Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley

 

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley, 1861

Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University [Public Domain]

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln (c. 1855–1865), wearing a dress made by Keckly

Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2017896163/>.

By 1868, when Behind the Scenes was published, readers were familiar with the genre of the slave narrative, which gave vital and moving eyewitness accounts of the atrocities of slavery and helped to fuel the abolition movement.

We have seen some of these accounts already in Ten-Minute Book Club so far. But Keckly’s autobiography stands out for several reasons. (Whilst her published name is ‘Keckley’, ‘Keckly’ is the spelling she used in the rest of her life). Although it begins as a slave narrative, revealing in a matter-of-fact way the horrors Keckly had to endure until her thirties when she bought her own freedom – including familial separation, cruel owners, brutal beatings, rape and ensuing pregnancy – the narrative shifts focus and form halfway through and becomes the story of a successful businesswoman with unparalleled insight into the lives of the highest-ranking political couple in the land:  President and Mrs Lincoln.

Keckly tells us how she worked her way up to financial independence by being a skilled seamstress, eventually serving as Mrs Lincoln’s private tailor (or modiste as she pointedly calls herself, drawing attention to the artistry and skill that this label suggests). The story becomes a revelation of the life ‘behind the scenes’ of the White House where she lived and worked for four years, until Lincoln’s assassination left her out of a job. But the narrative is less about her than about her employers. This was what shocked white readers at the time:  that a black ex-slave woman should dare to narrate white lives, let alone the most famous in the country; that she should have had such privileged access to them, and that she was an expert eye-witness to their behaviour.

Equally galling to white readers was the fact that she possessed such power in Washington, albeit a very different kind from political power. An entire network of influential politicians’ wives and sometimes their husbands was dependent on her. Keckly’s dressmaking skill was sought after by the most famous families in the capital. The excerpt we have chosen from Behind the Scenes perfectly illustrates this power, her awareness of it, and her ability to wield it.

But this is no ‘kiss and tell’ book. Keckly is the paragon of virtue and dignity, morally spotless and fiercely sensible, clear-headed, and calm under pressure. These qualities shine through in the narrative style, as in this excerpt when she relates how she met Mrs Lincoln and how she eventually won her confidence. Both of these events show her mettle and her savvy as to how to handle privileged white women. In many respects, she shows an uncanny resemblance to the tenacious Jane Eyre, a character who will feature in week 9 of our Ten Minute Book Club, who confides directly to the reader just as Keckly does, who opens up to us about her true feelings with regard to the struggles of being a woman and poor, and who observes with steely common sense the foibles of the upper classes. Like Jane Eyre, Keckley is a self-made single woman who must navigate carefully the constraints placed on women at the time; both narratives give a palpable sense of the dangers and pitfalls lurking at every turn, and how important and precarious these women’s ‘virtue’ is. This week’s excerpt shows Keckley in a similar position to Jane when she is being sized up and interviewed by prospective employers. Not for a minute do these heroines forget their humble beginnings and the obstacles they have had to overcome in a world that is set up by and for men. But for Keckly, as a black woman, the struggle is so much harder; the intersection of race, gender, and class determines her status in the world. All the more remarkable, then, that she transcends the ingrained prejudices against this status and, instead, celebrates it.

—Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

 

Some themes and questions to consider 

  • Navigating power

    One of the oft-repeated lines in this brief excerpt is that Keckley ‘always wanted to work for the ladies of the White House.’  These women are in love with Keckley’s dresses, and they clamour after her ability to make them look pretty, but she is clear-eyed about her relationships with them.  Notice how Keckley navigates the world of these Washington women (for it is, strikingly, a female-dominated network that we see):  she quietly resists being ordered around, for instance in deliberately not attending the meeting she had been brusquely ordered to attend to be introduced to Mrs Lincoln.  Instead, she goes the next day.  This ex-slave has kept the President’s wife waiting, and on Inauguration Day itself!  Even the President’s wife has to wait; she is the one being tested, not Keckley, who asserts herself through actions rather than words.  Consider such acts of quiet resistance in this excerpt, and perhaps too the ways that they may relate to other personal and peaceful resistances in the history of civil rights.

