Confederate Widow Confidential: Varina Tells (Almost!) All

Confederate Widow Confidential: Varina Tells (Almost!) All

Today we share the first post in our roundtable on recent Civil War fiction. The guest editor’s introduction, by Sarah E. Gardner, includes links to all the posts and can be found here.

The cover of Charles Frazier’s Varina: A Novel identifies its author as the “bestselling author of Cold Mountain.” When Cold Mountain, his first Civil War novel, appeared in 1997, it stayed on the New York Times list for over a year and won him the National Book Award. The star-studded film in 2003 earned $175 million worldwide, and Renée Zellweger collected an Oscar for her performance as Ruby Thewes. The relationship between Ada Monroe and Ruby Thewes was a nuanced counterpoint to Ada’s love story with Inman, and it emerged as a paean to female friendship and to wartime survival.

Some scholars took umbrage at the book’s particularly whitewashed landscape. Frazier was reprimanded—at times savaged—for the absence of black voices. People of color were few and far between in his story; for instance, at one point, an enslaved woman was carried to the riverside to be drowned by a white preacher, disposing of her as if an unwanted kitten. Frazier concentrated on how those fighting for the Confederacy were fighting for “home,” rather than to shore up the slave power (and by association, white supremacy)—and so the perpetual wrangle continues.

Thus Varina, his fourth novel, confronts issues of race and southern identity, and perhaps signals penance. Frazier’s main character, James Blake, is described as a black child orphaned by war then adopted by Jefferson and Varina Davis. After surrender in 1865 and despite his protests, he was torn from the Confederate First Family. This backstory is based on Jimmie Limber, a refugee featured in Elizabeth Botume’s First Days Amongst the Contrabands.[1]

Jimmy Limber, or James Henry Brooks, lived for about a year with the Confederate First Family. He transformed into James Blake in Frazier’s novel Varina. Courtesy of Encyclopedia Virginia.

In the novel, Blake accidentally discovers his former protector nearly forty years after their forced separation. He seeks out “V” (as she is called throughout the novel) and insists upon answers about his heritage. Over the course of several Sunday afternoons, the former first lady of the Confederacy reminisces, prompted by Blake’s interrogation, and the tale unfolds. Frazier and James Brooke do not let V off the hook. When she confides to James about the days “when we all took care of one another,” James retorts “who is we?” During formalized exchanges, James poses uncomfortable questions: “Did you own me?” “Was I your pet?” Further, he challenges her memory of her “friendship” with Ellen, the (enslaved) African American house servant who accompanied her on the flight from Richmond. She recalled in an interview that Varina may have been a good mistress, but Ellen was happier with her freedom. But V attends Ellen’s wedding, proclaiming sisterhood.[2]

Frazier threads “truth and reconciliation” into the book’s clever patterns of warp and weft. V is alternately self-deprecating and self-serving. Her acerbic observations—drawn from both her own writings and those of Mary Chesnut—as well as Frazier’s scintillating insights, rattle and snap throughout the book. Frazier allows his leading lady’s memory to be selective, indeed blatantly faulty. She exhibits self-pity by reporting how black silk ran out by the time of her young son Joseph’s funeral in 1864: several months pregnant, she was reduced to using “a muddy brew of walnut hulls and indigo” to dye her mourning costume.[3] In another segment, Frazier shows Varina reading House of Mirth, complaining she cannot abide any novels set in the South. Frazier hints she is an aging Lily Bart, but a feistier version, as V confesses: “At least I had my little suicide pistol to comfort me.”[4]

The newlyweds Jefferson Davis and Virginia Howell, who went on their honeymoon to visit the grave of Davis’s first wife, the daughter of President Zachary Taylor. Courtesy of Essential Civil War Curriculum.

