Rags-to-riches saga of a fashionable London couturière, from Tasmania resident Graeme-Evans (The Uncrowned Queen, 2006, etc.).
In 1843, cast adrift by widowhood, Constance Gowan, with daughter Ellen, 13, in tow, turns to the family that had disowned her after her elopement with Edwin, a penniless scholar. Her sister Daisy, unhappily married to cruel Sir Isidore, a prominent and much older barrister, welcomes Constance and Ellen to Isidore’s mansion, Shene House. For a while, existence at Shene is almost pleasant—Ellen and her older cousin Oriana are like sisters, and Ellen enjoys having new gowns made for her by Madame de Valentin, an exiled French aristocrat turned dressmaker to the gentry. At a ball, the girls meet Connor, and Ellen is smitten but disappointed when Connor courts Oreana. After Isidore strikes Constance (he’s been abusing Daisy for years), the Gowans flee to Angelique’s atelier. Constance, a gifted seamstress and Ellen, talented at drawing and design, are earning their keep, but Constance, disturbed by the mutual attraction growing between Angelique’s rakish son Raoul and Ellen, insists that they move to London to open a dress shop. After only a day in London, Constance, ailing from consumption, dies. Raoul inveigles Ellen, now 15, into marrying him, but deserts her when she becomes pregnant. She winds up at a clothing factory, but her skill quickly nets her a promotion. When daughter Connie is born (and, after foiling Raoul’s scheme to sell the baby!), Ellen takes refuge at Clairmallon, the great house Oriana shares with her now husband Connor. Still intent on founding her own London fashion emporium, Ellen, staked by Connor, opens Chez Miss Constance. The enterprise struggles until Lady Hawksmoor is seen at a royal reception wearing one of Ellen’s creations. Immediately a bevy of socialites is beating down her door. Raoul, whose gigolo appeal is waning, again sees potential profit in his marriage.
The book could serve as a costumer’s reference for period fashion, but Ellen is simply too perfect to be the believable protagonist of an up-from-adversity story.