for the joy she brought them, and they had poured into her all their hopes. But perhaps she had carried the burden of their guilt and grief as well. Was it something that was inherited through the genes? Or was it passed on to her in other ways that were subtly invasive, ways that Claire couldn’t prevent? The night fears, the trauma, the knowledge that human beings are capable of being so inhuman? Were they all still there, beneath Claire’s scarred skin, those deeper scars that could never be healed? And did my mother pick up on that, on some subconscious level?

I realise, too, that in spite of everything else they went through, my grandmother and great-aunt never had to endure being abandoned through their darkest days and nights: they were there to comfort and reassure one another, come what may. Perhaps that, therefore, is the most powerful feeling of all, the feeling that you are not alone in the world. And perhaps, when my mother found herself abandoned, by her parents who had died and by the husband who left her alone with the daughter that should have bound them together, she didn’t have the resilience to carry on. It was abandonment that broke her heart.

I’m sure that Claire was only trying to protect her own child, my mother, by not telling her about what had happened in the war. All my mother had known was that it was something terrible, shameful, somehow, something never to be mentioned by either of her parents in case the healing scars were reopened. And she had known her aunt Harriet’s name. I wonder what she had known of Harriet’s story. Had Claire ever talked about the guilt? Was Felicity aware that both her parents felt responsible for the suffering and death of the friend and sister they loved so much? And was naming me after my great-aunt Harriet an attempt by my mother to put the past to rights?

I wish my mother had known the whole story. Perhaps she would have understood, then. Perhaps she wouldn’t have felt so alone. She would have felt, as I do, that no matter how dark the night became she could make it through. Because she would have known that Harriet and Claire were a part of her, as they are a part of me.

I think of the three girls in the photograph who brought me here to tell their story. Their faces are even more familiar to me now because I can see that they live on. In Mireille’s face, her dark eyes sparkle with the same humour and kindness as the eyes of my friend Simone – the friend who is alive today because her grandmother saved my grandmother all those years before.

In my grandmother Claire, I see the loving gentleness that is reflected in the photograph of my mother, holding me in her arms as a tiny baby.

And then there is my great-aunt, for whom I am named. Harriet, who took the name Vivienne because she was so full of life. I know I have a little of her courage. I know, if I am called upon, I will stand up, as she did, and turn to face danger. I won’t run away. I will fight for what is most important. For life.

I open the locket that I wear around my neck and I look at the photographs of my grandmother Claire and my great-aunt Harriet that are held safely within.

The light in their eyes shines, even in the darkness of the shadows that partially obscure their faces in the small black and white photos. Just as the silver beads still shine on the neckline of the dress as I turn out the last of the lights in the gallery and the display case is plunged into darkness.

And as I close the doors of the exhibition hall behind me, I sense that they are here with me, Claire and Vivi, reaching out across the years to take my hand and to whisper, ‘Hush now. We are together. Everything will be alright.’


The research I carried out for some sections of The Dressmaker’s Gift was harrowing in the extreme, but I felt it was important to persevere in order to do justice to telling the stories of some of the very brave women who worked for the Resistance and suffered in Nazi concentration camps during World War Two. Reading their stories led me to dedicate this book to them.

As ever, I have tried to stay as true to the facts as possible. I would like to acknowledge some of the sources of information that I used here:

Anne Sebba’s brilliant book, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s, provided insights into life in Paris throughout the war years.

Sarah Helm’s brave and insightful book, If This is a Woman: Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women, is an essential reminder of the atrocities that were carried out by the Nazis and of the courage of the women who were incarcerated in the camps.

Referenced in a New York Times article by Eric Lichtblau – ‘The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking’ (1 March 2013) – a research project at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum documented all the ghettos, slave labour sites, concentration camps and killing factories that the Nazis set up throughout Europe. What they found shocked even scholars steeped in the history of the Holocaust. The researchers catalogued some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945. They estimate that fifteen to twenty million people died or were imprisoned in the sites.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–45:

Palais Galliera – the Museum of French Fashion: 10, Avenue Pierre 1er de Serbie, 75016 Paris.

Research into inherited trauma has been a topic of debate for some years. An article in the UK Guardian newspaper (21 August 2015) cites a study at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital: ‘Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children’s genes’. However, some scientists remain sceptical about the idea of genetically inherited trauma and the nature versus nurture debate continues to run on this issue. Either way, what is heartening though is that with the right help and support it is possible to rebuild resilience and counteract the effects of trauma. The Trauma Recovery and Empowerment Model is widely used by mental health practitioners as a basis for rehabilitation. A counsellor or family doctor can help with access to support in this area.

If you have been affected by any of the issues touched on in this book then I hope you will talk to friends and family. More support is available, too, from the medical profession and from the Samaritans in times of crisis:


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A massive thank you goes out to the many members of the team who help my books see the light of day: to all at the Madeleine Milburn Agency – Maddy, Giles, Hayley, Georgia, Liane-Louise and Alice; to the Lake Union team at Amazon Publishing, especially Sammia, Laura, Bekah and Nicole; and to the editors who have helped polish my manuscript – Mike Jones, Laura Gerrard, Becca Allen and Silvia Crompton.

Special thanks to my friend and fellow author Ann Lindsay, who so generously shared with me her experiences of working in Paris in a couture house immediately after the war and who gave me a wealth of information and detail which helped bring Claire, Vivi and Mireille’s world to life. Any errors or embroidery of the facts are my responsibility alone.

The Birnam Writers’ Group provided support, encouragement and constructive observations: Drew Campbell, Tim Turnbull, Fiona Ritchie, Lesley Wilson, Jane Archer and Mary MacDougall; and Frazer Williams at The Birnam Reader Bookshop provided the perfect meeting space and delicious cakes.

As ever, another big, heartfelt thank you goes out to all the friends and family who encourage me and provide love, gin and hugs, especially Alastair, James and Willow.

And, finally, I am so grateful to all my readers for their support and I would like to thank you personally for reading my books. If you have enjoyed The Dressmaker’s Gift, I should be very grateful if you would consider writing a review. I love getting feedback, and I know reviews have played a big part in helping other readers to discover my work.

Merci, et à bient?t,