It’s an irony of the Civil War era that the wife of the Union general who did as much as anyone to end slavery in the United States was herself a southern lady raised on a plantation who shared many of the same attitudes about the peculiar institution as other white women of her section and class.
In her autobiography, finished before her death in 1902 but not published until 1975, Julia Dent Grant showed an ambivalence about slavery. On the one hand, she was a loyal wife who supported her husband’s cause both in the battlefield and in the White House, a cause that included not just Union but also emancipation. On the other, she expressed nostalgia for slavery days and seemed to miss the passing of the “old negro” of her childhood.
Julia never owned any slaves of her own, but she did benefit from the services of enslaved people kept by her father Frederick Dent at the family’s White Haven house near St. Louis. One of these was a young woman of about Julia’s own age, also named Julia, but nicknamed Jule to distinguish her from the white Julia.
Entertaining and educational, the references at the end show that Jennifer Chiaverini’s novel Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule is based on historical research. Chiaverini cites Grant’s papers, his memoir and letters, Julia’s own memoir and well known books covering Grant from Civil War aides Horace Porter and Adam Badeau, along with dozens of other accounts by Grant’s contemporaries and later historians.
The outline of both Grants’ stories seems basically accurate, though probably a bit too kind to Ulysses. For example, any drinking problem is merely a rumor, spread by military and political rivals and inspired by the affects of severe headaches suffered from Grant’s childhood.
Chiaverini, who favors historical fiction about women, has also written a couple of novels featuring Mary Lincoln, who plays a minor role in this story about Julia Grant. But it’s clear that the two first ladies had many differences, all tending to the credit of Mrs. Grant. As Mary Lincoln was feared and disliked for her frequent bursts of anger, so Julia Grant was admired and liked for her even temper and diplomacy in challenging situations.
While providing a summary biography of both Julia and Ulysses from their youth through the war and two terms in the White House right through Grant’s battle with cancer and publication of his memoirs, this novel also tells the story of Julia’s relationship with her real-life enslaved lady’s maid, known as Jule.
The two start as girlhood friends nicknamed ginger and cream for their complexions and remain close as Julia meets, is courted by, and marries Ulysses. But after Jule marries her own beau, Gabriel, and yearns for the freedom to enjoy her own married life, the relationship of mistress and enslaved maid begins to sour. Julia is unsympathetic to Jule’s increasingly urgent pleas for Julia to ask her father to free Jule.
After Julia’s father sells Gabriel away to Texas, in her grief and anger, Jule becomes further estranged from Julia until, one day in January 1865, while changing trains with Julia in Louisville, Jule makes her escape.
The two women never meet again, though they hear of each other. Julia of course goes on to become the wife of the Union’s winning general and then the first lady. Jule also experiences success, leveraging her talents at doing Julia’s hair into a beauty and cosmetics business whose success turns its owner into the respected Madame Jule.
Unlike the details about Ulysses and Julia, most of the storyline about Jule is fictional as Chiaverini explains. But the story of Julia and Jule’s love-hate relationship is an engaging device to explore such issues as friendship among women across race, guilt over slavery, and the possibility of personal growth (Julia) along with forgiveness (Jule). In the end, as Chiaverini writes, the book is a love story. Its strength is to explore love and stories that people tell about their loves in intriguing ways using well known historical figures and the epic background of the Civil War era.