Varina: A Novel
5 months ago
During the census of 1900 Varina Howell Davis declared her occupation as Writer/Landlord. Her husband Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, countered with the cryptic label “Keeps house.” This contrast may have precipitated the author/narrator to speculate “the ebb and flow of power changes constantly.” At least it underscored the chasm of opinion in their marriage.
If such contradiction could sum up the paradox of their marriage, that would do it, except that their union was much more complex, a truth author Charles Frazier illustrates in his novel, a work of historical fiction entitled Varina. The first lady’s life was characterized by other contradictions: She fostered a mixed-race orphan she saw being beaten on the street and later when she moved to New York City, became friends with Julia, wife of the Ulysses S. Grant.
In Varina, Frazier paints the landscape of the chaotic world of the American Civil War / pre-Reconstruction days. Slaves had been freed, and surviving landowners of Southern society walked away from the wreckage, dazed and desolate. Varina, having survived miscarriages, the death of children, and the carnage of war, searched for dignity and meaning in a chaotic world that remained. Often she found herself living apart from her husband both domestically and abroad in London. At times the separation was invigorating: “When geography separated them, their letters became sweet.” Sometimes Jeff, her nickname for a much-older husband, pressed flowers from special places. After Jefferson died, Varina completed his memoir based on piles of his old notes, speeches, congressional records, and, of course, her memory. She was, of course, a writer at heart; she never just kept house.
James Brooks, the orphan she fostered, brackets the book with speculations about Varina’s life and his place in it, posing the question, “Was she a mother or an owner?” He follows up with the broader question implied, “What is her place in history?” Thus, he writes into his notebook these jottings: “Her last years, she was in many ways a very modern women—unanchored and unmoored, unconstrained by family, poverty, friends, or love of place. Making a major portion of her living from her own work and talent . . . Yearning for a reconciliation with the past—the country’s and her own. Her need to shape memory into history.”
The best selling author of Cold Mountain, Frazier demonstrates once again that his genius is in the details, ones he has extrapolated from published biographies and private letters of a couple which American history has largely overlooked.