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Jefferson Davis’s Wife

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

Varim Howell, Wife of Jefferson Davis. By Mrs. Dunbar Rowland. Volume I. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.50.

Many years ago, we saw in the show-window of a well known London bookshop a copy of the then recently published biography of General Robert E. Lee written by his youngest son, the gallant Captain Robert E. Lee. The book was advertised to the world as it reposed there by the following legend printed on a slip of paper laid across its back: “The Life of one Virginia gentleman by another.” A similar inscription might be used in announcing the first volume of Mrs. Rowland’s life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis: “the biography of one Southern matron by another.” Such an announcement would throw a clear light on the spirit of the entire book, for it would signify (and this would be correct) that Mrs. Rowland, in composing the volume, had exhibited a perfect understanding of the wide and varied Southern background that made such a deep impression on the youthful character of Varina Howell; and also an intuitive insight into all those social influences that surrounded her after she arrived at woman’s estate. A complete sympathy, rising to an enthusiastic key, and at times to an ecstatic, gives warmth and color to every page that dwells directly on Mrs. Davis’s personality.

Now if this valuable book had been designed by Mrs. Rowland as merely an old-fashioned narrative of biographical events, there would have been no room at all in it for the display of this highly emotional sympathy. She has written in a much more modern spirit than this. It is true that there are not to be found in her volume the sly cynicism, the mordant irony, and the withering slurs of the school of Strachey. Philip Guedalla is nearer her mark, except that she is always serious, and always charitable in judgment; but there is in her case also the same accumulation of infinite detail, and the same voluminousness of comment, shot through with the variety of constantly shifting points of view. Her method is an analysis of character and conduct rather than a study of actual events. And yet, in spite of this continuous harping upon emotional keys, Mrs. Rowland never sinks into the monotonous and commonplace. It is true that, in the first chapters, there are examples of over-embroidered sentiment and inflated expression. For instance, in the picture of Mrs. Davis’s devotion to her husband, the references to Queen Victoria’s adoration of Prince Albert seem suggestive of too august comparisons; and also to go back to the classic story of Andromache appears to be still more grandiloquent. Indeed, in this part of the book, there is here and there a decided echo of the highflown rhetoric that once gave the novels of Augusta Evans so much vogue. We perceive the reflection of the same efflorescent spirit in Mrs. Rowland’s allusions to the influence of Mrs. Davis’s aristocratic descent on the development of her character, as well as on her general attitude in her social relations.

But when our authoress leaves her introductory remarks and genealogical comments behind, and begins to present the real life of her heroine in the charming social environment of Natchez and its vicinity—the scene of Mrs. Davis’s birth, childhood, girlhood, and early womanhood—we quickly detect Mrs. Rowland’s remarkable resources as a biographer. The ease, distinction, and high spirit of that social environment are painted with singular vividness. From this point in the story of Varina Howell, the narrative runs on with extraordinary fullness of both sentimental and practical detail. The scope of the treatment, whether relating to events or emotions, immediately widens; the insight into the maturing disposition of the intellectual girl and young woman grows more penetrating; and the deep impression which her surroundings made on her life is revealed with ever increasing clearness.

Take, for instance, the picture which Mrs. Rowland draws of Brierfield, the home to which Jefferson Davis brought his bride. Here was a typical plantation of that day; not as large as some others in that region, it is true; but from every point of view—in physical aspect, in methods of tillage, in variety of crops, and in the daily life of the slaves—a complete counterpart of the rural estates of the Old South. And so was the mansion standing in the midst of the little principality. Now, the average biographer in setting the young wife at the centre of this small rural kingdom would have been satisfied to offer a more or less faithful description of the background of the charming mistress, such as the appearance of the home without and within, the furniture, the portraits, the books, the servants, the abundance and variety of the food, the beautiful garden in a stone’s throw of the house, the rare shrubbery, the stables and fine horses, the cabins of the field hands, the groups of piccaninnies and superannuated grandparents. Then would follow a description of the diversions of the master and mistress—the reception of visitors, the dances, dinners, and card parties under the spreading roof, the long rides through the woods lying along the banks of the Mississippi’s rolling flood, the supervision by Mr. Davis of the labor of his slaves in the fields or barns, the expert housekeeping of Mrs. Davis, the long delightful hours spent in reading by the fireside in the winter nights, and the congenial companionship of husband and wife at all times.

