Varina Anne Banks Howell Davis, first lady of the Confederate States of America, was no pushover, no delicate Southern belle, no simple and refreshing glass of sweet tea.
North Carolina author Charles Frazier, best known for his 1997 breakout hit, “Cold Mountain,” describes Varina’s life as full of woe. She was “beaten up” by having children — from “loving them and losing them.”
Compared to Mary Todd Lincoln, the divided nation’s more established first lady in that tumultuous period, Jefferson Davis’ wife has hardly been considered. But she’s having a comeback more than 120 years after her death as the headstrong and complicated protagonist of Frazier’s fourth novel, “Varina.”
Frazier describes the shape of Varina’s life as “a saw blade, jagged and dangerous from end to end.”
The young woman who became the wife of the sole president of the country’s rebel nation wasn’t popular with the public, Frazier says. “Wherever she was, she was better educated than most of the men around her. She was wittier and sharper-tongued.” The gossip was “that she was too tall, too dark, too opinionated, too cutting in her remarks.
“Some called her too Western — this was back when Louisiana and Mississippi were considered the Southwest. They thought she was crude, compared to what a lady should be.”
Both Frazier’s editor and his wife Katherine nudged the author with the same request after reading early pages of “Varina”: Could he perhaps soften up his heroine a bit?
“But I didn’t want to get too sympathetic with her,” Frazier says. “I didn’t want to make her warm when she didn’t seem to be that way.” Instead, he paints a woman who seemed to have gumption to spare.
Frazier was inspired to flesh out the life of Varina Davis when he learned that she moved to New York City in her mid-60s after her husband died and reinvented herself as a newspaper columnist.
“That was something very unusual for any woman to do then,” Frazier says. “Her mind was still open to new ideas at an age when most people were still entrenched in their past. In her 60s and 70s, she still wanted to be engaged, still wanted to move forward in her thinking.”
By then, she was “done with the South,” he adds. “She had even said that the ‘right side’ had won the war.” Southern newspapers called her a traitor.
Frazier calls “Varina” a story “of memory, guilt, complicity, persistence, loss…”
He starts his tale in 1906, during the final stage of his leading lady’s life, when she’s a resident of a health-retreat hotel in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. One day a black man named James Blake calls on her because he believes she may be able to fill in gaps of his boyhood.
Might this James Black be a con man? That’s the first thing that enters the mind of V — as she is referred to throughout the novel, in part to separate the fictional character from the historical figure.
It doesn’t take long for V to be convinced that this polite, sincere, middle-aged man is the grown version of the very boy she rescued long ago and took with her when she fled Richmond moments before it fell to the Union.
“You’re Jimmie Limber,” the elder woman says to her unexpected visitor.
V’s backstory unfolds over a series of Sunday visits with James Blake. Its central narrative involves V’s harrowing Southbound escape with her children and a few others. The small fugitive band travel some two months by horse-pulled “ambulances,” knowing Union soldiers are in pursuit.
Like “Cold Mountain,” which won the National Book Award, Frazier’s latest is Civil War fiction concerned with the roots and realities of the essential conflict and the South’s utter destruction and defeat. Like “Cold Mountain,” its storytelling is rendered in lyrical and gracefully descriptive prose. It’s like Frazier stitched an impossibly difficult quilt to which he kept adding more layers and pieces to expand the story’s scope and implications. This is not light reading, nor a novel to rush through.
Frazier’s influence casts a long shadow in the arena of Civil War historical fiction. It’s apparent in “The Hidden Light of Northern Fires,” the debut novel by Daren Wang, who leads Frazier in discussion at a reading and signing at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library April 24.
“I’d say he inspired me and intimidated me,” says Wang. “Like ‘Cold Mountain,’ ‘The Hidden Light of Northern Fires’ is a Civil War book that has little to do with the Civil War. He showed how that was done. When I was writing, I once read a few lines of “Cold Mountain’ for inspiration. It was very hard to write after that. As an aspiring writer, it’s not healthy to measure one’s self against that.”
When writing his 2017 novel “The Last Ballad,” North Carolina author Wiley Cash, writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, says he “pored through Charles’ work to see how he does what he does.” Cash read an early copy of “Varina” six months ago and said he “was shocked by how well [Frazier] balances so many threads of this story.”
Frazier skims through V’s childhood, then her marriage at 18 to bad-tempered and sickly Jeff Davis, who was twice her age and never stopped pining for his first wife, Knoxie, whose grave Jeff and V visited on their honeymoon.
While “Cold Mountain” had three main characters, “Varina” has but one. Jefferson Davis gets minimal attention.
“I wanted to have Jeff Davis in the book as little as possible,” Frazier says. “I didn’t learn anything that made me like him any better. He was a very chilly person. Sam Houston (of Texas) called him ‘cold as a lizard and as ambitious as Lucifer.’ ”
While researching “Varina,” Frazier came across a wedding photo that cast the couple’s age difference in sharp relief. The author thought the groom looked not unlike “a vampire hovering over his victim.”