There’s nothing wrong with reading yet another book about one of the famous male figures of American history, but we have a little something special in our new historical fiction at The Field Library this month: looks at our famous figures from the perspectives of their wives, which manage to illuminate not only the famous figure himself but the world in which the couples lived, in ways a strict focus on the man doesn’t give.
If Alexander Hamilton used to be one of the Founding Fathers most people didn’t know much about, that has certainly changed since the hit musical Hamilton took Broadway by storm, and now people are at least familiar with the story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, his wife. However, My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, by Stephanie Kray and Laura Kamoie, takes us a little deeper into Elizabeth’s background and her story than Lin Manuel Miranda did in Hamilton, and we’re the better for it. Elizabeth wasn’t just the wife of a famous man, after all; she was the daughter of a prominent general and landowner, brought up on the frontier of the American Revolution. She fell passionately in love with Alexander Hamilton, the penniless, illegitimate aide de camp of General George Washington, married him and shared his fate in time of war and peace. She found herself at the heart of one of America’s first sex scandals, a painful and public betrayal of her and their marriage, but she still managed to work her way to forgiveness. After her husband’s early death, she fought to secure his place in history and her own legacy. Along the way, we are treated to a vision of the birth of the American Republic, warts and all, with bloodshed and riots and turmoil as well as brilliant compromises and the creation of lasting institutions. While this is a novel and not a biography per se, the authors have taken advantage of the volumes of letters and other primary sources to bring Eliza and her world to vivid life.
Fewer people are familiar with the life of Jefferson Davis, the president of the ill-fated Confederacy (it’s hard to imagine an award winning musical about his life) than with Alexander Hamilton, but Charles Frazer, known for his bestselling and National Book Award-winning novel, Cold Mountain, wants to change that with his new book, Varina. However, instead of focusing on Davis himself, this book takes his much younger wife, Varina, as its point of view character and sees the Civil War, its antecedents, its battles and its aftermath, through her eyes. Varina was only a teenager, with few marriage prospects, when she married Jefferson Davis, a much older widower. She was hoping for the security marriage to a well-to-do landowner would bring her, but instead she found her life hitched to the rising star of Davis’ political ambitions, bringing them to the center of the Confederacy with his presidency. When the inevitable happened and Richmond fell, Varina fled for her life with her children, heading south as fugitives with bounties on their heads. Whatever her intentions, whatever her initial politics, Varina found herself tarred with the brush of her husband’s actions, and discovered that complicity has consequences, regardless of whatever was in her heart.