The Spymistress

by Jennifer Chiaverini

Hardcover, 2013



Pledging her loyalty to the North at the risk of her life when her native Virginia secedes, Quaker-educated aristocrat Elizabeth Van Lew uses her innate skills for gathering military intelligence to help construct the Richmond underground and orchestrate escapes from the infamous Confederate Libby Prison.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Mishker
An interesting story that sets to re-tell the tale of a real-life Civil War hero. From the point of view of Mrs. Elizabeth Van Lew, a Unionist living in Virgina who believes in abolition. Chiaverini shows how a woman could skillfully and intelligently collect intelligence to help the Union as well as Union prisoners throughout the Civil War.

Chiaverini has skillfully written an engaging tale of a strong woman during the Civil War. A wonderful tale to be read by all.
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LibraryThing member Pattymclpn
I found this book fascinating. We are led through the conflicts that developed when the Van Lew family of Virginia who were for the union, must carry on when Virginia secedes and joins the confederacy. This poses numerous problems for the family and essentially family members are pitted against each other due to their beliefs. We always tend to think of the women of this time as meek and mild, but many of them were strong fighters for their causes. Elizabeth Van Lew was able to function just this side of the law and cared for the wounded soldiers of the union that were in Virginia and later assisted them to escape and kept them in her house. She was always giving the neighbors some thing to talk about. She took incredible risks. This book reminded me of Noble Cause. This is a novel I read and reviewed earlier in this blog. The woman in that book was a civil war spy also, but she dressed as a soldier and infiltrated the army to gain intelligence. That was also a remarkable book!! I give this book a 4 out of 5 stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member BrokenTeepee
I must admit that I knew absolutely nothing about Elizabeth van Lew going into this book. She was a very real person living in Richmond and was horrified by the vote to secede from the Union. She was a woman with strong political feelings and she associated with many men active in the government of Richmond. The Spymistress tells a fictionalized story of her courageous acts during the Civil War.

I must admit upfront that I have read a lot of Civil War books - I find myself fascinated by this period in our history. That being written, I still had not heard of Miss van Lew! Most of my reading was about the different battles and the generals. So little has been written about the contributions of women during that time period. I really enjoyed this book - it takes the reader from just before Virginia's decision to leave the Union to about 10 years after the end of the Civil War. The bulk of the book takes place during the period of the actual war. It follows Miss van Lew's efforts to help Union soldiers being held prisoner in Libby Prison in Richmond while still maintaining her relationship with her Confederate neighbors. She had to walk a fine line.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book showing the impact of the Civil War through the eyes of one woman determined to do what she could to stay firm in her beliefs. I'm not going to go into how Miss van Lew did her spying - that will spoil the book - but let me say she was very clever and very willing to do anything she could to help the Union.

Ms. Chiaverini held my interest throughout. I have read some reviews where people felt it was a bit dry and I can see where if you are not as interested in the Civil War and the movements of the troops it might not be as interesting to you but for someone like me it was a fascinating look into the life of a woman who showed extraordinary strength and courage in a very difficult time in our country's history.
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LibraryThing member jmchshannon
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.
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LibraryThing member bookchickdi
Last year I read Jennifer Chiaverini's historical novel Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and found it quite enjoyable. I like to read novels based on historical people, and getting a different perspective on Mary Todd Lincoln was fascinating.

Chiaverini's new novel The Spy Mistress is inspired by the true story of civil war espionage. Lizzie Van Lew was from a prominent Richmond Virginia family. She lived with her widowed mother Eliza and her brother John, a hardware store owner, his wife Mary and two young daughters. They were staunch patriots and disdained the institution of slavery.

When Virginia seceeded from the Union, the Van Lews were stunned. Many of their neighbors supported the Confederacy, and the Van Lews were forced to keep their Unionist views to themselves to avoid being arrested.

Richmond became the capitol of the Confederacy, and when Jefferson Davis was chosen as it's president, he moved his family (whom we met in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker) to the city. Richmond also became home to prisons housing Union soldiers captured in battle.

Lizzie decided to help the Union cause. Under the guise of providing charity in the form of food and books, Lizzie asked for permission to visit the Northern prisoners. She came under suspicion from her neighbors and the Confederate leadership for this, but it was allowed.

During her visits, she met with Union soldiers who gave her information, including the names of all the men imprisoned, to smuggle out to the North. One of the Union prisoners created a clever code, by punching letters on the pages of a book, that Lizzie quickly figured out. That impressed me a great deal.

Soon Lizzie had recruited other Union supporters, including freed blacks, to become part of the spy ring sending messages to the Union generals on the battlefield. They even placed a spy inside the Davis home who discovered troop movements and strategies that Lizzie was able to send North.

This is an intriguing look at the Civil War from another perspective, that of the Southern Union patriot. There is tension in the novel as Lizzie waited for the Union troops to retake Richmond, which takes years before succeeding. Lizzie's neighbors, as well as her sister-in-law who strongly supported the Confederacy, became more suspicious of her, and she worried that her mother may suffer for it.

Her mother Eliza is a terrific character; she supported Lizzie's efforts, but better understood the importance of appearing to be a true Confederate. Lizzie says Eliza "was the very ideal of a Southern lady- kind, gracious, polite, well spoken, pious and charitable." She was also intelligent and tough when she needed to be.

Lizzie used her feminine wiles to her advantage, winning over Confederate prison officials, like Mary Todd Lincoln's brother, with her charm and bribes of food and drink. She was underestimated by the Confederate military leaders who didn't count on Lizzie's intelligence or gumption to get what she wanted.

After reading The Spy Mistress, I want to learn more about Elizabeth Van Lew and her real adventures. This is a terrific book to give to a young woman in high school who wants to learn more about the role women Southern played in the Civil War. It's an unknown story that deserves a wider audience, and Chiaverini tells it in a way that keeps the reader turing the pages.
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LibraryThing member jolerie
The word spy conjures up visions of nefarious characters who work in the shadows and sneak into forbidden places to steal secrets from a legitimate government. That is not the case here. The Confederacy is an occupying force, not a sovereign state. Page 98

Elizabeth Van Lew is a woman born into a family with both privileges and significant social standing. A proper Southern lady, Lizzie stands out from all her other peers because of her intelligence and more importantly her passionate love and loyalty to the United States of America. Her beloved country is being torn apart and being a staunch Unionist, she cannot just idly stand by and watch as brothers are pitted against brothers, neighbour against neighbour. Her actions and her courage will paint her as a treasonous villain by one side of the war, and a fearless heroine by the other. History will remember her as a woman of immense fortitude and an unwavering belief in the spirit of freedom and equality for all people.

Inspired by true events during the Civil War, Chiaverini recounts the life of one woman during a very brutal and tumultuous time of American history. By all accounts, Elizabeth Van Lew strikes an interesting subject for inspection. A woman of contradiction, she has wealth and chooses to give it freely to those less fortunate. She is free and chooses to advocate for those enslaved. She is educated and is not shy about using it to fight for her convictions. Neither married, nor a mother, she is an exception to the times and completely unapologetic about the choices she makes. The Spymistress has all the right ingredients to make a compelling and inspiring read. Recommended for anyone who enjoys a strong female character or historical fans who have an interest in the Civil War period.
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LibraryThing member Sarah_Gruwell
It's evident that the author did her research. This book is packed with historical detail and ambiance. You're almost literally dumped into Civil War Richmond and experience the passion of the Confederates, the explosions of the shells from nearby battlefields, and the misery of the prisoners in Libby Prison and on Belle Island. I commend the author for being able to pack this much information into a fictional novelization of the events.

That being said, there are times where the historical facts given overshadow the story itself. At times, I felt distant from what our heroine and her spy ring were going through. The endless flow of facts and figures seemed to slow the action and drama of Lizzie's struggle for the Union. This didn't completely kill the book for me, as evidenced by how quickly I gobbled it up. But more balance between story and world building might have gone over better.

The character of Lizzie was a completely new world to me. I'd never heard of this woman and what a crime is that?! She's a strong and intelligent woman not afraid to stand up to vigilantes, the Confederate army, nor members of her own family for her beliefs. I especially admired her pluck when facing the vigilantes. With some of the features described, they sound like the beginnings of the KKK. And they were some scary peoples! Lizzie's the kind of girl I'd love to know and talk to; I'm sure she has some dang good stories to tell.

