Review: Varina by Charles Frazier, Cross-Generational Confederate Romance in Fact and Fiction


A Little Backstory

I was a Civil War freak first, then became attracted to Older Man–Younger Woman romances. If you are reading this between the lines, it is screaming Scarlett and Rhett! Yes, I was a Gone With the Wind Addict in Middle School. Much later I learned that none other than that former U.S. Senator and Secretary of War, turned traitor aka, Jefferson Davis, was himself the husband to a much younger bride. So, when I read of this novel’s publication I knew I’d devour it. And I did.

The Novel’s Story

The book is told in that conventional way of a “present day” [in this case, very early 20th Century] story and a remembered time. In this case, Varina Howell Davis is meeting with a man whom she had mothered for a few years during the Civil War when he was an abused child and she his rescuer.

Varina remembers her life as the daughter of a man who couldn’t hold on to money, of her arrival into the odd household of Jeff Davis’ older brother and then her life as Mrs. Jefferson Davis in all of it’s interesting forms.

My Thoughts

I was entranced by Frazier’s writing–this was my introduction to his work so I absolutely wrapped myself in his prose. It is so beautifully written. I was listening to the audio so the pages and pages of quotes I wanted to take down didn’t get written down, which is sad.

Here is the one I managed to write down in parking lot:

“Since then, South and North have been busy constructing new memories, new histories, fictions fighting to become facts…”

And one I committed to memory:

“…a genius at inflicting love….”

Beautiful, evocative, memorable writing like this tells the entire story.



As I have read–devoured, really, Mary Chestnut’s Diary, I was very familiar with the war-time life of Varina Davis. Mary Chestnut and Varina were dear friends. I thought Frazier got these parts so right. I have read one biography (see below) of Varina as well. Frazier embodied her the way I had constructed her in my mind. Intellectual, but caring. Independent, but but not stand-offish. Her voice in this book was fully authentic to my ears.

I liked that Frazier gave Mary, the First Lady of the Confederacy, the same sorts of struggles all women faced–feeding the children, keeping her marriage going,  on stupidity of the war. She has to cope with situations that are far too trying for anyone. She also must deal with the almost total absence of her husband due to the war. With a large family of young children, this was very difficult. Opiates, so destructive today, are not new–women were often prescribed them for hysteria or melancholia. Varina having them in wine was a truthful reaction to the stress of a life she could not control. This was breathtakingly honest.


I also liked (no spoilers) the end of Jefferson Davis’ life–when the ugly head of jealousy reared itself in Varina’s very independent heart. That was wonderul. As she said, elsewhere in the book, no one knows the real truth of a marriage but the two people in it. This beautifully illustrated that sentiment.

I was also struck again that a nation founded by “traitors” did not then execute the next generation of “traitors.” It occurred to me again, that this is the heart of America. Davis was imprisoned, but as is pointed out in the book, why hang him and have him become a rival martyr to Lincoln?

Trivia: Did you know that the first (childless) Mrs. Jefferson Davis was the daughter of President Zachary Taylor? True!



Read more about the Davis children in this blog post.


What Troubled Me

I loved the book, but there were two things that troubled me just a little. Two tiny things.  I understand there have always been cynics, always been people who loathed organized religion or who went to church just to keep up appearances, but I found some of the comments made by characters in the book to be very 21st century in their stridency. I also felt that characters sometimes lapsed into well written prose rather than authentic speach. A few monologues or dialogues that were just a bit too well rehearsed for real life.

My Verdict

4 Stars

Her is an excellent biography of Varina (as well as of Mary Todd Lincoln)


Crowns of Thorns and Glory…by Gerry Van Der Heuvel. It is out-of-print, but easy to find used. (The link is to used copies on Amazon.)

An article on Jimmy Limber

John Coski on Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber

Here is are two  interesting “What Ifs…”



If The South Had Won The Civil War by MacKinlay Kantor is the classic of this genre.

CSA: Confederate States of America A Novel by Howard Means, only got 2 stars from me, but it was still an interesting idea. It is set in a modern day Confederacy–everything is truly “separate but equal” for the both white and black.


Cross-Generational Romance in Fiction: The Atomic Weight of Love


The description of this book promises an older man-younger woman romances based on intellect. It delivers and then some. If you’ve read here for long you know that older man-younger woman romances (not “trophy wives,” but real romance) are my thing! My own books are all built on what I term cross generational romances. I run an occasional series of blog posts on such romances in real life, film and fiction–you can find them by clicking on the terms in the Tag Cloud in the right sidebar. So, on to this great book!