Frazier allows V to filter her responses through her lament of endurance. She survived her father’s repeated financial failures, trading V on the southern marriage market. She survived her honeymoon, being taken to the grave of Jefferson’s first wife. She survived her husband’s bullying older brother, the family patriarch, Joseph Davis. She survived the death of five of her six children who predeceased her, but proudly posed with four generations near the end of her life. She survived the war, her husband’s sinking prospects, and the spring of 1865 when “a hundred thousand tragedies played out.” [5] Her husband’s capture, imprisonment, and exile all contributed to a quake-like instability. She struggled as her husband’s betrayals became legendary; Jefferson Davis’s involvement with a devoted female admirer caused scandal and further alienation.

With her husband’s death in 1889, Varina Davis made her way to Manhattan to live by her wits and her pen. (This factoid, Frazier maintains, launched him on his journey to creating “V”.) She parted company with most former Confederate widows and her homeland. Was she disloyal? A pragmatist? Rebel, or no rebel at all? She was perhaps happy to leave the crumbling Confederate states behind, done with mourning, as she tartly advised her surviving daughter: “Don’t you wear black. It is bad for your health, and will depress your husband.”[6]

Joan Cashin’s superb 2006 biography, First Lady of the Confederacy, projected a convincingly modern, albeit flawed, protagonist. Frazier echoes and expands this image, making excellent use of recent scholarship and many details are clearly drawn from the meticulous research of recent Civil War scholarship whose authors, regrettably, are omitted from his slim bibliography[7]

Jefferson Davis’s second wife, his helpmeet in the White House of the Confederacy, his defender and devoted ghost writer during the post-war years, is not a household name. But the distinctiveness of her name lingers—a faded mural on a Richmond building in the 1970s proclaimed: “Varina Ice Company.” As a political wife saddled with daily Scylla and Charybdis dilemmas—her character and context remain compelling. By taking in Jimmy Limber, the “Ice” Queen Varina appears a tantalizing puzzle to deconstruct. And once cracked open, who can put Varina back together again?

Charles Frazier has produced a brilliant and riveting glimpse of Varina’s life, immersing himself in his characters’ time and place. We are transported and in his debt, as he grapples with the mesmerizing, with the mercurial, and with riddles the Civil War still evokes. Varina emerges full of caution, compassion, grit, and woe. Frazier’s power lies not just in his authenticity but in the way he applies his gift of imagination to this epic era and haunting Confederate emblem.

[Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Jefferson Davis’s first wife was the daughter of James K. Polk. His first wife was Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor. The post has been corrected. Our apologies for the error.]


[1] Elizabeth Botume, First Days Amongst the Contrabands (Boston: Lee and Shephard, 1892).

[2] Charles Frazier, Varina: A Novel (New York: Ecco, 2018), 312.

[3] Ibid, 115.

[4] Ibid, 57.

[5] Ibid, 42.

[6] Ibid, 352-3. This was a “deathbed” directive in 1906.

[7] Frazier mentions Elizabeth Botume’s First Days Amongst the Contrabands but doesn’t include it in his bibliography. And his list of only five sources—three from the twentieth century—fails to cite current scholarship, particularly on African Americans, from which he clearly draws, including Jim Downs’s Sick From Freedom and Jean Yellin’s Harriet Jacobs.

Catherine Clinton

Catherine Clinton is the Denman Chair of American History at the University of Texas San Antonio; she has published nearly thirty books, including The Plantation Mistress (1982), Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (2004) and Mrs. Lincoln: A Life (2009). Her Fleming Lectures appeared in 2016: Stepdaughters of History. Her forthcoming edited volume, Confederate Statues and Memorialization, will inaugurate her new series (co-edited with Jim Downs) HISTORY IN THE HEADLINES, to be published by UGA Press. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2016, she is working on her project on Union soldiers and madness during and after the Civil War.

3 Replies to “Confederate Widow Confidential: Varina Tells (Almost!) All”

  1. In re the caption of the Davis newlyweds, I believe Jefferson Davis’s first wife was Zachary Taylor’s daughter and not James Polk’s. Polk had no children.

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