  • Gender

    Another way of reading this text alongside others might be in relation to other female slave narratives (Mary Prince, Mary Seacole, Harriet Jacobs). Gender makes a tremendous difference in terms of methods of empowerment and liberation, as well as of narration.

  • Genre

    This text would work well alongside previous excerpts from Ten-Minute Book Club, such as Frederick Douglass’s work. Comparing male and female slave narratives would be a way of exploring the idea that whilst there is no single representative ‘slave narrative,’ they may follow a similar pattern and trajectory, as with any genre. One of the key things that emerges is Keckley’s use of sentimental fiction genre characteristics of narrative, compared with Douglass’s direct, factual tone.  Also, they both acknowledge that there are those rare ‘kind’ masters

  • Looking and visual metaphors

    The text, whose title already signals a kind of looking or spectating through the theatrical word ‘scenes,’ engages with and radically revises standard visual images in the visual culture of the period with regard to race and slave narratives.

This fifth chapter in the autobiography of Elizabeth Keckley, who had endured a brutal period of enslavement in her earlier life, depicts the moment when she is first introduced to the Mary Todd Lincoln, First Lady. After purchasing her own and her son’s freedom in St. Louis, Missouri in 1855, Keckley has moved to Washington, D.C. and established her reputation as a modiste, or seamstress, with the wives of many powerful politicians as her clients.

Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, Chapter 5

 

        Ever since arriving in Washington I had a great desire to work for the ladies of the White House, and to accomplish this end I was ready to make almost any sacrifice consistent with propriety. Work came in slowly, and I was beginning to feel very much embarrassed, for I did not know how I was to meet the bills staring me in the face. It is true, the bills were small, but then they were formidable to me, who had little or nothing to pay them with. While in this situation I called at the Ringolds, where I met Mrs. Captain Lee. Mrs. L. was in a state bordering on excitement, as the great event of the season, the dinner-party given in honor of the Prince of Wales, was soon to come off, and she must have a dress suitable for the occasion. The silk had been purchased, but a dress-maker had not yet been found. Miss Ringold recommended me, and I received the order to make the dress. When I called on Mrs. Lee the next day, her husband was in the room, and handing me a roll of bank bills, amounting to one hundred dollars, he requested me to purchase the trimmings, and to spare no expense in making a selection. With the money in my pocket I went out in the street, entered the store of Harper & Mitchell, and asked to look at their laces. Mr. Harper waited on me himself, and was polite and kind. When I asked permission to carry the laces to Mrs. Lee, in order to learn whether she could approve my selection or not, he gave a ready assent. When I reminded him that I was a stranger, and that the goods were valuable, he remarked that he was not afraid to trust me--that he believed my face was the index to an honest heart. It was pleasant to be spoken to thus, and I shall never forget the kind words of Mr. Harper. I often recall them, for they are associated with the dawn of a brighter period in my dark life. I purchased the trimmings, and Mr. Harper allowed me a commission of twenty-five dollars on the purchase. The dress was done in time, and it gave complete satisfaction. Mrs. Lee attracted great attention at the dinner-party, and her elegant dress proved a good card for me. I received numerous orders, and was relieved from all pecuniary embarrassments. One of my patrons was Mrs. Gen. McClean, a daughter of Gen. Sumner. One day when I was very busy, Mrs. McC. drove up to my apartments, came in where I was engaged with my needle, and in her emphatic way said:

        “Lizzie, I am invited to dine at Willard’s on next Sunday, and positively I have not a dress fit to wear on the occasion. I have just purchased material, and you must commence work on it right away.”

        “But Mrs. McClean,” I replied, “I have more work now promised than I can do. It is impossible for me to make a dress for you to wear on Sunday next.”

        “Pshaw! Nothing is impossible. I must have the dress made by Sunday;” and she spoke with some impatience.

        “I am sorry,” I began, but she interrupted me.

        “Now don’t say no again. I tell you that you must make the dress. I have often heard you say that you would like to work for the ladies of the White House. Well, I have it in my power to obtain you this privilege. I know Mrs. Lincoln well, and you shall make a dress for her provided you finish mine in time to wear at dinner on Sunday.”

