It’s the French Revolution. A young woman is in line for the guillotine, and she’s the last person to speak to Sydney Carton, also awaiting execution, who she recognizes as an imposter taking the place of someone else. They give each other comfort.
Though their interaction is only brief, their relationship has been described as one of the most profound and moving of the entire novel – of course, A Tale of Two Cities.
While this girl, a seamstress, only surfaces for a brief cameo at the very end of Dickens’s 135,420-word classic, she is brought to life as the protagonist in a tale of her own in Allison Pittman’s brilliant The Seamstress (Tyndale House Publishers).
Pittman says the idea took hold “when I was standing in front of a class on tenth-grade students, doing my due diligence as an English teacher, making them consider every nook and shadow of Dickens’s novel. In talking about the redemption of Sydney Carton and the role the little seamstress played, I tossed off a comment, ‘I would love to write the story of the seamstress.’”
Paying homage to the legendary author, she adds, “I have tried to be true to the world Dickens brought to life in his untouchable way.”
While Pittman basically stays on course with history, the role of Renèe is one of pure fiction.
And what is that role? What of the life she led? What kind of person was she? In which direction did her moral compass point? What relationships filled her days?
In The Seamstress, these answers come to light. With the same backdrop and time period as Dickens’s work, God-fearing Renée, we learn, has been abandoned as a child and lives on a humble farm in the countryside of France with widower Emilé Gagnon and her cousin Laurette, also an orphan.
Renée’s relationship with Laurette is like that of a sibling, dotted with moments of intermittent discourse. One such issue is Laurette’s jealousy for attention from Marcel Moreau, Gagnon’s erstwhile friend known to be popular with the ladies and for whom Gagnon has advised Renée and Laurette to steer clear. Marcel’s involvement in the revolutionary cause as he bounds in and out of their lives does not do much to endear him to Gagnon as a worthy suitor.
Renée is content living on Gagnon’s farm for the rest of her days. But when a courtier of Queen Marie Antoinette recognizes Renée’s talent with a needle and tempts her with the prospect of living at court and honing her craft, she questions her place. Laurette, seeing Renée’s departure as an opportunity to pursue Marcel herself, encourages her cousin to go.
Once at Versailles, Renée is kept busy darning guests’ clothing, creating outfits for the Dauphin and dresses for the princesses and queen, and slowly earning Marie Antoinette’s admiration and trust.
Renée becomes more and more loyal to her and her children, while outside the walls of the palace Paris’s people are seething and becoming less tolerant of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s indifference to France’s suffering population. Poverty, hunger, and violence flood the city, and, not surprisingly, Marcel is right in the thick of the rebellion.
Renée gets embroiled in the uprisings, as she remains steadfast in her devotion both to the royal family and to God. Will her loyalty and her steely character be enough to save her? And what of Marcel and the rest?
In a story of faith, intrigue, and the devastating collision of innocence and loyalty, Allison Pittman has done a masterful job creating a compelling story with complex, well-defined characters that together are the basis of an intricate plot.
Complex characters? Intricate plot? Hmmm. That sounds familiar.
The Seamstress is available for purchase.
About Allison Pittman
Allison Pittman is the author of more than a dozen critically acclaimed novels and a three-time Christy finalist. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, blissfully sharing an empty nest with her husband, Mike.