Mary Todd was born to a slaveholding family in early nineteenth century Kentucky and grew up in a life of privilege, including a strong sense of entitlement that she never really lost. In the same year, 1818, Elizabeth (known as Lizzie) Hobbs was born into slavery with no expectations other than hard work and abuse, both of which she had in great measure.
Even in a work of fiction it would seem unbelievable that they would not only meet, but become equals and even confidantes. But this is exactly what did happen. Like Mary Todd, Elizabeth Keckly (often misspelled as Keckley) proved to be a smart, headstrong girl. Her improbable rise began with her learning to read and write, something that was strongly discouraged among slaves. Even the birth of a baby, presumably fathered by her white owner, failed to squelch her ambition.
Despite her advantages, Todd felt unloved within her large disputatious family. She had a better education than most women of her time and was passionately interested in all things political, but she felt stifled. Her emotional state manifested itself in physical illness and a highly nervous disposition. This tendency worsened over the years, even after she married the future President Abraham Lincoln.
Keckly bought her freedom in 1855 and ultimately used her skills in dressmaking to start a thriving business among the wives of the Washington elite. After Lincoln’s election, Mary hired her to make much of her substantial wardrobe. Their relationship grew way beyond employer and hireling, however. Mary Lincoln was widely disliked by her peers, perhaps deservedly so, and increasingly turned to Keckly for solace, especially after the death of her favorite son.
Emotional support was only part of their friendship. After Lincoln’s assassination, Mary also turned to Lizzie for help in raising money and protecting her against her mounting debts. In alternating chapters, author Jennifer Fleischner tells this improbable story in a detailed yet highly readable way. Although there are many documentary sources for Mary Lincoln’s life, much of what she has written about Keckly appears somewhat speculative.