        The inducement was the best that could have been offered. I would undertake the dress if I should have to sit up all night--every night, to make my pledge good. I sent out and employed assistants, and, after much worry and trouble, the dress was completed to the satisfaction of Mrs. McClean. It appears that Mrs. Lincoln had upset a cup of coffee on the dress she designed wearing on the evening of the reception after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, which rendered it necessary that she should have a new one for the occasion. On asking Mrs. McClean who her dress-maker was, that lady promptly informed her,

        “Lizzie Keckley.”

        “Lizzie Keckley? The name is familiar to me. She used to work for some of my lady friends in St. Louis, and they spoke well of her. Can you recommend her to me?”

        “With confidence. Shall I send her to you?”

        “If you please. I shall feel under many obligations for your kindness.”

        The next Sunday Mrs. McClean sent me a message to call at her house at four o’clock P.M., that day. As she did not state why I was to call, I determined to wait till Monday morning. Monday morning came, and nine o’clock found me at Mrs. McC.’s house. The streets of the capital were thronged with people, for this was Inauguration day. A new President, a man of the people from the broad prairies of the West, was to accept the solemn oath of office, was to assume the responsibilities attached to the high position of Chief Magistrate of the United States. Never was such deep interest felt in the inauguration proceedings as was felt to-day; for threats of assassination had been made, and every breeze from the South came heavily laden with the rumors of war. Around Willard’s hotel swayed an excited crowd, and it was with the utmost difficulty that I worked my way to the house on the opposite side of the street, occupied by the McCleans. Mrs. McClean was out, but presently an aide on General McClean’s staff called, and informed me that I was wanted at Willard’s. I crossed the street, and on entering the hotel was met by Mrs. McClean, who greeted me:

        “Lizzie, why did you not come yesterday, as I requested? Mrs. Lincoln wanted to see you, but I fear that now you are too late.”

        “I am sorry, Mrs. McClean. You did not say what you wanted with me yesterday, so I judged that this morning would do as well.”

        “You should have come yesterday,” she insisted. “Go up to Mrs. Lincoln’s room”--giving me the number--”she may find use for you yet.”

        With a nervous step I passed on, and knocked at Mrs. Lincoln’s door. A cheery voice bade me come in, and a lady, inclined to stoutness, about forty years of age, stood before me.

“You are Lizzie Keckley, I believe.”

        I bowed assent.

        “The dress-maker that Mrs. McClean recommended?”

        “Yes, madam.”

        “Very well; I have not time to talk to you now, but would like to have you call at the White House, at eight o’clock to-morrow morning, where I shall then be.”

        I bowed myself out of the room, and returned to my apartments. The day passed slowly, for I could not help but speculate in relation to the appointed interview for the morrow. My long-cherished hope was about to be realized, and I could not rest.

        Tuesday morning, at eight o’clock, I crossed the threshold of the White House for the first time. I was shown into a waiting-room, and informed that Mrs. Lincoln was at breakfast. In the waiting-room I found no less than three mantua-makers waiting for an interview with the wife of the new President. It seems that Mrs. Lincoln had told several of her lady friends that she had urgent need for a dress-maker, and that each of these friends had sent her mantua-maker to the White House. Hope fell at once. With so many rivals for the position sought after, I regarded my chances for success as extremely doubtful. I was the last one summoned to Mrs. Lincoln’s presence. All the others had a hearing, and were dismissed. I went up-stairs timidly, and entering the room with nervous step, discovered the wife of the President standing by a window, looking out, and engaged in lively conversation with a lady, Mrs. Grimsly, as I afterwards learned. Mrs. L. came forward, and greeted me warmly.

        “You have come at last. Mrs. Keckley, who have you worked for in the city?”

        “Among others, Mrs. Senator Davis has been one of my best patrons,” was my reply.

        “Mrs. Davis! So you have worked for her, have you? Of course you gave satisfaction; so far, good. Can you do my work?”

        “Yes, Mrs. Lincoln. Will you have much work for me to do?”

        “That, Mrs. Keckley, will depend altogether upon your prices. I trust that your terms are reasonable. I cannot afford to be extravagant. We are just from the West, and are poor. If you do not charge too much, I shall be able to give you all my work.”