Meridian (yeah, I winced at that, but really odd names in fiction are a pet peeve of mine) or “Meri” as she was often called, is a bright, ambitious young woman arriving at the University of Chicago just in time for the Manhattan Project to start plucking all the great physicists out of their ivory towers and secreting them away in the high desert at Los Alamos, New Mexico–then an unknown and undeveloped afterthought of U.S. geography. But before the fateful envelope arrives in the Physics Department, Meri develops a romance with professor Alden Whetstone (yeah, that one made me wince, too). A fairly typical student-prof romance at first, the young, fatherless girl hangs on her older mentor’s every brilliant word, while the professor looking at the downside of 40 is jazzed to have a fabulously smart young protege who also happens to adore him.


The story really takes off after the war–when Alden and Meridian get married and settle into life in science community at Los Alamos.  Meridian finds other wives with science backgrounds and continues, at first, to think she will finish her education and become an ornithologist. Since this is the 1940s we can all make an intelligent guess that this isn’t going to happen.  Photo source

For some the words “marriage,” “spouse” and “till death do us part,” quickly stifle passion, growth and freedom. So it was for Meri who seemed to be a 1970s woman caught in a 1940s marriage. But, had there not been such women, we’d not now take for granted that women can be physicists, astronauts, and possibly even POTUS.

My own short-lived marriage came to mind as I read this story. Alden, a man of his time, took for granted that his bright young wife would find magically adjust to a life of baking cakes, playing bridge and ironing boxer shorts. Meridian, though, hungered for intellectual rigor and deep scientific discussions that had fueled their courting passion. Unlike wives in the rest of the USA, she couldn’t be a sounding board for her husband’s work dilemmas because all aspects of his work were highly classified. Her she was, a very capable scientist, drawn to her husband by his brains and now he cannot share with her, cannot teach her about it all now. Her role as his helpmeet was too narrow now, too confining. But, Elizabeth Church’s  writing made me feel the emotions of both characters. I could see the times Alden was making an effort and I rejoiced at the times when Meri realized it.


This stifling life of no intellectual challenge is what led to the formation of the women’s movement, to consciousness raising, to the ill-fated E.R.A. and to so much more that women today take 100% for granted. Alden’s aging, his inability to see his wife’s side, his inability to give was matched by Meri’s equal self-centeredness and, in my opinion, her    refusal to grow up. What redeemed the story to me was her decision to care for Alden when he became so ill. She even dares to acknowledge a few things about him that were good. I’m glad. No marriage is all bad or all good. This one suffered more from selfishness than many, but in the end there was loyalty and caring.     Photo source


Photo source

Sadly, there was one truly disgusting comment that shouldn’t have been in the book. That chapter was necessary, but it went a bit too far with one observation. But it’s a tiny nano-second of the book. So why mention it? So you won’t throw this otherwise excellent book away because of it. On the positive side, who wouldn’t love a book with chapters named for groupings of birds? A Parliament of Owls, indeed! I loved this. I do wish there had been notebook pages included from Meri’s observations though– her graphs and drawings, that would have been really fun to see.

I hope Elizabeth J. Church has many more novels to come. I can’t wait–that’s how profound this story was.  Amazing writing that deserves years of success.


Cross-Generational Cary: Day 5 of Cary Grant Week: Father Goose



I cannot remember not loving Father Goose. It was a great favorite of everyone in my family. Personally, I think it is one of Cary Grant’s best roles. The dissonance of seeing the normally impeccably groomed Grant as the irascible Scotch-swilling Walter Eckland provides much of the appeal–it gives Grant better ground to show off than simply playing the same well groomed, witty charmer.


The story is simple: Walter agrees to be a spotter on a deserted island, communicating with Royal Australian Navy officer Trevor Howard and his hapless junior officer by radio. Leslie Caron (often mistaken for Grant’s 4th wife, Dyan Canon, over the years) plays a proper schoolmistress caring for stranded pupils who, of course, end up on the island with him.

Caron, of course, is the romantic foil, the kids the comic foil. I especially like Harriett, who carries her cricket bat and insists on being called “Harry.” While Grant objected to the onscreen romance with Audrey Hepburn in Charade, he did not demur over the one in Father Goose with lovely young Leslie Caron. But then-girlfriend, soon-to-be wife, Dyan Cannon found their chemistry a bit much when she was on location with them in Jamaica. I must say they really do smolder on the screen. The prissy Catherine and the curmudgeonly Walter fall hard for each other but are both far too stubborn to say so!

