Title: The Spymistress
Author: Jennifer Chiaverini
No. of Pages: 368
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Dutton Adult
Release Date: 1 October 2013
Bottom Line: Interesting but repetitive
“Born to slave-holding aristocracy in Richmond, Virginia, and educated by Northern Quakers, Elizabeth Van Lew was a paradox of her time. When her native state seceded in April 1861, Van Lew’s convictions compelled her to defy the new Confederate regime. Pledging her loyalty to the Lincoln White House, her courage would never waver, even as her wartime actions threatened not only her reputation, but also her life.
Van Lew’s skills in gathering military intelligence were unparalleled. She helped to construct the Richmond Underground and orchestrated escapes from the infamous Confederate Libby Prison under the guise of humanitarian aid. Her spy ring’s reach was vast, from clerks in the Confederate War and Navy Departments to the very home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Although Van Lew was inducted posthumously into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, the astonishing scope of her achievements has never been widely known. In Chiaverini’s riveting tale of high-stakes espionage, a great heroine of the Civil War finally gets her due.”
Thoughts: Never underestimate the drive and determination of a woman. If ever anyone were to question that statement, all one needs to do is read about Elizabeth Van Lew, particularly Jennifer Chiaverini’s The Spymistress. Minutely researched, Ms. Chiaverini explores Miss Van Lew’s fortitude and her unwavering loyalty to the Union at a time when such thoughts were enough to be executed for treason.
In many ways, The Spymistress feels like a companion novel to The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen. While Mary is the secret spy within the home of President Davis, Bet is the mastermind behind her position. Reading the two novels together gives a great, well-rounded picture of the intricacies of the spy ring and the dangers entailed. However, reading them together is completely unnecessary as THE The Spymistress is an excellent portrayal of early military intelligence gathering, focusing on the spymaster rather than on one of the spies.
As terrific as the novel is, there is an overall lack of tension that is disconcerting. Ms. Van Lew was risking everything for the Union, but one never gets the impression that her life was truly in danger. Sure, Ms. Chiaverini does mention the hazards many a time, but a reader remains comfortable with the thought that she is going to survive the war, if not completely unscathed then without any major threats. If anything, Ms. Van Lew survives the war better than most of her compatriots or the entire Confederacy. She still has money and food, her property, her family, positions of influence and power, and connections in high places on both sides. It doesn’t lessen one’s interest but it does lessen the story’s overall impact.
Another element of discomfiture is the distinct lack of specifics. While the book is remarkably detailed in certain aspects, it is lacking in some of the more important areas – especially regarding the spying ring. Ms. Van Lew’s ring grows organically but without any fanfare or any real information. She seems to have her hand in a lot of the pieces, but at no point is it very clear the scope of her arrangements. Nor does Ms. Chiaverini ever share the type of information smuggled to the Union. Everything is kept at a very generic level, which is disappointing and somewhat frustrating.
Because much of the novel follows Ms. Van Lew from threat to threat, as she works to outmaneuver the Confederacy and help her beloved Union, The Spymistress bogs down in its own repetitiveness. She uncovers a new indignity on the part of the Confederacy, works to best those making the decisions, comes close to incarceration but manages to avoid it through a well-timed expression of Confederate devotion through a large social gathering that typically serves to either disseminate information or gather more dangerous evidence. Rinse and repeat. While the scenes are fascinating to watch with their battles of wit and will, the formulaic approach to the story becomes tedious.
Women really do rule the world. Bet Van Lew was able to keep the Union cognizant of Confederate movements and plans more than any other Union spy. She used everything in her arsenal to keep her family and her spies safe, including her femininity, the gender bias of the era, her intelligence, good manners, religious sentiment, friendship, flattery, and downright bribery. With her long-standing position within Richmond’s society as well as strong friendships with various loyalists north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Ms. Van Lew was uniquely positioned to gather information from the Confederacy and smuggle it into the appropriate hands in the North, and she took full advantage of that. The Spymistress does an excellent job describing the danger into which she gladly placed herself as well as her unwavering conviction that the Confederacy would fall with a little help from Unionist friends.