        “I do not think there will be any difficulty about charges, Mrs. Lincoln; my terms are reasonable.”

        “Well, if you will work cheap, you shall have plenty to do. I can’t afford to pay big prices, so I frankly tell you so in the beginning.”

        The terms were satisfactorily arranged, and I measured Mrs. Lincoln, took the dress with me, a bright rose-colored moire-antique, and returned the next day to fit it on her. A number of ladies were in the room, all making preparations for the levee to come off on Friday night. These ladies, I learned, were relatives of Mrs. L.’s,--Mrs. Edwards and Mrs. Kellogg, her own sisters, and Elizabeth Edwards and Julia Baker, her nieces. Mrs. Lincoln this morning was dressed in a cashmere wrapper, quilted down the front; and she wore a simple head-dress. The other ladies wore morning robes.

        I was hard at work on the dress, when I was informed that the levee had been postponed from Friday night till Tuesday night. This, of course, gave me more time to complete my task. Mrs. Lincoln sent for me, and suggested some alteration in style, which was made. She also requested that I make a waist of blue watered silk for Mrs. Grimsly, as work on the dress would not require all my time.

        Tuesday evening came, and I had taken the last stitches on the dress. I folded it and carried it to the White House, with the waist for Mrs. Grimsly. When I went up-stairs, I found the ladies in a terrible state of excitement. Mrs. Lincoln was protesting that she could not go down, for the reason that she had nothing to wear.

        “Mrs. Keckley, you have disappointed me-- deceived me. Why do you bring my dress at this late hour?”

        “Because I have just finished it, and I thought I should be in time.”

        “But you are not in time, Mrs. Keckley; you have bitterly disappointed me. I have no time now to dress, and, what is more, I will not dress, and go down-stairs.”

        “I am sorry if I have disappointed you, Mrs. Lincoln, for I intended to be in time. Will you let me dress you? I can have you ready in a few minutes.”

        “No, I won’t be dressed. I will stay in my room. Mr. Lincoln can go down with the other ladies.”

        “But there is plenty of time for you to dress, Mary,” joined in Mrs. Grimsly and Mrs. Edwards. “Let Mrs. Keckley assist you, and she will soon have you ready.”

        Thus urged, she consented. I dressed her hair, and arranged the dress on her. It fitted nicely, and she was pleased. Mr. Lincoln came in, threw himself on the sofa, laughed with Willie and little Tad, and then commenced pulling on his gloves, quoting poetry all the while.

        “You seem to be in a poetical mood to-night,” said his wife.

        “Yes, mother, these are poetical times,” was his pleasant reply. “I declare, you look charming in that dress. Mrs. Keckley has met with great success.” And then he proceeded to compliment the other ladies.

        Mrs. Lincoln looked elegant in her rose-colored moire-antique. She wore a pearl necklace, pearl ear-rings, pearl bracelets, and red roses in her hair. Mrs. Baker was dressed in lemon-colored silk; Mrs. Kellogg in a drab silk, ashes of rose; Mrs. Edwards in a brown and black silk; Miss Edwards in crimson, and Mrs. Grimsly in blue watered silk. Just before starting down-stairs, Mrs. Lincoln’s lace handkerchief was the object of search. It had been displaced by Tad, who was mischievous, and hard to restrain. The handkerchief found, all became serene. Mrs. Lincoln took the President’s arm, and with smiling face led the train below. I was surprised at her grace and composure. I had heard so much, in current and malicious report, of her low life, of her ignorance and vulgarity, that I expected to see her embarrassed on this occasion. Report, I soon saw, was wrong. No queen, accustomed to the usages of royalty all her life, could have comported herself with more calmness and dignity than did the wife of the President. She was confident and self-possessed, and confidence always gives grace.

        This levee was a brilliant one, and the only one of the season. I became the regular modiste of Mrs. Lincoln. I made fifteen or sixteen dresses for her during the spring and early part of the summer, when she left Washington; spending the hot weather at Saratoga, Long Branch, and other places. In the mean time I was employed by Mrs. Senator Douglas, one of the loveliest ladies that I ever met, Mrs. Secretary Wells, Mrs. Secretary Stanton, and others. Mrs. Douglas always dressed in deep mourning, with excellent taste, and several of the leading ladies of Washington society were extremely jealous of her superior attractions.

