Varina: A Novel
ecco (HarperCollins) 2018
In his first three novels, Charles Frazier built a reputation not only for historical fiction rendered in lyrical prose but also for championing members of groups who have been marginalized and oppressed by large forces at work in their world. In his debut, Cold Mountain (1997), winner of the National Book Award and adapted by Anthony Minghella into an Academy Award-winning film, Frazier tells the story of a Confederate soldier harassed by North Carolina’s notorious Home Guard. In Thirteen Moons (2006), Frazier chronicles the efforts of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee to retain some small portion of their nation following the infamous Trail of Tears. Nightwoods (2011), a gothic tale set in the 1960s, follows an impoverished single woman named Luce as she establishes a home in a ramshackle mountain lodge while protecting her recently orphaned niece and nephew from her sister’s killer. At first glance, Frazier’s most recent novel, Varina (2018), diverges from this trend, leaving the plain folk of North Carolina to chronicle the lives of the planter elite, beginning in the Mississippi Delta and moving on to the centers of power in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia.
The novel’s titular protagonist, Varina Howell Davis, is the First Lady of the Confederate States of America, and the story tells, in a patchwork sequence, of her courtship with the much older Jefferson Davis, her rise to prominence as the wife of this U.S. Senator and later Confederate President, her flight from U.S. forces following the fall of Richmond, and then of the long decades afterward, during which time she watches the loss of children and fortune and tries to salvage a marriage about which she remains ambivalent. The novel’s premise grows out of Varina’s ambivalences and her frequently iconoclastic views and unwillingness to accept the submissive role of Southern belle, behaviors that create tension in her marriage and that often attract the ire of her Southern public. Frazier renders Varina as a complex individual with deep reserves of resistance to domination. He also makes palpable her grief for her four sons, who all die young (only one of her seven children would survive her.) Frequent mention is made to Varina’s friends in high places, including Mary Chesnut, whose Civil War Diary (1905) was published posthumously the year before Varina Howell Davis’s death and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 when it was republished and fully annotated by C. Vann Woodward as Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (1981). Indeed, Frazier’s Varina seems to channel Chesnut’s alternative history of a period dominated by masculine perspectives.
Just as the aristocratic Mary Chesnut is more insightful and accurate in her Diary on gender than on race, Frazier’s Varina remains similarly limited by the ideological commitments and blind spots of her Southern planter class. Frazier’s novel interrogates Varina’s commitments, but perhaps not aggressively enough for many readers to register fully. I suspect that for many readers Varina becomes essentially a princess story, not quite moonlight and magnolias, but nevertheless a means vicariously to squeeze into a hoop skirt and throw lavish parties for the wealthy and well placed of nineteenth-century America. The danger of Varina in the hands of an uncritical reader is that it too much rehabilitates not only the First Lady of the Confederacy but her husband, as well. Frazier exposes Jeff Davis’s defense of the U.S. Constitution and its protection of private property as fundamentally crass self-interest, even if Davis’ overblown rhetoric deludes himself to the truth Varina comes to see through. Nevertheless, because the novel as a literary mode seeks to humanize characters, to peer beneath their public selves to their private lives, Jeff Davis often comes across in Frazier’s novel as unexpectedly decent and even at times heroic. We watch him overcome various physical ailments in his military and political careers. We witness his struggle with divided loyalties between older brother and young wife. We gain insight into the surprising complexities of a life-long relationship with Pemberton, the enslaved manservant who follows him to war and manages his plantation. In contrast to the intimacy of a novel, the historical record subordinates such private realities to the essential actions of the public self: the man who delivered numerous racist screeds on the floor of the U.S. Senate, who led the Confederacy in defending slavery, and who became an important figure in the years after the War developing the cult of the Lost Cause. Not surprisingly, the Jefferson Davis of history is a much larger villain than he appears through the eyes of his wife, even when they are estranged from each other. This dissonance is at the heart of Varina; to give it insufficient attention is to miss the novel’s entire point.
A reader familiar with Frazier’s earlier novels—which celebrate the lives of the downtrodden—will be alert to frequent embedded criticisms of the protagonist, for example, Varina’s half-ironic concession to the charge that her life’s highest ambition was to become First Lady of the United States and to throw gala parties in the White House. But, such moments are outweighed by a generally sympathetic treatment. In one memorable dramatic sequence, while Varina, her children, and their entourage are fleeing the Union occupation of Richmond and traveling south in hopes of escaping to Cuba, Varina saves her family and friends from starvation by performing the role of a lady. Approaching the farm of a Georgia family who have entrenched themselves against Sherman’s army and the subsequent waves of opportunistic marauders, Varina pays a polite visit to the gun-toting daughters, inquiring about their health and translating poetry from ancient Greek, proving that although God may have absconded from the world, there is still at least one lady brave enough to traverse the wasteland. The complexity of this episode may elude an uncareful reader. Although Varina wins over the farming family by demonstrating her poise in a world given over to barbaric violence, we are reminded of how the hell that has been visited upon this family—plain folk outspoken in their opposition to slavery—came at the hands of wealthy planters like Varina and Jeff Davis and their defense of their own privilege.
In a further effort to question Varina’s complicity in the Confederacy’s defense of slavery, Frazier structures the novel as a series of interviews between an aged Varina and her long-lost foster son, the biracial Jimmy Limber, who disappeared from her life as a child when Union forces captured and arrested Varina and Jeff Davis. Jimmy (now James), has sought out the elderly Varina in Saratoga Springs, New York, in pursuit of keys to his own past, hoping to discover the extent to which his country’s racism infiltrated even the most tender relationship of a child and the woman he had come to call mother. James serves as an amanuenses of sorts for this ex-Confederate matron, drawing out her story, challenging her interpretations when they are too obviously self-serving. The fundamental question that emerges from these interviews is the same question the novel asks: to what extent can Varina—and, by extension, her nation—be redeemed from the sins of the past? If the reader feels at times the need for that question to be asked with greater vehemence, she should be reminded that such is not Frazier’s métier. Writing in a modernist tradition, characterized by neo-classical restraint, Frazier’s fiction is consistently steeped in paradox, unresolved tension, and a painful balance between nuanced insight and emotional paralysis. Like Will Cooper, the aged narrator of Frazier’s Thirteen Moons, we find Varina at the end of her life making no sweeping statements, illuminated by no grand insights. Both characters look back sadly bemused by a world he or she helped create but that now seems not wholly recognizable. Following Varina’s death, her foster son James seems equally challenged, disappointed by Varina’s last words, as reportedly spoken to her daughter: “Don’t you wear black. It is bad for your health and will depress your husband” (352-53). James prefers instead a line he recalls from one of their recent meetings: “When the time is remote enough nobody amounts to much” (353). In the juxtaposition of these two statements, a Sophoclean confrontation with loss and vanity is balanced by humor and irony. Between the two ideas there emerges an open space, one to be filled not by Varina, but by her auditor. Herein lies the essential difference between Varina’s worldview and the patriarchal dogmatism of her husband. And though no words can erase the colossal evil to which she was a party, her gift to James—and to posterity—is the burden of history and what Robert Penn Warren called “the awful responsibility of Time,” the individual necessity of reading the past in order to chart a way forward.