Some 21 years ago, Charles Frazier’s debut novel, Cold Mountain, a lyrical and moving love story set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, gained him a legion of fans and awards.
The tale of a wounded Confederate soldier trying to make his way back to his wife, left struggling to run the farm, introduced the literary world to Frazier’s narrative style and eye for detail in a story that unspooled in an unhurried but captivating manner.
Cold Mountain was adapted for the big screen in 2004; the film directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Jude Law and Renee Zellweger won the latter a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Now, with two more works under his belt, the North Carolina native returns to the rich tapestry of stories and lingering memories of the American Civil War with a haunting new work of historical fiction.
Varina tells, in fits and starts, the story of the wife of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America.
Born and raised in the South, Varina Howell is an intelligent young woman who studies in Philadelphia and harbours Northern sensibilities on issues of social justice and administration. When her family hits upon hard times, she is shipped off to a plantation in Mississippi, where, in short order, she meets and weds a much older man, widowed landowner Davis.
His decision to go into politics takes the couple away to the intellectually stimulating world of Washington where Varina learns to thrive, forming strong friendships that would last a lifetime.
And then, of course, the civil war breaks out, and Davis, who resigns his Senate seat when Mississippi secedes from the Federal Union, is soon elected president of the rebel states, holding the position from 1861 to 1865.
Varina, whose own thoughts on slavery and the war are complicated, finds herself thrust into the unwanted role of First Lady.
The book also deals with her life in the aftermath of the civil war, as she struggles to be a bridge between the North and South and work towards reconciliation.
Being a work of historical fiction, Frazier had to find a creative way to tell the story of this intriguing historical yet elusive figure and bring her to life. He does this by creating a character to help bookend the narrative and offer a doorway into Varina’s life.
James Blake, a middle-aged black schoolteacher, reaches out to Varina as she spends a few months in Saratoga Springs in New York. He has come to her in the hopes of learning about his past.
Blake actually shares a connection with Varina, who took him in off the streets when he was a young boy and named him Jimmie Limber because he’s double jointed. But he remembers almost nothing about his life in Richmond and hopes Varina can help fill in the blanks, and possibly even answer a burning question: “Did you ever own me?”
It is a question that she ultimately does not answer – perhaps because admitting so would make her as morally culpable as the slave-owning landowners whose attempts to defend their way of life ultimately led to the war.
The book gets off to a good start with Varina – accompanied by her brood of five children (including the mixed-race Jimmie) and aides – escaping the Gray White House in Richmond and travelling south to get to Havana.
Hunted by the Federals, disgruntled Southerners, and refugees, the caravan passes through a landscape bearing the terrible scars of a war that Varina had early on believed the South had little chance of winning.
They are soon caught and the family is broken up, with Davis imprisoned and the children sent to Canada. Jimmie is handed into someone else’s care, where his own journey begins.
After the war, Varina shifts from place to place, even spending time in Europe, before eventually reconciling with her husband.
She even puts together her husband’s memoirs after his death, considering it a debt she owed him, before moving north to begin a literary career as a columnist for The New York World newspaper.
The grown-up Jimmie (or James) helps prod Varina’s memories of her life, which unfold in a surprisingly subdued manner, perhaps in keeping with the lack of passion in her life.
We discover how Varina coped with her 44-year marriage to Davis (the couple spent more than half of the time separated), the loss of her sons, and her yearning to be free to live her life surrounded by books and away from the gossiping hordes.
Varina is a complex character – a rare Southern belle whose sharp mind (despite her addiction to opiates – she would take them in pinches with her wine) made her an oddity of the period. She comes alive when arguing about art, music, philosophy and history.
She believes in democratic socialism, and the principles of justice and equality. Yet she accepts slavery as a way of life in the South.
That perhaps is the moral failing that haunts her later years, and which James pricks at.
If truth be told, I wasn’t really sold on James’ role in the book – why would the ageing Varina choose to unburden her thoughts to him over the course of five Sundays, and what does he eventually gain from these conversations?
The framing unnecessarily shackles the First Lady, forcing her narrative into a somewhat disjointed series of reminisces that hobble the book’s pacing and the reader’s ability to warm to the character.
But Frazier shines when he chooses to focus on the Civil War years – his sure grip on the language brings to life the social mores and mannerisms of the American South and a proud way of life that is soon washed away by history’s unstoppable march.
Varina Howell Davis died in New York in 1906 at the age of 80, having outlived her spouse and all but one of her children.
How different would her life have been if she had stayed on in the North and not married a Southerner?
“The only bright spot is, the right side won,” she says, and then pointedly advises, “Don’t look back.”
Author: Charles Frazier
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins, historical fiction