Fiction: “The Spymistress” by Jennifer Chiaverini

spymistressThis was a book I picked up on a whim. My typical plan of attack when perusing the shelves of the library is to wander down each row, head tilted so I can attempt to read the spines of the books, and I stop at books whose titles intrigue me, and then if the dust jacket sounds interesting enough, I add it to my pile. I stop looking when my neck starts to hurt or I have six books in my arms, whichever comes first.

Obviously, the title of this book – The Spymistress – is what drew me to pick it off the shelf. Who was this Spymistress? Was she like, the head of a ring of intrigue? What was she spying on? And how?

It turns out, this work of fiction was based on fact: the Spymistress was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Van Lew, a resident of Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War. I’ve had a non-fiction book about Ms. Van Lew languishing on my Want To Read shelf on Goodreads since … apparently March 2014 (Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy). So The Spymistress is kind of fictionalized non-fiction? Maybe?

The book begins just before Virginia joins the Confederacy. Lizzie lives with her mother in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond. Lizzie is mostly a spinster: she was engaged to someone, who sadly died unexpectedly. She has never sought to marry after his death. Her brother, John, manages the family hardware store in town. John and his wife, Mary, live with Lizzie and her mother for about half of the book. Mary is a Confederate sympathizer, which irks Lizzie.

Things obviously get more strained between Lizzie and Mary when war officially breaks out. Mary arranges to have uniform sew-ins (or whatever – sewing circles, I guess, where ladies sew uniforms for their mens at war) at the house, and Lizzie nearly bites her tongue clean off, trying to keep quiet about her political beliefs.

Lizzie is able, however, to make more of a difference when the Confederates turn one of the old warehouses in Richmond into a jail for captured Union soldiers. Lizzie learns of the terrible, inhumane conditions and marches herself over to the general’s office or wherever and offers her services as a nurse. To the Union soldiers.

And doesn’t that get a lot of looks. “Why do you want to help them, milady?” And then she quotes some line from the Bible reminding the Confederate that Jesus says compassion and nursing is due all poor suffering creatures, and Union boys are definitely suffering creatures. So she’s able to get passes to visit the men in the jail.

In so doing, she works with one of the captured Union captains (or whatever) and manages to smuggle notes in and out of the prison in books and pie pans. She then is able to send those messages to a contact in Pennsylvania.

I wouldn’t say she was a spymistress; that implies she had an entire ring of spies working under her. She had a former slave who was freed and agrees to work as a maid in Jefferson Davis’s house in order to pass information back to Lizzie, but it’s not like she was running MI-5 or anything. I do want to read the non-fictionalized account of her life and see if some things were glossed over in order to focus more on the family drama between Lizzie and Mary.

(Mary takes to drinking alcohol and laudanum and is almost divorced by John when he comes home one night to learn that she has left their daughters at home, alone, while she went to a hotel and gallivanted with some Confederate soldiers. She’s not a great person. She’d totally call the cops on a girl operating a lemonade stand without the proper permits.)

After the war ends, Lizzie is appointed Postmaster of Richmond by Ulysses S. Grant, in honor of the work she did during the war. She was (I believe – it’s been a while since I finished the book) the first female Postmaster? Maybe?

Overall, I thought the story was interesting. It’s rare to read a Civil War story from the perspective of a Unionist trying to live her life and truth while implanted in the middle of the Confederacy – and yes, I can imagine that tension is akin to a liberal living in the middle of Oklahoma City, but here’s the thing with this book: whatever tension there is, it’s resolved almost immediately.

There are moments where you think Lizzie’s going to get caught, but she’s able to talk herself out of it super-quickly, and then the plot moves forward. At one point, Lizzie learns that Mary has ratted out Lizzie’s Unionist leanings to the adjutant general, but the whole thing is resolved within 5 pages of text when Lizzie’s best friend, Eliza Carrington, goes to testify on Lizzie’s behalf to the adjutant general, who happens to be a distant cousin of Eliza. Familial ties override Mary’s nastiness, and the plot moves on.

Even when John is drafted into the Confederate Army, the tension is resolved in five pages. At first, he’s able to receive a deferment. When deferments expire, he reports, but then he’s able to be smuggled up to Philadelphia. He’s safe, and so there’s no more worrying about his well-being and the story continues.

I did like Lizzie. She’s, as they say up here in Maine, wicked smaht.

“You mean Lieutenant Todd, Ma’am?” The soldier frowned at her quizzically. “Is he expecting you?”

She took her watch from her pocket, glanced at the time, and feigned surprise. “My goodness, no. It’s not yet half past one.” Taken separately, both statements were true. [p. 61]

Maaaan, do I love people avoiding lies by being very careful with their words. And you have to be super careful about that with certain people. Certain people who may be signing executive orders, for instance.


“Why leave home and come so far?” [asked Lizzie]

The young fellow exchanged a look of surprise with his partner before answering, “Why, we come to protect Virginia, Ma’am.”

“Why?” Lizzie was genuinely curious. “Protect Virginia from what?”

“From them Yankees, Ma’am,” the other soldier replied. Freckled and dark-haired, he seemed little older than the young volunteer drummer boys, and for a moment Lizzie wondered if he had wandered into the wrong part of the camp.

“Mr. Lincoln said he’s coming down to take all our Negroes and set them free,” the first soldier explained, tucking the book beneath his arm. “If they dare to do so, we’ll be here to protect you women.”

“If this should come to pass, we’ll be grateful for your protection, of course.” Lizzie ignored her mother’s warning look, the subtle shake of her head. “But why do you believe it will?”

They regarded her with twin expressions of bewilderment. “Because the papers said so, Ma’am,” said the freckled solider. [p. 51]

Because the papers said so. In other words, propaganda.

If you like stories of the Civil War, smart ladies, and rebellion, you might like this book. I felt the tension wasn’t quite enough to pull me throughout the story, and this book covers the entirety of the war – it moves quickly, and I don’t think enough time was given on certain events. However, I can’t point them out right now, because I read this book eight months ago.

Give it a shot and I’ll let y’all know when I read Southern Lady, Yankee Spy.

Grade for The Spymistress: 2 stars







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