The author of Cold Mountain returns to the civil war for this novel of flight, separation and a divided America
In February 1911, at a whitesonly ceremony in New Orleans, the Jefferson Davis monument was erected to mark 50 years since the inauguration of the first and only man to hold the office of president of the Confederate States. Schoolchildren in red, white and blue sang “Dixie” and were choreographed into a living Confederate flag. On 11 May 2017, under cover of darkness, the statue was taken down.
If historical fiction seeks to to shed light on the present, now is the time for Charles Frazier to return to the civil war period that provided the background for his million-selling debut, Cold Mountain . Frazier has chosen to focus on the president’s second wife, Varina Howell: bluestocking, opium addict, friend of Oscar Wilde and surely the most obscure woman to have borne the title first lady in America.
The novel opens in 1906 in a fashionable upstate New York sanatorium where the 80-year-old Varina is attempting to detoxify from a lifetime of narcotics routinely prescribed to southern ladies “monthly and before important dances”. She is visited by a black gentleman, James Blake, who identifies himself as a slave child the Davis family had adopted and is known, owing to his remarkable double-jointedness, as Jimmie Limber. At first, Varina refuses to acknowledge the events that caused her to flee with Jimmie and her children from the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, when the city was besieged by northern forces in April 1865. But Varina’s reluctance to discuss the past signifies the novel’s clear engagement with the present. As she tells Jimmie: “We’re a furious nation, and war drums beat in our chest. Our leaders proclaim better than they negotiate. The only bright spot is, the right side won.”
As the intellectual daughter of an unsuccessful businessman, Varina does not make for a spectacular catch. Her marriage to Davis, almost 20 years her senior, is presented as a pragmatic bid for economic by Charles Frazier, Sceptre, £20 If was Hollywood fodder,
is a clearsighted depiction of culpable leaders security. Even when installed in the presidential mansion – which Varina refers to as “the Grey House” – she never escapes the insinuation that she is a cuckoo in the Confederate nest: “Richmond presented a veneer of refinement over a deep core of brutality. And yet the women from the best families calling her too western, too frontier, too crude.”
Like Cold Mountain, Varina is a novel of flight and separation. Unlike the earlier work, it’s a narrative in which neither main protagonist has any great desire to see the other again. Varina laments the fact that her husband’s attempt to catch up with the family ultimately delivers them into federal hands: “If he had left us on our own we would have made it to Havana … I wanted to escape and he didn’t.” The moment of capitulation to northern forces is pure farce, with Davis scampering towards a creek disguised as a washerwoman.
The Homeric parallels of Cold Mountain were frequently remarked upon, as the experience of the Confederate deserter Inman seemed to mirror the diversions and privations of Odysseus’s long journey home. Such allusions are made explicit here: “Warred over landscapes lie burned and salted as throughly as Troy after the Greeks sailed home”; while Varina even likens herself to Euripides’ version of Helen, musing that she played no part in the war, but that an eidolon, or phantom doppelgänger, took her place.
The rather grandiloquent assumption might be that if Cold Mountain was Frazier’s Odyssey, Varina has been conceived as his Iliad . Yet there’s a disorienting unevenness to the narrative tone, in which Varina’s reminiscences, as told to Blake, are interrupted by an omniscient voice who refers to the protagonist as “V” when passing biographical judgment: “V has never made any claim of personal high ground. She grew up when and where she did. From earliest memory, owning people was a given.” The non-chronological narrative becomes so complex that even Frazier seems to lose his place in it at times. The early pages establish an image of “North and South like grotesque reflections of one another in a carnival mirror”. The metaphor feels less effective, 200 pages later, when Varina moves into “a White House reflected in a grotesque carnival mirror”.
Above all, the novel inevitably lacks the big, boxof-tissues finale that provided Cold Mountain with its emotional heft, as few people are likely to be moved to weep for Varina or her cold-blooded, “raptor-like” husband. But perhaps this is not the time and place for romance. The significance of Frazier’s novel has less to do with its potential as Hollywood fodder than its clear-sighted depiction of culpable leaders in a divided America. As Blake reflects after his final visit to the sanatorium: “He [Davis] did as most politicians do – except more so – corrupt our language and symbols of freedom, pervert our heroes. Because like so many of them, he held no beloved idea or philosophy as tightly as his money purse.”
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