Threads of Time with Lauren Chater

Article | Issue: Apr 2022

On the small Dutch island of Texel, where fortunes were lost and secrets lie buried for centuries, the discovery of a 17th-century dress is filled with intrigue and skullduggery. LAUREN CHATER tells KAREN WILLIAMS why she was passionate about the subject of her latest book and the story of two women separated by centuries but connected by a silk dress.

 

I was led into the depths of the bowels of a dimly-lit basement. There in front of me was a large white box: like a sarcophagus. It was a spellbinding moment which I will never forget.

 

Lauren Chater was in the Netherlands, courtesy of a literary grant, to research and write her new novel. She’d been given special access to see the 17th-century dress that Dutch archaeologists and conservationists had been working to conserve for eight years.The dress had survived almost 400 years under the sea and was discovered in a small chest in a shipwreck off the tip of Holland.This story of the dress is the premise of Lauren’s latest novel.

‘When I first read in 2014 about the remarkable discovery of the dress, the story idea stayed with me and I knew I wanted to write it,’ Lauren told me.

The Winter Dress by Lauren ChaterHolland’s famous Golden Age is a fascinating, romantic period of history. Dutch trade, science, art and military were among the most acclaimed in Europe. Holland had just broken its ties with Catholic Spain and become a republic and its people were free to practise Calvinism, a branch of Christian Protestantism. There was a tulip boom that was resulting in some bulbs being sold for more than the price of a house.The first stock market was born and great artists such as Van der Meer and Rembrandt were flourishing.

Holland was one of the great trading nations. Fortunes were won and lost on ships that set sail full of bounty.Whole fleets would leave from a small island of Texel located off Holland’s northernmost tip. Its waters were extremely dangerous and notorious for shipwrecks. It was in 2014, after a major storm, that a group of local divers found the remains of a sunken ship that had been covered in sand. Among its treasures was a small chest and in that chest was an amazing discovery, a silk dress.

The story of who owned and wore the silk dress, and how it ended up at the bottom of the sea, is the fascinating subject of the Lauren Chater’s novel, The Winter Dress. Lauren spent years meticulously researching, basing many characters and events on the lives of real people from 1600s Holland.

 

 

The Winter Dress is a complex story that travels across time from the 1600s to the present day and is told through the eyes of two central characters, Anna Tesseltje and Jo Baaker.

Anna, the owner of the dress, is a merchant’s daughter who has fallen on hard times. She becomes a lady’s companion to Catharina van Shurman, a well-known female artist and great intellectual.Anna’s father lost his entire shipping empire on the night of her birth and named her Anna Tesselruineren – Ruin on Texel. The name was to be a reminder of humility and pride and that God can take away what we love most.

Afraid of accepting love, Anna says, ‘Everyone I have loved has perished …’

Jo Baaker, who lives in the present day, is a textiles historian and Dutch expat living in Australia with her aunt. Her story starts when she receives a phone call from an old friend on Texel who, with his group of divers, has discovered the dress. ‘What should they do with it?’ he asks. Jo’s own story and the grief of losing her parents at the age of 16, is told alongside the professional challenge she faces in preserving the dress and discovering who wore it and owned it.

Lauren, whose earlier work includes The Lacemaker and Gulliver’s Wife, has long been fascinated by textiles and what their histories reveal about women’s lives.

‘Even when someone dies, these intimate items, worn close to a body, remain behind,’ she says.‘They can haunt your imagination.They are proof of pieces of lives left behind.’

Many different threads and themes are woven through the lives of her characters in The Winter Dress. In modern day, Jo battles with the cut-throat world of academia and the betrayal of a male colleague who aims to steal and claim the dress’s discovery. While in the 17th century, Lauren writes about a patriarchal world where women were brought up to be wives and mothers, their destinies always in the hands of men. Even Anna’s employer, Catharina van Shurman, who is a strong, independent and immensely talented character, is subject to the whims of men. It is her twin brother who forges the connections and who wins the portrait commissions given to her to fulfill.

Anna and Jo, and indeed all the women in The Winter Dress, are connected through the terrible tragedies and grief they experience and survive. The title draws inspiration from Elizabeth Stuart who was known as the Winter Queen and who, as the sister of King Charles I, lived her whole life in exile, first in Bohemia and then in The Hague. She is a great friend of Catharina and symbolises how even women in the highest echelons of society are not immune from life’s tragedies.

‘Winter represents a cold place,’ says Lauren. ‘A place where everything is suspended for a period; a place where all the women in the story needed to move and break through.’

Lauren has a passion for writing historical fiction. ‘Historical fiction really speaks to me – and there are no limits when you are writing about it. I love delving into parts of history, there is so much to uncover and learn. It informs everything about who we are in the present and the decisions we make about the future.’

Although she knew she had always wanted to write, Lauren began writing seriously only 10 years ago. She took a creative writing course at university. It took a lot of work, including doing further courses and master classes to develop her skills. Her writing during this period, she says, was ‘very, very bad’. But when she won a writing competition, she knew she had turned a corner and with the good fortune of meeting a publisher who shared her vision for her work, she arrived with a big bang: a three-book contract. This third book, The Winter Dress, took Lauren around two years to write.

‘The real magic begins now, with readers who will bring their own experiences to reading my novel.’

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lauren Chater is the author of the historical novels The Lace Weaver and Gulliver’s Wife, as well as the baking compendium Well Read Cookies – Beautiful Biscuits Inspired by Great Literature.

In 2018 she was awarded a grant by the Neilma Sidney Literary Fund to travel to the Netherlands to research her third novel The Winter Dress, inspired by a real 17th century gown found off the Dutch coast in 2014. She has made appearances at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Storyfest, the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival and the Tamar Valley Writers’ Festival, as well as many others. She is currently completing her Masters of Cultural Heritage through Deakin University.

Author: Lauren Chater

Category: Fiction & related items

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia

ISBN: 9781761420719

RRP: $22.99

Reader Comments

Subscribe
Notify of
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all reviews

The Latest List