book review, historical fiction, history

Review: Varina by Charles Frazier


Varina by Charles Frazier tells the story of Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. From their first meeting, to the violent end of the war and her subsequent flight from the South to the frayed years of Reconstruction and beyond. Now I know what you may be thinking–why would you read a novel about the wife of Jefferson Davis? I asked myself the same question when I picked it up. Curiosity, initially, I suppose. What was life like being married to a traitor? What compelled a wife to stay with her husband during and after something like that?

But here’s the thing, this book does not in any way romanticize their marriage, the entire situation, the war, slavery–any of it. In fact, Varina falls very much along the same lines of Cold Mountain in its stark portrayal of violence and the brutality of humanity, as well as the disillusionment with war on both sides.

Varina seems like a series of vignettes jumping back and forth in time, framed by an elderly Varina recounting her story to a black man named James. As a boy, he’d been abandoned and she raised him as her own, despite having slaves herself.  Although James remembers Varina’s care of him, he does not sugar coat asking her the hard questions about her place in the war and as the wife of Jefferson Davis. In this way, James acts as the reader, constantly asking why this, why that.

Varina was a woman of her time, like many of her day. There was speculation that she might have been mixed race, but from what I can find, this summation is just a theory. Some speculate may have had Creole ancestry. Her contemporaries often remarked on her dark coloring and somewhat “un-white” features. These aspects of Varina’s physical appearance are brought into the novel with other girls teasing her, of adversaries spreading rumors. As far as I know, historically, it was speculation. Here’s the real Varina:

As a woman of her time, Varina was eighteen when she married widower Jefferson Davis who was thirty-seven. With few prospects for her future, a land-owning man was her best bet and Davis filled that role. When we talk about the wives of slave owners and Confederate rebels, do we also talk about complicity? Or do we talk about the innocence of these women? I think all of them existed somewhere on that spectrum, not necessarily strictly one or the other. As far as Varina is concerned…I don’t know. Even after reading the novel, I still don’t have a firm grasp on the character Frazier painted despite her sharp tongue, quick wit, and strength of spirit. But we can’t talk about this novel and Varina herself without talking about complicity. At one point in the novel, James asks an older Varina why she took him in and raised him alongside her own son when she and Davis had slaves. Varina said she didn’t know, but it later seems as if she did it to prove a point. It wasn’t exactly altruistic. The Varina Frazier has constructed is very much a politician alongside her husband, making friends in both the North and the South before and after the war. She is adaptable and a survivor in this way, through charm and strength and intelligence. And yet….and yet. Varina claims she did not support her husband’s ideals, and yet she lived her life benefiting from the comfort of them as well as later going down in flames with them. Historically, any wife with a husband who overreaches, who does something (or many things) bad, will most likely go down with him either in the eyes of the law or in the eyes of society–or both. Varina lives inside her husband’s world, like many wives of the time. Perhaps taking James in was some sort of personal atonement for her husband’s actions?

Like Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier illuminates the brutality on both sides of the American Civil War. And like Cold Mountain, Varina’s flight from the South echoes Inman’s journey in meeting vividly painted characters along the road. For Varina, the war seems more about survival for herself and her children. She never really has much of a relationship with Davis at all. The reader hardly gets to know him, in fact, as Frazier focuses more on Varina’s relationships with her friends and children. And so, if Varina was so distant from her husband, can she too be held accountable for his actions? It’s hard not to read a book like this and not think about the Trump era we live in. SNL made the Complicit scent spoof starring Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump. People question Melania Trump’s choice to marry and stay with her husband. Should a wife be blamed for her husband’s actions? I don’t think so, unless she is actively participating in them. And yet, is silence the same as committing the act? Is silence worse? In a historical context, that’s a hard question to answer. And yet, there were progressive people of that time who opposed slavery and/or believed in more rights for women. But Varina calls it like she sees it. She’s a realist to her core, I think, even cynical.

Frazier’s prose is beautiful and unique, although I did not feel as moved by or connected to this story as I did to Cold Mountain. Entire important events are glossed over and brushed aside, perhaps taking the realist and pragmatic approach of Varina herself. At times, I felt the manner of speech sounded too modern. However, a striking line within Varina really sums up all these themes, as well as resonates with things we are experiencing today:

Choices of convenience and conviction, choices coincident with the people they lived among, following the general culture and the overriding matter of economics, money and its distribution, fair or not. Never acknowledging that the general culture is often stupid or evil and would vote out God in favor of the devil if he fed them back their hate and fear in a way that made them feel righteous.

I feel as if as soon as Varina married Jefferson Davis, she knew her dark fate was sealed along side his, but had no choice but to ride that train with him until the bitter end.


Grade: B-