On Our Shelves - ‘Varina’ a smart tale of remarkable strength
Seventeen-year-old Varina Howell was sent by her family to meet and stay with the Davis family for a few weeks.
There she met Jefferson Davis, who was much older than she and recently widowed. It seemed a good match set up by her family. He was handsome, well-educated and financially secure. She imagined a life as the wife of a plantation owner.
Davis, however, did not have full ownership of his property. His family, namely a brother called Old Joe, was pretty clear he was the one with final say in everything related to the Davis family.
She learned early on that neither she nor her offspring would ever inherit any of Jefferson Davis’ land. They could live there under Old Joe’s rule and that was about it.
Even as she and her new husband began building a house, she was informed by Old Joe that the design had been modified to include rooms for another family — a widowed in-law of some kind — which Old Joe intended to house there with all her children. Varina would share the one kitchen and dining room with the other family.
No manner of protesting by Varina would change that. She did fight Old Joe and delayed the construction several times, but had no power even when Davis was around.
On top of that, she was living in the shadow of Davis’ first wife, Knoxie. It became very clear that life as Mrs. Jefferson Davis was not going to be an easy one.
Maybe it was because of the tight control Old Joe had on his brother that Jefferson Davis was more interested in a career in politics than growing crops.
He headed off to fight in the Mexican War leaving Varina to deal with his family. When he returned, he headed to Washington as an appointed senator. Varina again was left behind in a fight over a house design, a fight she wasn’t going to win.
When she finally followed him to Washington, she was lonely and felt totally out of place. He was busy most of the time and she was not accepted by the Washington society ladies.
No matter how much she tried to fit in she only had a few friends. Everything got worse when the Confederacy appointed Davis their president and war broke out.
When the Confederacy fell, her marriage was in tatters, as was the country. There was nothing to go back to as she didn’t have a home in the North or the South.
She also knew there was a bounty on everyone associated with the Confederacy — especially her husband. Not knowing exactly where Davis was (and not really caring), she packed up her children and headed to Florida. She wanted to get on a ship and sail to Havana, where she hoped to start a new life.
First of all, you have to understand this is a fictionalized account of Varina Howell Davis’ life. Outside of that, the basics of the book are well founded in her letters, memoir and historical documents.
The author uses the pretense of weekly Sunday visits to an elderly Varina to tell her story and it makes for a powerful rendering of the life of a remarkably strong woman.