1906, Saratoga Springs. A man named James Blake enters The Retreat hotel and asks to see Varina Davis. In his hands he holds a blue book, a book that offers a glimpse into his past. He barely remembers Mrs Davis – V – but he wonders if she remembers him, a small black boy rescued in uncertain circumstances and brought into her home. Wife to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, V recollects her past, and what she can of James’, from the early days of a marriage to a man twice her age, through the Civil War she unwillingly found herself at the heart of, to the years afterwards when she left the South and all its pain behind.
Varina is a beautifully imagined piece of historical fiction from Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier. Moving between time periods and wonderfully described locations, he builds her character piece by piece, posing interesting questions about the way we are remembered, how history judges individuals, and how even the most outspoken opponent can be the most complicit.
The real life Varina Howell Davis certainly found herself on the wrong side of history, but Frazier’s V holds none of the vicious traits we have come to associate with slave owners and their supporters, while her position as a wife and mother at the time largely excluded her from the actual act of making history. But is she still guilty of supporting the trade? Is the moment she realises her slave servants don’t see her as friends, as she does them, example enough of her ignorance at how it all worked? Aloof and certainly of her time, V stills cuts a sympathetic and interesting figure, and is just one of several excellent characters Frazier presents us with throughout the novel.
But Varina is not without its problems. While it’s nice to like and sympathise with your lead character, she’s still a white slave owner. She thinks the colour of her skin, perhaps a shade darker than the average sun-fearing Southern belle, is an impediment – simultaneously ignoring both the obvious issues blowing up around her, and her own privileged status . And while the ordinary farmers of the South in no way deserved to be raided by Confederate and Union armies alike, Varina’s focus on the hardships of white people and their struggles does feel a little insensitive given the larger picture. James/Jimmie is clearly intended to be the counter to this, raising questions and closely examining her memories, but he is frequently absent from the story, and the reality is that Varina doesn’t feel strong enough to really add something new to that sort of narrative. Indeed, it feels a little outdated in a world where #ownvoices is a trending hashtag, particularly given that the two key voices – a white woman and a black man – don’t exactly walk in the same shoes as their white male creator.
Blending fiction, history, and the uncertainty of memory, Varina is a stunning novel, packed with beautiful imagery and evocative dialogue. Sadly, it’s uncomfortably marred by an insensitivity to modern thought – like its lead character, it seems that Varina may be a victim of its time, published in an era when Confederate statues are being removed, rather than celebrated. Perhaps the last thing we need right now is a novel sympathetic to the First Lady of the Confederacy, excellent as it may be.
Charles Frazier’s Varina is out now, available through Hachette.