This is such a fun movie! If you haven’t seen it, watch it soon–you won’t be sorry. Father Goose. Check out all the fun goof-ups in this film here. I love trying to spot these! I can almost always get silly historical mistakes, but now I want to re-watch it to see all the times the boat listed the “other” way from scene to scene.


Cross-Generational Cary: Day 3 of Cary Grant Week: The Grass is Greener


It’s no secret that I’m sort of an Anglophile. I’m not blind to the faults over there and one of them is the class system, however broken “into” it may be, it is not fully broken down. Take teeth for example. William and Catherine have perfect teeth. Even today this is not the norm there. I could go on and on. And, the saying that the upper class has most in common with the lower class is pretty much true.

Take what they call “Deer Stalking.” It involves tweed, booze, rain, booze, old friends and booze. Here we call it “Deer huntin'” and it involves Day Glow Orange for obvious reasons–so they don’t shoot each other after freezing to death out there all day in camo and thick socks while drinking booze with old friends. But, occasionally, there is an aristocrat that has the best of the middle class mixed in with the best of the upper and lower classes. This, is Cary Grant in The Grass is Greener.


But first things first. The opening. It opens with one of Noel Coward’s best songs ever–the Stately Homes of England. And this helps with the irony-factor. Both Noel Coward and the man know professionally as Cary Grant are Englishmen, but in spite of accents and wardrobe, neither is from a stately home. Far from it, in fact. That makes the film that more delicious. Plus, what’s not to love about Noel Coward writing of “Lord Camp?”

Add in Robert Mitchum as the American tourist and Deborah Kerr as Cary’s Countess and you have a sparkling romantic comedy–and one of 3 movies this trio starred in together. Sellers, the butler, is also a huge part of it. Who doesn’t like a servant who is more regal than his boss? Who worries that he has nothing to do? I think he may have been Julian Fellows inspiration for Carson. Together the Ear and Countess and the Butler run the house on the profits from tourists and from the “mushroom money.” Deborah Kerr farming mushrooms is just such a lovely business idea!

Alas, even the best of marriages get a little stale in time.

The Lord and Lady of this manor are obviously still in love. They’ve come thru the war, had two lovely children and are discovering the job that is Stately Home ownership in the post World War II world. Like most, I imagine they’ve been savaged by death duties (inheritance tax) and have a never ending mountain of household maintenance tasks put off almost fatally long by war and rationing. So, when a square-jawed American enters their lives temptation raises its ugly head. But, this is a Deborah Kerr film folks–nothing tawdry, Victor and Hilary find their way back together and, I believe, will celebrate by sending Nanny and the children to the pictures while they climb into that marvelous bath tub and drink that last bottle of the really superb champagne. The dog will wait patiently in the corridor.  The Grass is Greener.

A special footnote to this film: The play on which it is based was written by Hugh and Margaret Vyner Williams –parents of actor Simon Williams that I featured in this post.



Cross-Generational Cary: Day 2 of Cary Grant Week: That Touch of Mink


What could be better than a suave, older man–that touch of silver at his temples, and a lovely blonde who is just the right age? Nothing in terms of a movie romance. That Touch of Mink showcases Cary Grant at his best and Doris Day at hers. On screen perfection.


When Philip Shane (Cary), swank New York zillionaire splashes unemployed, but very well dressed Cathy Timberlake (Doris), the rest, as they say, is history. Add in John Astin as the guy you don’t want to date and a super-cute moment with a future 1970s Bob Newhart Show cast member (John Fiedler of Mr Peterson fame), a motherly roommate (Audrey Meadows)and an assistant in analysis with an inattentive therapist and you have a romantic comedy for the ages. Admittedly, today many would find the story of of Roger (Gig Young) a bit “quaint” or even (I hope not) offensive.


While Philip is eyeing some fun with a lovely blonde, Cathy is saving herself for marriage the way all good girls from Upper Sandusky do. A trip to Bermuda changes everything.

This is one of my all-time favorite romantic comedies. There’s just so much to love and laugh over. That Touch of Mink



Cross-Generational Cary: A Week of Cary Grant’s Cross-Generational Romances

Cary2Cary Grant is the REASON so many women my age and older swoon over an older man. Suave, debonair, handsome–he is all of that and more. Tall, dark, handsome, funny, sweet and successful is my usual list for a dream guy and he checks every box on that list. He’s they older man of every woman’s dreams. That’s what makes him the undisputed king of cross-generational romances — the kind on film, that is.

