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In a tumultuous time, a complicated woman

VARINA DAVIS VARINA DAVIS (Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond)

First Lady of the Confederacy : Varina Davis's Civil Wars

By Joan E. Cashin
Harvard University, 403 pp., illustrated, $29.95

Varina Davis is someone I would like to have known -- smart, appealing, well read, and sometimes indiscreet, the wife of Jefferson Davis was as complicated a first lady of the Confederacy as her counterpart, Mary Lincoln, was of the Union.

In prose as vivid and daring as that found in Varina's letters, Joan Cashin, an associate professor at Ohio State University , has written a biography that reveals the many facets of Varina, which will bring her the attention she deserves, and which Varina, herself, would have probably admired.

Born in 1826 to William and Margaret Howell of Natchez, Miss. , Varina was one of seven children, and early on showed independence, courage, and a love of learning, inherited from and nurtured by her mother. Her father went bankrupt in the Panic of 1837. So, although the family boasted rich relatives and Varina was educated in Philadelphia, she approached maturity at considerable disadvantage.

When her father's former business partner, Joseph Davis, invited her to his plantation, she met Joseph's older brother, Jefferson, who had lost his young wife to malaria . They fell in love -- he with her youth and vivacious conversation, she with his good looks, his sophistication (he was 17 years her senior), and his life of "a quintessential Southern gentleman." Although the path of this marriage would grow rough, it began as a love match and would lose its fervor only when Jeff turned elsewhere for comfort .

Since Cashin candidly reveals the many humiliations that Varina endured during the course of her marriage, "First Lady of the Confederacy" is sometimes painful to read. How, one wonders, can such a lively and curious woman be so loyal to this rigid, often arrogant man? But if one accepts Varina's rules one can only admire her good grace.

After her first child was born in 1852, Jeff was recruited as secretary of war, and the family moved to Washington, a city Varina knew and loved. She had three more children, read widely, and was known as a "cultivated woman."

But she was also conflicted. In her heart she was pro-Union, and her ambivalence about the right of the South to secede would create a problem for her until her death, in 1906. Moreover, she had known almost immediately that Jeff would never be her soul mate -- he was far too egocentric and ambitious -- and that, too, would cause her increasing sorrow .

When the Civil War started they went to Richmond, where she "seems to have tried harder to become a Confederate patriot." Here people thought she was coarse, especially after she had the temerity to leave her husband's inaugural early. More important was her husband's volatility . Trying to keep him on an even keel while caring for her children (there were three more by then), her mother , and her feckless siblings, Varina was overwhelmed when her son Joseph fell from a balcony and died in 1864. What saved her was the birth of her last child, Winnie, a few months later.

Things would worsen after Lincoln's assassination ; Jeff spent time in jail and the family drifted from Canada to Europe to the South in an attempt to become financially stable. Jeff often lived apart and was involved with other women. Cashin's descriptions of their life in the 1870s and ' 80s acquire the poignancy of a Henry James novel, and one can only keep reading with dismay, then relief when Varina's "chief responsibility and . . . patient" dies in 1889.

She lived for 17 more years, mostly in New York. She was socially active, productive, and financially independent although she clung to her daughter Winnie, preventing the young woman's marriage, and was devastated when Winnie died at 33. But a life like Varina's was not exactly fertile ground in which to nurture generosity of spirit or self-awareness.

Cashin says it best at the end: "She was able to survive because her personality was practical and adaptable, but these traits coexisted with a Hamlet-like indecision on the political and cultural issues of her time . . . . The unexamined life might not be worth living, but her life might have been unbearable if she had examined it too closely ."

Although I found myself disappointed by Varina, I was fascinated by each twist in her story, by the wonderful vignettes of people as disparate as Oscar Wilde and Judah Benjamin, and by the portrait of those tumultuous years .

Roberta Silman's most recent novel was "Beginning the World Again." She can be reached at rsilman@verizon.net.

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