With his much-anticipated fourth novel, Charles Frazier returns to the Civil War setting of his National Book Award-winning novel, Cold Mountain.
Varina centers on an unexpected and controversial figure: Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
You’ve said that after Cold Mountain, you didn’t think you’d ever want to write about the Civil War again. Why have you returned to this setting?
I don’t really think of Varina as a Civil War book. The present time is 1906, and the book covers most of her long life. But she calls the war—especially the chaotic weeks following the fall of Richmond—“the axle of her life.” Everything turns around it. In a sense, American history and culture do the same. That war and its cause—the ownership of human beings—live so deep in our nation’s history and identity that we still haven’t found a way to put it behind us for good. I think of historical fiction as a conversation between the present and the past, and Varina Davis’ life offered me a complex entry point into that dialogue.
Why did you want to tell Varina’s story?
I like writing about strong, complex women, but I hadn’t known much about Varina Davis until I ran across a fragment of fact—that shortly after her much-older husband Jefferson’s death, Varina moved from Mississippi to New York City, intending to be a writer at age 60. During those years she became friends with Julia Grant, Ulysses S. Grant’s widow. Along with personal affection for each other, they apparently saw their friendship as an emblem of national reconciliation. Eventually I became interested in a fictional version of Varina in old age, looking back, stitching together history and memory and invention, hoping to make sense of her long life filled with privilege, loss and persistence. Her dramatic, problematic life was a narrative situation begging for interpretation and interrogation.
What was the most daunting part about telling this story?
Varina looks back at seven or eight decades of American history from the perspective of the early 20th century, so one immediate problem was how to structure the story, how to order all that time. The book is partly about memory—both true and false—and I realized very quickly that I wasn’t interested in calendar time. I wanted to move fluidly through my character’s life, following a memory pattern, not in a straight line. I wanted quick shifts from scene to scene, place to place, time to time. As a writer, I always want to meet the reader at least halfway, so I enjoyed finding ways to create a variety of fixed points in the swirl of time and memory, an internal logic to the narrative shifts.
When writing historical fiction, how do you navigate memory, history and invention?
When I write about historical figures, I’m always in search of a fictional character, not a biographical sketch. My research process tends to be inefficient and intuitive, and a majority of the research I do never finds a place in the book. I read a great deal of primary sources—letters, journals, newspaper articles—and biographies, but eventually I have to step away from the foundational facts of history in order to find my fictional character. So, discovering which plants would be edible during April in upstate South Carolina or getting in the car and driving the route Varina took as she fled south trying to reach Florida becomes more useful to my writing than reading 50 more Jefferson Davis letters.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Varina during your research?
It was less about Varina than about someone else whose path crossed Varina’s during the Civil War. Strange but true, a 4- or 5-year-old multiracial orphaned boy, nicknamed Jimmie Limber, lived in the Confederate White House in Richmond alongside the children of Jefferson Davis. He was photographed along with Varina’s children and is mentioned in several memoirs by her friends and acquaintances, and he was the subject of wild rumors. The story of their meeting is somewhat hazy—Varina may have seen him being beaten on the street and taken him home, or her own sons may have known him from the little boys’ street gang they belonged to called the Hill Cats. Either way, Jimmie Limber stayed with Varina and her children as they fled from Richmond at the end of the war until they were captured by Federal troops in south Georgia. He then came under the care of a teacher from Boston working with freed slaves on the Sea Islands, and soon after, at about age 6 or 7, he may have been sent to an orphanage. At this point he drops out of the historical record.
I became interested in imagining a life for that little boy, and in having him, as a middle-aged man, seek out Varina. This fictional character, now called James Blake, wants to fill blanks in his memory to better understand his life, and over the course of seven Sundays in the late summer and fall of 1906, he and V visit to talk and try to reconstruct and understand history—the nation’s and their own—to re-examine their lives.
We’re in an era of recasting the legacy of the South and the Confederacy, particularly with the tearing down of Confederate statues. What do you think Varina can contribute to these conversations?
It’s important to remember how those monuments came to be where they are (or were, in a few cases). They didn’t spring up right after 1865, but are largely a product of the Jim Crow South. The Stone Mountain monument wasn’t even finished until the early 1970s. There’s a very strong argument that the monuments have much more to do with suppressing equal rights than commemorating ancestors. With that in mind, part of what drew me to Varina Davis was that she left the South—with no intention of returning—before the rise of the Lost Cause and Jim Crow, and even in her 70s tried to look forward rather than backward. So, the events of the past few years—among them the violence of white supremacists in Charlottesville, the church shootings in Charleston, the national debate over Confederate flags and memorials—certainly shaped the book, especially as they emphasize the extent to which the history of our country is built around the armature of slavery and the Civil War, and how far we still are from putting those issues behind us.
After fleeing Richmond at the end of the war, Varina writes, “Head full of sorrow, heart full of dreams. How to maintain the latter as life progresses? How not to let the first cancel the second?” What’s your answer to her questions?
The Buddhist suggestion that we should avoid despair or hope offers the beginning of an answer. If I come up with anything more useful, I’ll let you know.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Varina.
Photo credit Mark Humphrey