Full text

The full text can be found for free at Project Gutenberg

Context and Authorial Choices

By the time Keckley was writing, after the Civil War had ended and slavery had been abolished, publishers and readers had shifted from being interested in first-hand accounts of slavery, like those of Frederick Douglass in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Jacobs in her autobiography. How to engage readers, then, as an African-American writer? How to tell new stories? One way was to jump onto the ‘sensation’ bandwagon, sensation fiction being at its peak of popularity in the 1860s. Keckley deftly forged a new kind of literature by combining the testimony of the former slave with the methods of sensation fiction and the revelations of an employee and close confidante of the famous and powerful, in this case the Lincolns. This bold and original move outraged many white critics, who poured scorn on what ‘the Keckley woman’ had written.

One of the themes that emerges most strongly from Keckley’s account is her autonomy and agency, which were rare for a black woman of her time, and which emanated from her skill as a seamstress. Her power has nothing to do with sexuality, gender, or race; it comes through her work and her work in turn gives her economic freedom and autonomy. She is, as far as a black woman could be at that time, her own boss. Anna Nelson notes that ‘Keckly’s authorial voice challenged the firmly entrenched social expectation that members of the black workforce should remain silent and invisible contributors to the American economy’ (Nelson 548).

Yet the book also has drawn controversy for the way in which Keckly depicts her previous owners, the Garlands, whom she willingly and even affectionately visits at one stage in the narrative, staying with them and enjoying being back in their company. Is this a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, by which the hostage or prisoner comes to ‘love’ their captor and abuser? Keckly’s narrative boldly addresses this issue. She makes clear that the family deeply repents having ever ‘owned’ her, and they treat her with respect, genuine affection, and love. But her anecdotes about the visit also subtly show the limitations of the Garlands’ perspective, revealing unconscious biases that do not simply go away or get resolved. For this reason, Keckly’s book has often been referred to as a Reconstruction parable, revealing in a nutshell the problems of that period just after the Civil War and until the 1920s when the legal and political reforms established by the government to abolish racism failed catastrophically and prolonged the struggle of African Americans to gain genuine equality in America.

Keckly can be terse, dry, and even silent at times on major issues; she narrates the personal costs of slavery in a spare factual way, commenting only that ‘slavery had its dark side as well as its bright side’ (30), when describing the events that led to the tragic premature death of her Uncle. As with other slave narratives such as those of Mary Prince, Frederick Douglass, Mary Seacole, and Harriet Jacobs, the facts speak for themselves.

Resources on Keckley

Tell Me More: ‘Buying Freedom Through Dressmaking’

An NPR radio show about Elizabeth Keckley.

Burwell School Historic Site

Feature page on Elizabeth Keckly.

Woman in History, Lakewood Public Library

Biography of Elizabeth Keckley (archived page).

Internet Archive resources

Works by or about Elizabeth Keckley

LibriVox resources

Audiobooks of Elizabeth Keckley’s work.

General resources

The Pen is Ours:  A Listing of Writings by and about African-American Women before 1910 with Secondary Bibliography to the Present. 

By Jean Fagan Yellin and Cynthia D. Bond (Schomburg Library, OUP, 1991).

Race and Resistance across Borders in the Long Twentieth Century

This TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) research network and its blog facilitates conversations about race, racism, resistance, and liberation within Oxford and beyond. See also the Voices Across Borders blog.

Oxford Centre for Life-Writing

Read more about research on autobiography and biography.

About the Contributor

Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr teaches literature of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, with special interests in theatre and performance, the plays of Henrik Ibsen, and the relations between literature and science. She has published widely in these areas, including the books Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett (2015), Science on Stage:  From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen (2006), Ibsen and Early Modernist Theatre, 1890-1900 (1997), and Modern Drama:  A Very Short Introduction (2016). She is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Theatre and Science, which will be published in November 2020. She is also the co-creator of The Contagion Cabaret, which is available to stream online. Professor Shepherd-Barr is also one of the founders of the Ten-Minute Book Club, and together with Dr Alexandra Paddock she is the founder of the project that helped to inspire it, LitHits. She is a Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford.