She calls it “the Gray House” – the home in Richmond, Virginia, that became the capital of the southern states during the American Civil War, standing in opposition to the White House in which Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln lived during those terrible years. Varina Davis, “V” as she is referred to in Charles Frazier’s new novel, lived there as the wife of Jefferson Davis, the Mississippi planter who became the only president of the Confederate States between 1861 and 1865.
Varina is not the narrator of this strange tale, but she is its focal point, and from the beginning Frazier lets the reader know – in case that reader should be in any doubt – where the fictional Varina stands on slavery and secession. “Bad choices lead to bad consequences,” she writes to her husband. It is, she thinks, “like discussing misbehaviour with a child. But he never accepted being wrong and taking down our family. Or 11 states full of families.”
Frazier is from North Carolina; his first novel, Cold Mountain, was an award-winner and a best-seller when it was published in 1997; Anthony Minghella’s 2003 film of the novel was a sleeper hit and was nominated for six Academy Awards. That novel was set fully during the Civil War – this one jumps in time from Varina’s youth before the war, to her courtship and marriage to Davis (he was a widower nearly 20 years her senior), to her flight through the broken South in the aftermath of the war, to her later years, settled in Saratoga Springs, New York. And like Cold Mountain, this book concerns a couple pulled apart. The soldier Inman’s desire to return to his Ada is what fuels Frazier’s first novel; here V and her husband are separated both by circumstance and temperament. Whether they belong together at all is one of the story’s central puzzles.
The book begins in 1906, the year of the real Varina Davis’s death. James Blake, a black man, arrives to see her, and is asked to wait outside the lobby of her hotel – an insult he refuses to accept. He turns out to have been the boy taken in by Varina in 1864 and taken away from her when the federal forces captured them in 1865: only now are they reunited, so that he can he discover the truth of his past. Blake frames the novel, but it is an obvious device. It is as if Frazier knows that the story must not belong wholly to V, that another kind of voice must be heard from the outset.
But Varina lives and breathes through V herself. The real Varina Howell Davis was more than just a woman of her time: strong-willed, well-educated, never wholly a victim of circumstance. And so Frazier makes her as she leads her little band of refugees – her children – down towards Florida in an attempt to escape capture by federal soldiers, her only defence a little pistol her husband gave her. “He meant me to kill myself with it if I found myself on the brink of being dishonoured.”
The land and its ravaged people are conjured with clear-eyed, eloquent sympathy. Vividly conjured too are the years of Varina’s young womanhood, when she becomes aware that she is a doubtful marriage prospect: “Too tall, too dark, too slim, too educated, too opinionated.”
A tincture of opium gets her through her days, poured into wine from little glassine envelopes. But her relationship with her husband is in itself too mysterious. This is the man who said that “African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing”. Where does a sentiment like that leave an American novelist – a white American novelist – in the 21st century?
It would seem a hard moment in history to tell Varina’s story. A woman of privilege who could not but be complicit in the destruction of a country; a woman who participated in the horror of slavery even if, in her later years, her move to New York caused her old friends to claim she had betrayed the South; even if she would publicly declare that the right side won the war. Frazier’s elegant prose and vivid, dreamy conjuring of V’s youth and her attempted exodus has an air of romance about it: the sugar-coating of a bitter pill. There is something tentative about Varina as Frazier struggles against the force exerted by the myth of the “Lost Cause”, the idea that the confederacy embodied a kind of noble gallantry. A flawed novel, but a fascinating one all the same.
Erica Wagner is the author of “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)
Sceptre, 356pp, £20
This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic