Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule
“Chiaverini’s eye for detail coupled with an ability to breathe life into her characters ensures an engrossing period piece that does not fail to both entertain and inform.” —Library Journal
New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini imagines the profound and complex relationship between beloved First Lady Julia Grant and the courageous, resourceful woman who was her slave.
In 1844, the shy Missouri belle Julia Dent met Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, a brilliant horseman and reluctant soldier. The two fell deeply in love, but four years passed before Julia’s father permitted them to wed. The groom’s abolitionist family refused to attend the ceremony.
Despite her new husband’s objections, Julia kept as her slave another Julia, known as Jule. Since childhood they had been companions and confidantes; Julia was gifted with prophetic dreams, which Jule helped her interpret. Julia secretly taught Jule to read, while Jule became her vision-impaired mistress’s eyes to the world. But beneath the gathering clouds of war, the stark distinctions between mistress and slave inevitably strained and altered their tenuous friendship.
As Ulysses rose through the ranks of the Union army during the Civil War, he often summoned Julia and their four children to join him at military headquarters. The general’s wife rarely failed to bring her favorite maid along, tearing Jule from her own beloved husband, whom she had secretly married in defiance of the law. Both women risked certain danger as they traveled to and from the field of war, but for Jule, the hazards of travel also brought knowledge and opportunity.
Even as Julia Grant championed the Union cause and advocated for suffering women on both sides of the brutal conflict, she continued to hold Jule as a slave behind federal lines—until the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation inspired Jule to make a daring bid for freedom. Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule is the first novel to chronicle the singular relationship of these two remarkable women, bound by light and shadow.
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Read an Excerpt from Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule
The slaves froze when they heard the old master shouting from the big house, conversations cut off in midsentence, hands grasping spoons hovering between bowls and hungry mouths. Even the little ginger-colored maid strained her ears to listen, dreading to hear her own name bellowed in anger.
For a long, tense moment she heard only the crackling of the fire from within the kitchen house and birds chirping overhead, but then Tom shook his head and resumed eating. “It ain’t us,” the lanky coachman said through a mouthful of oat porridge. “Something happened in the city, but it ain’t nothing to do with us.”
Quickly the slaves finished their breakfasts, scraping their bowls with their carved wooden spoons and licking off every last savory morsel before rising and darting to work. Only the little ginger-colored maid hung back, reluctant to return to the big house and whatever storm brewed within. She busied herself gathering up the dirty bowls and spoons and carrying them to the washbasin, but as she rolled up her sleeves, the cook shook her head. “Poppy can help me with that. You best be running off.” Annie was only twenty or thereabouts, but she was the best cook in the Gravois Settlement and proud of it. “Miss Julia be looking for you. Stay out of the old master’s way and you be all right.”
Glumly she nodded and hurried away. She found Miss Julia seated on the front piazza, frowning anxiously at her hands in her lap, a red ribbon bobbing atop her thick, glossy, dark hair in time with the swinging of her feet. She glanced up at the sound of her maid’s bare feet on the well-worn path—her expression sweet, her skin soft and rosy—but she held her head awkwardly, tilting it this way and that, trying to fix her gaze on her maid despite her cross-eye. “There you are,” Julia cried, bounding out of her seat and down the stairs. She seized her maid’s hand and pulled her along, her glossy curls a dark cascade down her back as they ran. The maid’s spirits rose as they left the big house behind. She knew where Julia was leading her—to the stables and the family’s horses.
They heard Gabriel, the stableboy, singing before they reached the corral, before they saw him emerge from the stable, a sturdy, russet-colored boy of ten years leading the missus’s favorite bay mare by the reins. The boy with the voice of an angel had been given a name to suit when he had been brought into the Dent household four years before. He had been called Tom then, but the old master had renamed him for the sake of the elder Tom, the ebony-skinned coachman. The maid thought it strange that she had not been given a new name too, since she shared one with her mistress. Instead, ever since the old master had bought her when she was scarcely four years old, the family and slaves had made do by calling her Julia the maid or the little ginger girl or, more often, Black Julia.
