Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States, has rarely got a good press. Critics called him vain, cold, a pedant obsessed with minutiae and, fatally, incapable of compromise. The Richmond Daily Whig declared Davis ‘ready for any quarrel with any and everybody, at any time and at all times’. Yet the American historian Shelby Foote argued that Davis was ‘an outgoing, friendly man, a great family man’ and that his character was repeatedly maligned to make him a scapegoat for the failure of the war.
There is no doubt what Varina Howell Davis thought of the husband who was twenty years her senior. Or at least the Varina we meet in Charles Frazier’s novel. Dark-eyed, dark-skinned, highly educated, with a caustic wit, eighteen-year-old Varina soon has cause to consider her marriage hasty.
We first encounter Varina in 1906, four decades after the Civil War has ended, when mixed-race James Blake, who knew her in his childhood after she took him in from the street, seeks her out in a Saratoga Springs hotel. Over the course of several Sunday visits, Blake