Emilia Barton and her mother Sarah live a nomadic existence, travelling from town to town as itinerant dressmakers to escape their past. When they settle in the idyllic coastal town of Pesaro, Emilia desperately hopes that, this time, they have found a permanent home. But when Sarah is brutally attacked by an unknown assailant, a deathbed confession turns Emilia’s world upside down.
Seeking refuge as a dressmaker in the eccentric household of Princess Caroline of Brunswick, Emilia experiences her first taste of love with the charming Alessandro. But her troubling history gnaws away at her. Might she, a humble dressmaker’s daughter, have a more aristocratic past than she could have imagined? When the Princess sends her on an assignment to London, she grasps the opportunity to unravel the truth.
The Dressmaker’s Secret is set in Pesaro, a beautiful Italian town on the Adriatic coast, and then later in London and Hampshire. The story follows the fortunes of Emilia Barton, a young dressmaker who has spent most of her childhood travelling throughout Europe with her mother who has run away from her abusive husband. Constantly alert to danger, Sarah never feels safe anywhere and they have barely settled into their little cottage in Pesaro before she starts to feel she is being watched. Emilia, tired of the constant travelling, doesn’t believe her mother but is shocked when she returns to the cottage to find her mother brutally beaten.
On her deathbed, Sarah confesses she is not Emilia’s mother and tells her a story of how she had been working as a lady’s maid to the wealthy Langdon family and had become part of a plan concocted by Lady Langdon to escape her abusive husband. When Lady Langdon was discovered, Sarah had already managed to escape with Emilia but was soon branded as a kidnapper when Lady Langdon later committed suicide. Fearing for her life, Sarah has been running with Emilia ever since. After Sarah dies, Emilia receives a proposal of marriage but feels unable to accept until she has come to terms with who she is and what she wants from life.
When Emilia is sent to London on a mission by the Princess of Wales to gauge how she is perceived by the general public, Emilia takes the opportunity to discover the whereabouts of her family and is gratified when her father accepts her readily. However, Emilia is soon talked into staying longer and her father embarks on a mission to turn her into a lady so her marital prospects can be improved. Emilia is soon swept up into a world of balls and society events which bring her into contact with the Prince Regent himself but she quickly tires of the shallowness and longs to return home to Italy. However, the longer Emilia stays, the more manipulative her father becomes until she doubts whether he has been telling her the truth about her mother. As Emilia continues to unravel her past, dark secrets begin to surface and she realises her father is at the very heart of them all.
The mystery elements are a tad predictable, however the author paces the story well so the secrets aren’t all revealed at once and she does manage to hold our interest even though we know where everything is going. Emilia is a likeable heroine, however she is also quite frustrating when she refuses to see what is going on under her nose and is constantly making excuses for other people’s behaviour. However, her skills as a dressmaker are never really exploited in the story and seem more like a plot device to get her into Caroline of Brunswick’s household more than anything else. She’s also too accomplished for someone who had little formal education and had to teach herself from books.
The introduction of Caroline of Brunswick is a strange one and I can’t say her inclusion in the story really adds anything other than to make the story more topical for the time. The author helpfully outlines the princess’ story in the afterword for those who may be unaware and I have to say Caroline’s sad tale is way more interesting than Emilia’s so it is a real shame she only flitted in and out of the story. Strangely enough, while Betts makes many references to the tragic death of Caroline’s daughter, Charlotte, she never once mentions the succession crisis which prompted the Prince Regent’s brothers to hastily marry and the eventual birth of Queen Victoria in May 1819.
The settings in Italy and England are well exploited with the beauty of the landscape of Pesaro being contrasted with the dank greyness of London. Emilia seemed to have enjoyed more freedom as a female in Pesaro than she ever did in London but I guess that’s what happens when you become part of high society.