In the chapter on Brierfield, Mrs. Rowland brings all these facts, so characteristic of the rural system of the South during that period, into the most interesting light, but she does something more than this. If Mrs. Davis as a bride had been the heroine of a novel suddenly transported from a cultivated city to the comparative seclusion of a slave plantation in the Mississippi Valley, all the thoughts and emotions which the new circumstances of her life were so aptly calculated to arouse in her could not have been set forth by Mrs. Rowland with more assured, definite, and intimate detail. Mrs. Davis’s inner history in this new part which she was now called on to play is painted with even more minute fidelity than her outer history. Her psychology, as it reacts to so novel a situation, is particularized with such natural, such voluminous, and such unreserved sympathy that it is not possible for the reader to question the accuracy of the analysis. On the contrary, he feels that the disposition of Mrs. Davis as a bride is presented to him a hundred times more correctly by this more or less imaginative description of her attitude towards all that she saw and felt at this momentous hour of her life.

It is this sentimental treatment, so well done from a literary point of view, and so truthfully from an emotional, that gives distinction to Mrs, Rowland’s volume. For the same method is followed through the whole of it, varied only by Mrs. Davis’s participation in the widely different episodes of her husband’s later career. The lives of the great majority of the Southern matrons of her day were confined to the precincts of the Southern plantations. Hither they were brought after marriage; here they resided throughout their ensuing years; and here, at the end, they passed away. Visits to kinspeople in town or country, or sojourns at summer resorts, formed almost their only absences from home. Mrs. Davis was more fortunate than this. As we have mentioned, she spent the first years of her married life at Brierfield, in her native State. So congenial to her tastes, and so harmonious with her social traditions, were her surroundings there, and so interesting to her were the occupations that engaged her attention from day to day, that she was genuinely reluctant to leave them all when her husband became a member of Congress. The current of her existence from this time onward was diverted into very different channels, according to the stages in Mr. Davis’s later career. After serving as a representative in the Lower House, he was advanced to a seat in the Senate. He was also a distinguished officer in the Mexican War, in the course of which he was severely wounded; was appointed Secretary of War in President Pierce’s Cabinet; and after his resignation from the Senate, to which he had been returned, was elected the first President of the Confederate States.

The influences that entered Mrs. Davis’s life, as these changes occurred in turn, were, in most instances, dissimilar to a perceptible degree. How did she react to each? The impressions which they left upon her mind and spirit are described with the same emotional keenness by Mrs. Rowland as had been displayed in the description of the impressions left by the life at Brierfield. The inner history of the woman is so set forth as still to give the predominant color to her matured portrait as had previously been done to her youthful. So minute, so complete, so vivid, indeed, is this analysis that we are able to follow the successive phases of the development of her personality in this larger world, in which she soon found herself after her departure from Brierfield.

So absorbed does Mrs. Rowland become in her analysis of Mrs. Davis’s character and temper as they, reacted to different circumstances, that she seems at times almost to forget the figure of Mr. Davis independently of his wife’s. He is always in the background, it is true, but in such shadowy form that we discover some difficulty in gauging the political part which he really played upon the national platform. And this is all the more unexpected as Mrs. Rowland brings out so clearly the fact that Mrs. Davis’s whole existence found its principal expression in her devotion and loyalty to her husband. She is the one conspicuous figure in the book, although we are kept aware all the time of the powerful influence which Mr. Davis exercised over her life. This indirect impression of her dependence and subordination seems inconsistent with that vigor of character, and that keenness of intelligence, which are so plainly revealed on every page of the volume.

Had the Confederacy succeeded in winning its independence, Mr. Davis would have occupied in the history of the South a position somewhat analogous to that of Washington in the history of the United States. Would Mrs. Davis, in this event, have attained to a place in the respect of posterity as high as that reached by Martha Washington? Perhaps higher—in affection at least—if certain differences in the respective dispositions of the two women were to be the controlling factors in shaping a judgment. Mrs. Washington was the austere, impassive, and unsmiling product of the ceremonious colonial age in Virginia. Her intelligence does not seem to have risen above domestic and other equally practical interests. She was the personification of feminine dignity and self-restraint, with only a moderate endowment of the qualities that impart fascination to the female character. Possibly she has suffered in the impression which she left behind her from the fact that she was not introduced to fame until she had passed her youth. We only know her from the hour when she was brought under the influence of her husband’s stately but cold formality—not an atmosphere in which sprightliness of manner and speech is apt to flourish.

On the other hand, we make Mrs. Davis’s acquaintance first at the time when she was a beautiful girl full of the delightful inconsequence and freedom of youth. Very quick in intelligence, very romantic in disposition, very loyal in spirit, and very impulsive in temper, she rises before us, in the beginning, as a most human and winning figure that stood for young Southern womanhood under the old plantation system at its very best. And as she grew older, she developed a force of individuality, and a vigor of mind, that were almost masculine in their character. Had it been her destiny to stand forth in history as the wife of a second Washington, she would have filled that part with rare fidelity, as a noble representative of the highest social and intellectual qualities of the Southern people during the times in which her life was cast.


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