REVIEW: ‘The Spymistress’ tale of a Richmond Unionist

Sep. 27, 2013 @ 10:43 AM

“The Spymistress” by Jennifer Chiaverini (Dutton, hardcover, $26.95)

Jennifer Chiaverini is known best for her best-selling Elm Creek Quilts novels, but her past two books have picked up the historical thread in her quilting series and sewn new stories. Her newest novel, to be published Tuesday, is “The Spymistress.”

Chiaverini centers the tale on a real person, Elizabeth Van Lew, the Richmond aristocrat and loyal Unionist who did her best to support the United States during the Civil War though her city was the capital of the Confederacy. Lizzie, as she is known in the novel, is a proud Virginian dismayed at the formation of the Confederacy and the onset of the Civil War. Once Union prisoners come to Richmond, she turns her words into action by talking her way into notorious Libby Prison and Castle Thunder. She also bribes her way into the prison with baked goods, then offers more food to the prisoners and passes messages and secrets as often as she can, more frequently as the war wages on.
“The Spymistress” moves along as the months and years of the war pass, with Lizzie continuing to pass information, house escaped Union prisoners and keep up appearances so she is just out of reach of retribution from her Confederate neighbors and the government. Her station and wealth keep her out of prison and out of the fray as much as she wants, though she does worry. She helps the prisoners but then goes home. She happens upon a bread riot of starving women and goes home, later reading about it in the newspaper. It’s an interesting perspective, showing how a Union loyal Southern woman could contribute, though she couldn’t vote.
“The Spymistress” places readers in the position of a wealthy Southern woman who uses her money and wits to further a cause during a time it would have been much easier to go along and get along with the Confederacy her Virginia has joined.
The Civil War battles in the book are experienced the way Lizzie experiences them – watching the smoke in the distance from her mansion’s roof, hearing the ordnance, and seeing the aftermath on the city’s streets. Readers experience what it was like to live in Richmond throughout the war, when even money couldn’t insulate you. There’s also quite a bit of Jefferson Davis in it, and interestingly for local readers, a passing reference to his wife seeking safety in Raleigh.
It’s not a novel you just must finish in one sitting, but rather one that is pleasant to pick up and rejoin Lizzie in her days participating in the war effort in a unique way, and as a woman. There are Civil War novels aplenty featuring the soldiers’ side and the home front side, but this is different. Lizzie is a woman of means, and single, and political. In an era when women were far from gaining the vote, she is based on a real woman who accomplished much and did her part to foster an end to the war.
“The Spymistress” also does what good historical fiction does – it places you there in history, but also makes you want to find out more about the real person and continue your education.


WHEN: 7 p.m. Oct. 4
WHERE: Flyleaf Books
752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill