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Teaching in Georgia in the Midst of the Civil War - an Editorial Review of "The Virginia Governess"

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Editorial Review:

August’s humidity pressed against the women as they shelled peas and creamed the corn. Tormenting flies flitted around their arms and faces. When Charlotte Briggs agreed to come to Georgia, she never conceived of such hot weather. In Georgia, summertime chewed her skin, boiled her life force. Nothing prepared her for the sultry, sticky heat that descended on the state in August. Summer in Virginia never blasted her with such sweltering days. Georgia heat scorched; her hair frizzed, her clothing plastered her skin, and sweat dripped down her spine and pooled into the small of her back. When the sun slipped down behind the cotton fields, a new horror emerged.  Whining mosquitoes, vampires of darkness and dusk, attacked every exposed part of her body. No relief existed. People worried about malaria. Miasmas from the sluggish swamps breathed fevers and death.

This book starts us off in summer in Georgia. The heat is unbearable, particularly to one who was not born in the south. Charlotte was from Virigina, which didn’t get so hot, but it was more than the scorching temps for Charlotte to deal with, as the story soon tells us. She missed her husband so much, it was as unbearable as the summer heat.

We learn quickly that Charlotte is in Georgia to teach her nieces and nephews. Her husband Joseph was away with the war, and she hadn’t heard from him since he left the state. Until, that is, this particular day when a letter arrived. His letter, dated July 17, 1864, also provides us with some context to the timeline our characters are living in. It had taken a month or so for Charlotte – or Lottie, as she is called – to receive the letter from her husband.

We learn more of their love, as well as some historical context for things such as the cost of a good horse, and how many people were losing their loved ones in the battles. When a husband or father or a brother or son left, the family would not know if they’d ever seen them again. Lottie reminisces over her time with her husband before he was called back to Virginia and the war.

Each day, after she finished her teaching duties, she and Joseph did something special together. Sometimes, he planned a picnic, sometimes they cantered along country roads on horseback, and sometimes they simply walked along the river, holding hands and talking. At times, others in the family joined them, but mostly, the others winked and said, “Y’all go on and enjoy yourselves. We have it covered here.”

Lottie’s and Joseph’s enchanted time ended though. When Joseph’s furlough drew near, he mounted his little brother’s horse and left. He needed a new mount because his first horse was shot out from under him. Riding horseback from the middle of Georgia to General Lee’s camps in Virginia took time, so he left early.

The character building is rich and detailed, and we learn so much about the time period, the people, and the story through the characters, especially our main character, Lottie, and the people she interacts with. Time passes, and we learn of events outside of Georgia through the letters Lottie receives from Joseph. They tell of his point of view, the harsh conditions, and how he longs for his wife.

The story has a nice flow to it, making it easy to follow. There are some time jumps – such as when we go back in time to learn of how Lottie met the Captain. These jumps are always done with dates and a description, so we understand what is happening and when. This makes it easier to follow, since there is a lot happening in “The Virginia Governess”.

The dialogue is well done, keeping with the time and the southern location. It’s realistic and written well, and also gives us a better understanding of the characters, how they express themselves and how they interact within the world that Keith has created here.

Taking us back to 1862, we learn of the first meeting between the two, their whirlwind romance and quick marriage to follow, and that Joseph has to return to the war after furlough. Overall, the story is well written and free of typos or grammatical errors that would hinder the story. Southern characters speak with a dialogue that is in keeping with the time period and location, giving it historical accuracy.

The story also touches on deep subjects of racism in the south at the time, and how children of a certain race wouldn’t have been taught by teachers like Lottie. But one person really can make a difference by changing things. Racist side characters can be very difficult to read and the way Mrs. Carson, in particular, speaks of the slaves on her plantation is very hard to read and could be triggering for some readers, even if historically accurate.

A big part of the story is the letters from Joseph, their passion, and the way they grieve for one another, longing in the words that are sent back and forth. We feel Lottie’s frustration when it seems her husband is not getting her letters, and he doesn’t know of all the things happening back home that he is missing out on. One thing that remains the same, is his love for her.

Darling, what I need to cheer me is a sweet letter from you declaring anew the sweet truths so dear to me. Darling, oh my darling, do not allow your imagination to betray you into anything hurtful to me. Do you remember when you were home you told me, you were afraid you had written so affectionately to me, that I would lose respect for you. Adopt the suggestion, and you break my heart.

Darling, you are affectionate, and I am, too, and as I told you at home, I repeat now. What I promised you I have not forgotten, and will not forget, but so far I have not succeeded. But I am no means discouraged.

Everything I do is done with an eye alone to your prosperity. As for myself, it is all right. But you engage my thoughts all the day, and my waking hours at night I expect I almost pass for a crazy man. Darling, it is all for you, and if others chide me, I know you will not. Indeed, I feel that if all the world combine to put me down, my dear wife never, never will abandon me. Since the part I took in the adjustment of these differences you will not, cannot doubt, my unabating, unaltering devotion to the wife of my bosom. And be assured that in all coming time, just as long as we live, I shall take your part, no matter what the charges, nor the respectability, nor the number of those supporting the charges, My darling, in doing so you will never permit me to be in error, will you?

“The Virginia Governess” has a very satisfying conclusion that makes it all worth it and is enjoyable and engaging to read, even with the harsh historical truths and the suffering the characters experience from the war.

While there are many stories set in this timeframe, this one is unique in how the plot revolves around Lottie, her relationship, and her role as a teacher. The storyline is compelling, pulling you in from chapter one and keeping you hanging on until the conclusion. All in all, it’s a very solid historical fiction read that fans of this genre will appreciate.


“The Virginia Governess” by Liz Carson Keith receives four stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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