Despite some balances issues with detailing historical facts and the drama of the story telling, I felt this book was a great novel set in the Civil War. It brings to life a woman who stood up for herself and others in a time when that was dangerous as heck. I enjoyed dreading about her exploits along with her spy ring. Definitely a book to check out if you enjoy Civil War fiction.
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LibraryThing member UberButter
The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini
355 pages

This is a fictional account of the real-life woman, Lizzie Van Hew. During the Civil War, Lizzie was a Union sympathizer living in Virginia, so she did what she could and would become the leader of a spy ring against the Confederates. This book is loosely based off her actions and times during the war.

I randomly picked this book off the library shelf. It looked interesting. I love reading about the Civil War (although I tend to read most non-fiction on the subject than fiction) and had heard good things of the author, so why not? It wasn’t bad but it definitely wasn’t one of the best things I have read. I felt as if the characters were just out of my reach. Something was missing and the connection was just not there. I felt nothing for the characters, including the main ones, and that is a big no-no to me. Also, the story has a habit of just meandering. I became bored in sections and this book took me way longer to read than it should have. It was the kind of book that I could only read in some segments before becoming bored. On the bright side, the last third of the book did become more interesting and the author did well at description. It piqued my interest to want to know more information Lizzie Van Hew and I hope to read a non-fiction account on her soon. Not great but interesting enough that I may attempt her more popular book, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker….eventually.
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LibraryThing member vernefan
Based on the true life of female civil war spy Elizabeth Van Lew, Jennifer Chiaverini's The Spymistress is an eye-opening detailed account of the United States Civil War. Although at times a bit dry and overly detailed, the author does do a fabulous job of giving the reader an excellent condensed account of the four year events that encompassed the war between the states in entirety. Not knowing much about the civil war myself, I learned a lot through the eyes of Lizzie Van Lew who spied for the Union while living in Richmond, the Capitol of the rebel Confederate States. Lizzie Van Lew was brave, tireless in her mission, and fought long and hard for what she believed in. Through one bloody massacre after another, she kept her head held high and refused to back down no matter the danger for her life and her family. Spying was dangerous business for anyone, never mind for a genteel lady of prominence as herself. Her ability to act and charm the players in high places to thwart the enemy was nothing short of astounding while never knowing if her endeavors would be rewarded. Throughout the story you will meet a lot of very famous people, while at the same time getting a great feel for the various opinions from all sides of the war. The Spymistress is part of the author's series on the civil war, each novel focusing on a different character so the reader get's all sides of North and South, Union and Confederates, politicians and Presidents, Slaves and Freed Blacks. I am now anxious to read them all to get a better well-rounded view of this nonsensical war full of bloodshed, famine, abolitionists and slaveholders, politicians and military strategists, that all fought desperately to either reunite the United States or secede on their own keeping slavery alive.… (more)
LibraryThing member beckyhaase
THE SPYMISTRESS by Jennifer Chiaverini
A Civil War story with very little about battles, soldiers or Generals.
Elizabeth Van Lew is a Southern lady who owns slaves, is a secret abolitionist, supports the Union (secretly), loves Virginia and is a Union spy. Van Lew, a real person, was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1993. Throughout the war she aided the cause of the Union at great risk to herself, her family and friends. Her cleverness in remaining without suspicion is the conflict and plot of THE SPYMISTRESS.
Chiaverini has written a book that makes Van Lew live again. The risks she took to aid Union prisoners held in deplorable Confederate prisons, especially Libby Prison, are clearly set forth. The way she came to be one of the most useful spies for the Union Army is stated so well that the reader, like Van Lew herself, is completely involved before realizing exactly what a dangerous endeavor she has undertaken. Those Virginians who supported the Union and were part of Van Lew’s network of spies are woven into the storyline.
Chiaverini has clearly done her research into the life and times of a heroic woman. The book covers only the war years, but does include an author’s note to tell the reader what happened after the war.
5 of 5 stars
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Dutton (2013), Edition: First Edition, 368 pages


Original language


Physical description

368 p.; 6.3 inches


0525953620 / 9780525953623
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