April 1861, and the city of Richmond is in turmoil as a secession convention is being held to determine whether Virginia would follow the southern cotton states and secede from the Union. Forty-three year old Elizabeth (Lizzie) Van Lew lives with her mother, her brother John and his wife Mary and their two children Eliza and Anne, in the family's mansion in Richmond, Virginia's fashionable Church Hill neighbourhood. Lizzie has remained unmarried since the death twenty years earlier of her dearest friend and her fiance. Now she and her family watch with trepidation as more and more it appears the people of Richmond are siding with the Confederacy and into full rebellion against the United States.
While the people of Virginia and their representatives debate joining the southern states, the Van Lew family prepares for the wedding of their black servant, Mary Jane to Wilson Brewser. The wedding serves to highlight the sympathies of each member of the Van Lew household. Lizzie's brother John gives away the bride and a reception is held at the Van Lew mansion but his wife, Mary doesn't attend either. The Van Lew's like many wealthy families in the south, own slaves but this is very much against Lizzie and her mother's wishes. Before the death of Lizzie and John's father, a codicil was added to his will to prevent Lizzie and her mother from freeing their slaves.
When Virginia decides to secede, Lizzie, John and their mother are distraught. They know this will mean war and that many people will suffer and die. Lizzie suspects it will bring ruin to the south but even worse it will pit families against one another. But Mary is elated and speaks ill of Abraham Lincoln.
In April and May of 1861, the Confederate Congress decides to accept Virginia's offer to make Richmond the capital of the Confederate states. May sees the arrival of Jefferson Davies, (who will become President) and his wife Varina in Richmond; they take up residence in Spotswood while their official residence in the new capital is prepared for them. July sees the first significant land battle of the Civil War - the Union troops led by major general Benjamin F. Butler attack an outpost at Bethel Church in Hampton. Fighting continues around Richmond, at Manassas, as the Union troops attempt to move deeper into Virginia.
Lizzie and her mother anxiously wait throughout the day hoping for a Union victory but learn early the next morning from John, that the Confederates have won this battle - the Battle of Manassas, at a terrible cost to both sides. A thousand Union prisoners are marched into Liggon's Tobacco Factory as all the city jails are now filled. The factory has no beds, kitchens or sanitary facilities for the prisoners, many of whom are terribly wounded. When Lizzie learns of this she immediately sets out to the factory and manages to see Lieutenant Todd who is in charge. Todd refuses Lizzie's request to minister to the Union prisoners or to even briefly visit with the officers. So she takes matters into her own hands and pays a visit to Christopher G. Memminger, secretary of the treasury and also a staunch Christian. Managing to convince Memminger that it is the duty of a Christian to look after prisoners of war, even Yankee prisoners, he gives her a letter of introduction to General Winder who writes Lizzie a pass granting her permission to visit the prison and minister to the Union prisoners. Thus begins Lizzie's work in support of the Union cause.
The very next day Lizzie and her mother arrive at the prison, prepared with food and bandages. The conditions in the prison are more terrible than they imagined, many suffering from infected wounds and lack of water or food. They meet Congressman Ely who was captured as he watched the battle. Lizzie and Ely manage to work out a system whereby she lends him books and he placed messages in a unique manner in the books. These messages list the names, ranks and regiments of all the prisoners as well as a letter to President Lincoln outlining conditions at the prison.
Lizzie's activities in support of the Union have not gone unnoticed. She is watched by a spy and an article is written about her and her mother in one of the city's papers, the Examiner. Lizzie's work at the prison also leads to an unexpected blow with John deciding to move his family out of the Van Lew mansion to the other side of the city. Lizzie and her mother are shocked but John insists that this is necessary considering his wife Mary's strong rebel views. He fears for the safety of Lizzie should Mary discover what she is up to.
As the war intensifies, the Confederate Congress attempts to thwart the actions of Union sympathizers within its own territory. The first of these measures is the passing of the Alien Enemies Act which requires "men over the ages of fourteen who were not citizens of the southern states to swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederate government". By the end of August 1861 the Sequestration Act is passed which allows the Confederate government to seize the property of Unionist-supporting civilians. By September 1861 there are over fourteen hundred men who are suspected Union sympathizers arrested. There is no doubt that Lizzie's views and actions will be considered hostile and treasonable.
