In the lead up to this month’s Read Like a Feminist Book Club, we’ve put together a resource pack, to help you explore The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham, ahead of the discussion.
If you haven’t been able to read the book – never fear! This post has links to a bunch of articles and videos you can explore, and still engage with the discussion – it’ll just help you be extra informed when you finally do read the book.
What is The Dressmaker about?
The Dressmaker has been variously described as a comedy, a gothic novel, and a historical drama. Set in the fictional town of Dungatar, the book follows the story of Myrtle (Tilly) Dunnage, who was run out of town after a tragic incident that resulted in a boy’s death, and which the town blamed on Tilly.
Tilly’s mother is ‘Mad Molly’, who had her daughter out of wedlock and has been shunned by the town ever since. There is a huge cast of characters, all with their own quirks and traits, and who ultimately create a caricature of an Australian country town.
Tilly eventually gets her revenge on the townspeople of Dungatar, who still treat her as an outcast, despite also relying on her for her amazing fashion designs.
The ending is twist, which we won’t spoil here, but we have no doubt this book will be divisive with book clubbers!
Zoya: I have very mixed feelings about this book – on one hand, I feel like there are some interesting themes about gender equality, women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, and a more general narrative about women’s lives and bodies as being public property. But the style of writing, the sheer number of characters, and the type of humour really didn’t appeal to me!
Yen: The Dressmaker is like an unfurling poem about a small town with some weird characters. It reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s Undermilkwood an old favourite. This book is full of surprises and an addictive rhythm and its interrogation of femininity, class and rural Australian identity makes it an exciting prospect for dissection at this months book club!
Yolande: I have to say, I got my book snob on and was totally prepared not to like The Dressmaker, but only a few pages in it got me hook, line and sinker. I’m finding every character fascinating – she forms them so economically yet vividly and the descriptions of this little town and its life are staggeringly close to home for me. I do find it interesting how unlikable everyone is – particularly the women and even Tilly herself. Interested to unpack this more – what is Ham getting at? I’m enjoying the pace and the building tension – what it’s all building to I can’t yet tell but I am hardly able to put it down.
Things to discuss
At Read Like a Feminist Book Club, we want to talk about lots of things, but some key points of interest are:
- How does the genre of comedy impact on the social commentary in this book?
- Is there an issue with the negative portrayal of so many of the women, which relies on stereotypes of femininity?
- What is Rosalie Ham trying to communicate with this book – what’s the overarching message?
Stuff you should read/watch/listen to:
- This article from Rosalie Ham, on the surreal feeling of watching her novel become a film.
- A wrap-up of a panel at the Melbourne International Film Festival about how The Dressmaker was adapted for film.
- A review of the book in The New York Times.
- This blog by Rosalie Ham that shines a light on how she came up with the characters of Dungatar.
Feminartsy’s Read Like a Feminist Book Club will be taking place on Saturday 12 November, at 2pm at Smith’s Alternative in Civic, Canberra.
I’m hoping to make Saturday, but in case I don’t, wanted to say that I read this book when it first came out, and think that the landscape is one of the most powerful characters in the novel, certainly the one that has stayed with me the most. The issue of stereotypes did strike me at the time.
This book group is a great idea, I’m so pleased I came across it. Di Elliott