A Review: The Spymistress

I recently finished the book The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini. Though it was the first of Ms. Chiaverini’s books that I’ve read, it will not be the last. I can’t believe how much I learned from it (it’s a novel of historical fiction) and for days now, I’ve been regaling anyone who will listen with tales of Civil War spies. Luckily, I had four Boy Scouts in a car with me on a trip to Washington, D.C., over the weekend and they were more or less a captive audience for my stories.

The Spymistress is a book about Elizabeth Van Lew, a woman who actually existed. She was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, in a slave-owning aristocratic family. She was also a spy for the North during the Civil War and this book tells the tale of how Elizabeth became a spy, how she managed to remain a spy, and how she survived the Civil War as a spy in the South. There is also a very interesting note of Ms. Van Lew’s life after the War. I was quite surprised by the events of the later years of her life.

Elizabeth Van Lew was a brave woman who embodied the ideals of equality and freedom long before they became rallying cries in the Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights movements. Though she and her mother technically “owned” slaves, it was only because a clause in her father’s will prevented his widow and daughter from selling them. They therefore paid their slaves and treated them well and showed them the respect they deserved. She was shrewd, too, managing to convince Southern officers and prison adminstrators that her kindness and charity for northern soldiers was because of her Christian duty to them and not out of any misplaced loyalty to a bunch of Yankees. And she used her wealth and social status to her advantage, gaining access to northerners who needed her help and managing to get other Union sympathizers into positions of authority in Richmond prisons.

I liked the rising tension in the book that came from the main characters living in a house of Northern sympathizers as the Civil War progressed and as their neighbors and the citizens of Richmond became increasingly entrenched in the fight for Southern independence. The author does a great job describing the atmosphere of Richmond as it goes from elation and hope to concern to desperation and despair, and she also conveys nicely the physical appearance of Richmond during the War. As was the case with the last novel I reviewed (Anything But Civil), it is obvious that a tremendous amount of research went into the writing of this book–not just research about Richmond, but also research about troop movements and prison conditions and Civil War heroes and villains.

I would recommend this book to readers of historical fiction and Civil War buffs.

Has anyone read any other good books lately? Share them in the comments!

Until next week,


P.S. Update from last week’s post: still no birds. But I will persevere! Also, thanks to the person-who-shall-remain-nameless who pointed out that robins are really wormatarians, not seed eaters. I should have known that.

2 thoughts on “A Review: The Spymistress”

  1. Good Morning Amy, I have to start by saying that I am NOT a history buff at all. Sometimes I wish I was because there are so many great stories based on history, especially US History. I am happy to say I raised a son who is and I am reminded of a conversation we had while sitting in an auto repair shop when he was just 16. He was one of those kids who would tell a story without leaving out one tiny detail. His history class was studying the Civil War, and I got the whole lesson. We had a 2 hour wait, and believe me, it was a long 2 hours. LOL. At one point, he said, “Mom, are you listening to me?”. And of course I said yes…. He then asked, “what did I just say?” hmmmm.. As I recall, it was something about the soldiers walking from somewhere in the south, all the way to upstate NY in the freezing cold winter. He was impressed with that. LOL.

    What I do like, however, is books about strong women, and this book is certainly that. Having said that, I will put this one on my list of books to read. Who knows, I may grow to like History more.

    P.S. After thinking about this, I wonder why I was surprised when my son opted to become career Military. I believe his decision was made when he was very young. 🙂

    As always, “Keep Reading and Writing”


    1. The conversation with your son sounds like some of the conversations we have in my kitchen. Once they’ve gone on for what seems like hours, they become a bit one-sided and usually end with one of my children saying, “Mom, are you even listening to me?” And I am-at least a little. I think it’s great that our kids have interests that are different from ours. It does make for more interesting conversations, and I love learning things from them. I hope they’re learning some things from me, too. I bet you’re very proud of your son–we should all be proud of him!

      If you do read The Spymistress, I hope you enjoy it. Elizabeth Van Lew was definitely a strong and courageous woman.

      Thanks for stopping by!!


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