Despite the increasing number of political prisoners in Richmond's jails, Lizzie continues to visit the prisons and to work on behalf of the Union cause. But she also knows that she must protect her mother and so she plans several actions that will throw into doubt her Unionist sympathies; her family hold a dinner and reception in honour of her cousin Jack's regiment, the Richmond Howitzers and they take in Captain Gibbs (who has replaced Todd) and his family for two months while they wait for a house to become available.
On February 22, 1862, Jefferson Davies is inaugurated as President of the Confederate States of America. He orders Richmond and the surrounding area to be placed under martial law. Many more suspected Union loyalists are arrested and Lizzie waits in dread to be arrested. This doesn't happen but Lizzie now knows who her fellow loyalists are.
Eventually New Orleans is captured by the North, closing the Mississippi River to the South. In April 1862, John pays a rare visit to Lizzie and his mother and informs them that at one of the many functions he and Mary attend at the Confederate Executive Mansion, he has learned that Union gunboats are heading up the James River to try to take Richmond. Mary and her mother are so certain that the North will succeed they prepare a room for General McClelland. But McClelland is not successful. Lizzie and her mother are devastated.
During the battle, Lizzie and her friend Eliza ride out to visit a Union loyalist, Mr. Botts, who has been exiled to a farm nearby. Botts tells Lizzie that she must try to unify Richmond's loyalists so they can all work together to bring about the capture of Richmond and the defeat of the Confederates. He gives Lizzie the names of other loyalists and urges her to contact them but her also tells her that she must be willing to accept the great risk involved. By July 1862 Lizzie begins to set up her network of spies which include many ordinary citizens of Richmond. These people will work to gather intelligence and to get that information past the Confederacy pickets and behind Union lines. We follow Lizzie through many terrible events of the war; the Second Battle of Manassas, the brutal battle at Sharpsburg, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the starvation endured by the people of Richmond as food becomes scarce, and the siege and capture of Richmond. This is an fascinating account of an amazing woman during a fearful time in American history. When Richmond finally is captured by the Union troops, Elizabeth Van Lew's contribution to the victory is immediately acknowledged.
One of the difficulties in writing historical fiction is that there can be a great deal of focus on historical facts which can detract from the overall reading experience. Historical fiction must be more than just the presentation of facts; the challenge is to weave those facts into the story so that the reader absorbs them without really realizing it. Chiaverini mostly achieves this goal in her novel - many of the facts are central to the story of main character, Elizabeth Van Lew and how she acts. Richmond was a city central to the Union's goal of winning the war as it was the capital of the Confederacy. Lizzie's intelligence efforts helped to bring about the capture of Richmond and end the war and the carnage sooner rather than later. So she must be placed within the complex history of the Civil War. Chiaverini's attention to detail allowed readers who are not intimately familiar with American Civil War history to understand the context of Miss Van Lew's actions and to understand what she lived through.
The author realistically portrays life in Richmond during the war. After the Seven Days Battle the terrible state of Richmond is evident even on Church Hill, where the Van Lew mansion is situated.
"In the heat of the day, a sickening, fetid odor permeated the city, so that even high atop Church Hill, the air was so foul that Lizzie and her mother could not sit on the piazza for long before choking, clutching handkerchiefs to their faces, and fleeing back inside."and the era or event and the characters involved become real.
The character of Elizabeth Van Lewis is developed gradually throughout the novel. At the opening of the war she is a forty-three year old spinster whose life revolves around her two little nieces, Anne and Eliza. It would seem after the death of her fiance years ago, life narrowed a little for Miss Van Lew. However, with the coming of the war Lizzie is revealed to be a shrewd, intelligent woman, who is not easily intimidated by others. She is so loyal to the Union and President Lincoln that she is willing to pay the ultimate price - sacrifice her life if necessary. She suffers deeply to see Confederate boys enlisting and reveling in the fact that there will be war. She is also horrified by the conditions in the Confederate prisons and baffled by the black men who enlist to fight the Union. Chiaverini portrays her as a noble woman who did what she had to to help the war effort.
The novel is divided into time periods of several months, set in Richmond which became the official capital of the Confederacy. Readers will see how the society in the city gradually changed as the war intensified and how war affected even the most honourable of men such as Colonel Winder. Readers may find the middle of the novel to be somewhat slow, but overall this is a great read for those who enjoy novels about this period in American history.
The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini
New York: Penguin Group 2013