- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009



By Carol Berkin

Knopf, $28.95, 361 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

During the 1840s, marriage was the most important decision facing American women, just as it had been for their mothers and grandmothers before them. Where and how a woman would live depended on the husband. Woe to the young thing who discovered too late that she had linked herself to a cruel lout, a lazy oaf, profligate bounder or unlucky fool. Divorce was rare. Of such tales romantic fiction is made. This book consists of the true story of three privileged women of slave-holding families and their courtships and marriages to three leading figures of the Civil War. With great empathy, Carol Berkin shows how marriage affected their lives. She also illustrates both the limitations and possibilities for white women in an era that saw rapid change and reform.

Angelina Grimke Weld showed her bravery in renouncing her Southern family’s way of life by fighting for abolition, racial equality and women’s rights. She swayed thousands with her eloquent essays and speeches, but her husband, reformer Theodore Weld, left her convinced that pursuing such attainments was nothing less than sinful pride. Her real duty, she was told, was not activism, but being a good wife and mother. Convinced that silence was a virtue, this talented woman sacrificed her true calling, remaining cloistered at home.

By contrast, the popular and beloved Julia Dent Grant found contentment in domesticity through her marriage to future President Ulysses S. Grant. Lively and confident, she won over the taciturn and shy “Ulys.” What did either of them care that she had no interest in reading the Constitution? Happy with their conventional roles, they stayed true in love and loyalty toward each other through all the years of their marriage, through war, fame, wealth, poverty and disgrace.

Of the three, Varina Howell Davis’ life story is the most interesting. Beautiful, intelligent and spunky, Varina was just a teenager when she left the home of her beloved parents to wed the widower Jefferson Davis, 25 years her senior. Their courtship had been romantic - we see them riding across the fields, away from the prying eyes of relatives (he, with military erectness upon his horse, she, graceful with plumed hat, riding sidesaddle on a dark bay). If he was infatuated, she was no less so. Davis eventually brought Varina to Washington, D.C. (still a small town in 1845) where she was quick to appreciate the talent of the nation’s leadership.

Varina’s sharp wit and unwillingness to hide her intelligence (or keep properly silent) caused female animosity wherever she went. (It didn’t help if, at dinner parties, she chose serious conversation rather than gossip with the ladies.) Men found her fascinating. One of the most delightful evenings of her early youth was when she debated with President John Tyler on the relative merits of Byron and Wordsworth, Dante and Virgil. Invariably, Jefferson Davis would intervene in such discussions with the patronizing comment, “My little wife is trying to be a statesman.” (One wonders if Varina ever felt the temptation to quietly throttle him after the guests had gone.)

While molding herself to his expectations of a “true woman” (cleaning rugs, baking pies, mending clothing) she nonetheless asserted her independence in other ways, notably by giving her husband critiques of the speeches he made at the Senate. She soon discovered he was a man of fierce pride and thin skin.

Motherhood domesticated Varina but did not quench her desire to broaden her intellect. When Sen. Davis was made president of the Confederacy, doomed to be a lost cause, Varina struggled to define her role as first lady. She greeted the criticism she aroused among Southern women with resignation and amusement. When her husband was imprisoned, she showed herself to be an expert political lobbyist by getting him released. Through all of her isolation and despair, she never lost her wit. After his death, she shocked fellow Southerners by moving North, to New York City, where she became a newspaper writer and created a salon where playwrights, actors and poets enjoyed great conversation.

Carol Berkin writes of these women sympathetically, and her insights into the era and social history are well done. She admits that it helped that she had rich sources upon which to draw. All three left copious records, though Varina’s accounts were the liveliest and least platitudinous. In addition, Varina wrote long, detailed letters to her mother, with descriptions of the clothes she wore, the people she met and the dinners and parties she attended. However, the reader may be as disappointed as I was, when on Page 135, we are told Varina wrote her mother with “a lively account of a dinner party” but are served just paraphrases and summaries.

Nonetheless, the women’s stories have a real poignancy and lessons for today’s young women. As Ms. Berkin states, “Perhaps we cannot understand our own modern sensibilities until we understand theirs.”

The current trend in biography has gravitated to slim volumes that connect separate lives. Paul Strathern’s “The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of Da Vinci, Machiavelli and Borgia and the World They Shaped” has just arrived on bookstore shelves. While such titles smack of the doctoral thesis, books like these have become popular among modern readers who desire small but satisfying portions of literary fare. People and place are easily digestible, as if hinting to neighborhood book clubs that their discussions won’t be a crushing bore. Although these treatments of well-known subjects strike some as formulaic, if they encourage a new generation to discover and better understand the past, then all to the good.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” newly released by Blackstone Audio Books.

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