Stephanie Jones Book Review: Varina

Publish Date
Sunday, 20 May 2018, 11:49AM

Fun fact: Varina and Jefferson Davis – “V” and “Jeff” in Charles Frazier’s fictionalized biography, Varina – lived together for little more than half of their 45-year marriage, “decades of clash, disaster, loss, failure.” The losses were both epic – Davis, the leader of the Confederacy, saw the dream of Southern secession and the institution of slavery disintegrate over four years of incalculable bloodshed – and horribly personal: V gave birth to seven children, but was survived by only one.

Little wonder V was fond of opium, a “fascinating substance”, she tells a confidante: “Doctors have been shoving it at me since I was thirteen for everything from monthly melancholy to childbirth . . . They see it as the cure-all for excitable women.”

Is she excitable? Not so much, in Frazier’s telling. V fled Richmond with her children just before the climax of the Civil War in 1865, instructed by Jeff to go to Florida, then on to Havana if the Confederacy should fall. In the event of the plan’s failure, she also carried a suicide pistol furnished by her husband. It didn’t come to that, at least partly because of her calmness in strife.

Frazier pieces together a personality from historiography and finds a woman as redoubtable and resilient as Rose Kennedy, afflicted but not wholly infected by tragedy. Rose buried three sons; V four. Rose went to the White House as the mother of a president; V was the wife of the secretary of war, looking on as President Franklin Pierce “waded haltingly into the swamp of absolute politics that slavery created.”

Rose was the good Catholic spouse, birthing nine children while her husband pursued ambassadorships and movie stars; V, the granddaughter of a New Jersey governor, born into wealth and given a classical education, grew up with the knowledge that “owning other people was a given. But she began feeling the strangeness of it at about nine or ten.” Who knows if that is true? But with it, Frazier draws remote V, one of the lesser-known wives of the era, closer to us, over to the right side of history.

Years on from Cold Mountain, Frazier can still pin America’s unique conflict – there have been many civil wars, but has there been another as theatrically apocalyptic? – beneath his penetrating gaze. V’s world is one in which human beings are chattel and monstrous things cannot be stopped from happening even to the children of the 1% – Pierce and his wife see their young son, their last living child, run down by a train – so when boots hit battlefield, it seems inevitable and necessary, like a cleansing.

There is a sense of Frazier wanting to give V her due, and there is plenty of lingering opacity, like why V and Jeff, then a grieving widower, cancelled their first wedding. Years later, safe in her seniority, V cannot shake memories of chaos, the fugitive months around which her life still revolves, and Frazier issues what might be a warning: “Civilization balances always on a keen and precarious point . . . a moment’s lost attention, and it’s all gone, crashed to ruination, shards in the dirt.”

There are many reasons to read Varina, from Frazier’s wordcraft to the symmetry of history and story – but most of all, to savour the voice and spirit of a woman who endured, and who has been summoned back to life in these similarly troubled days.

To be in to win a copy of Varina click here.


Every week Stephanie reviews the Book of the Week.

As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.

Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.

Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.

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