For me the hardest part was choosing which films to highlight–there are so many and each one is a jewel in the King’s crown. How to identify the Star of India, if you will, was really a tough one. He played the romantic lead to just about every fabulous actress of his time. It was tough but I decided to pick the biggest stars among his leading ladies as the criteria for inclusion. Even that made it rough–inevitably someone superb had to be left out.


Then there is genre–Cary is best known for screwball comedies, but later on he became a big star in Hitchcock movies as well. So, I had to pick some from both genres and that made for more debating, more coin tosses, more “Oh heck, I’ll just give him a whole month of posts.” Lovely as he is to the eye, I really didn’t want to  devote an entire moth to him though, so choices have been made and some really fabulous films and their fabulous leading ladies have been left out. I’m sorry if your all-time favorite was among them.




Today’s film is Charade–staring Cary with one of my very favorite actresses–Audrey Hepburn.  This is a murder-romance cross-genre film with the plot centering on the murder of Audrey’s husband. This film is generally mistaken as a Hitchcock film, instead it is the work of Stanley Donen. I really don’t care about the plot. This movie is all Audrey and Cary to me.

They are the movie to me, in spite of James Coburn, Walter Matthau and George Kennedy as co-stars to make the plot happen. It’s the romance that matters here. A romance with  dazzlingly flirtatious lines. In fact the lines were so flirty that Cary Grant didn’t want to do the film–he feared being seen as, well, ahem, a bit pervy in today’s parlance. The writer switched the script and gave Audrey the come-on lines making her the aggressor. If you do the math, the hubby she’s supposedly mourning would have been about 20 or so years older, so she was very comfortable with an older man. [Source]


Seriously–who cares about a murdered husband when you have Cary Grant wooing you across the table? Audrey didn’t! And, the husband? Heck, he’d made off with money in the war. Not a great catch compared to Cary–at least not in my humble opinion.

Audrey’s clothes, hair, expressions they are all classy, gorgeous and exactly tailored to draw this man’s beautiful eyes to her. As for Cary, what woman wouldn’t swoon at being to her face is lovely?

The give-and-take of their on-going flirtatious repartee is incomparable.

So, for day 1 of Cary Week, I give you Charade.


Cross-Generational Romance in Film: Girl In the Cafe


Seriously? Does anyone play the sweet, awkward, brilliant guy better than Bill Nighy? Lawrence is a career-driven policy wonk specializing in numbers for the British Chancellor of the Exchequer (think Secretary of the Treasury). He has no life. None. Nada. Zip. But he can tell you how much a subsidy is on one cow or how many children will die each day from lack of access to clean water and food. Gina is a young woman seemingly adrift and almost as socially awkward as Lawrence. A chance meeting thru sharing a table in an overcrowded cafe leads to an cringe-worthy first dinner alone. After the date-we-all-have-endured, their friendship takes off and goes…well…actually…it really…it goes…to the G8 Summit. Lawrence, as though on a dare, asks his young friend to go along. It seems he does this to tweak the smug politicians he works with, but there’s a brief glimpse of “I like her,” too.

The awkwardness ratchets up. There is a conflict. There is a brief glimpse of what makes Gina tick. There is…well…how should I say this…I don’t..well… honestly… there is….well…. love, actually. The ending…well. The ending is what you expect, isn’t it? Nothing wrong with that. But it’s the fairy tale here.  This movie is a wonderful mix of “Yes, Prime Minister,” meets “The American President,” with a a stiff upper lift and dry humor and, above all else, two lonely souls finding what they need in each other. Sweet, but not cloying. The Girl in the Cafe.

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Cross-Generational Romance in Film: Murphy’s Romance

murphyI admit it. I prefer Widowned or never-married. I’ve been the second Mrs. Not a always a great deal. Hence the fact that I became the 2nd ex Mrs. But this movie has it all–a great cast, appealing characters, a believable storyline. “Next time you get asked, say yes,” is probably my second favorite line from this film, but then so is “I’m not your Dutch Uncle….” But what’s not to love about a pharmacist who drives an antique car and decides he’s “In love–for the last time?” Emma [Sally Field] , a single Mom now living apart from the boy’s charming but irresponsible Dad has moved to a small rural town to train horses. Along the way the boy’s father shows up again and there’s a brief confusion resulting in a roll in the hay–really, in the hay in the barn. But at last Murphy [James Garner] wins the day and Emma sends her ex-, his new girlfriend, their twin sons and his motorcycle packing and falls into the arms of the man who truly loves her. Murphy’s Romance.