Side by side, the two Julias stood on the lowest rail and rested their elbows on the corral fence, watching Tom and Gabriel exercise the horses, which Julia adored and rode whenever the old master allowed. When they tired of this, the mistress seized her maid’s hand again and they ran off to the kitchen house, another of Miss Julia’s favorite places on her family’s country estate. Julia could always charm a treat from Annie and never failed to share it. “Ginger and cream,” Annie often remarked when she spied the girls’ clasped hands, the darker skin against the white.
Once, years before, Julia had felt a soft, quick, wetness on the back of her wrist and turned her head in surprise to discover her mistress bent over her hand, the pink tip of her tongue still protruding between her red lips. “I wanted to see if you tasted like ginger too,” Julia had said, her expression embarrassed and guilty.
“No.” Julia had frowned in disappointment. “Just skin. And brine.”
“I was helping Annie pickle cucumbers.” Impulsively, she had lifted Julia’s hand to her mouth, her tongue darting out for a small, swift taste. “Hmm.”
“What? What is it?”
“Definitely cream.” She had nodded sagely before dissolving into giggles. “The sweetest, freshest cream ever.”
Julia had laughed, delighted.
Annie shooed them away soon enough, and they ran off deep into the woods encircling White Haven, to their favorite, most secret place, a beautiful, shadowy, moss-covered nook near a burbling stream that fed into the Gravois. Julia’s favorite game was to pretend that this was a fairy bower and that she was queen of the fairies, ruling fairly and benignly over her kingdom, as confident and gracious in make-believe as she was shy in real life. The ginger maid portrayed her favorite lady-in-waiting, a deposed fairy princess from a far-off kingdom, bearing all the grace of royalty despite her more humble status.
When the sun shone high overhead, the maid, her stomach rumbling with hunger, reminded her mistress that Julia would be expected home for lunch. Just as they emerged from the woods, they halted at the sight of a pair of horses tied up at the front post and the old master greeting two men on the shaded piazza.
“Soldiers,” said Julia, squinting enough to make out their uniforms. “See them for me.”
“They’re officers,” her maid replied. Her mistress’s poor vision was a source of endless frustration, and she often called upon her maid to describe people and scenes for her, especially at a distance. But even things close to hand, like picture books and sewing, gave her headaches if she were obliged to study them too long. When Julia was first learning to read, after squinting at the reader for a quarter of an hour, her forehead would throb so painfully that she would plaintively ask her maid to see the letters aloud for her. The missus soon put a stop to that, reminding Miss Julia that slaves weren’t allowed to read and dismissing her maid with a stern rebuke.
“I see that much for myself,” said Julia. “What else?”
“The tall one is younger,” she continued. “He’s a lieutenant. The short, stout one has gray hair, and I think he’s a captain. I don’t think they ever been here before.”
“They must be from Jefferson Barracks,” said Julia, her voice dropping to a murmur. “One of the officers did something terrible.”
“What he do?”
“I don’t know. Let’s listen.”
Julia took her hand once more. They darted to the house, tiptoed up the front stairs and down the piazza, and crouched silently beneath one of the parlor windows.
What they heard chilled the maid to the bone.
A few days before, Major William Harney, the paymaster at Jefferson Barracks, had become enraged with a slave, Hannah, whom he accused of hiding or losing the keys to his sister-in-law’s household in St. Louis, where he was residing. He had seized a piece of rawhide and had beaten her savagely upon her head, stomach, sides, back, arms and legs, rendering her unconscious, bruised, and bleeding. Hannah died the following day, and the coroner’s jury of inquest noted that her body had been lacerated and mangled in so horrible a manner that they could not determine whether the violence had been committed with whips or hot irons. To avoid arrest—and in advance of a mob of outraged citizens intent on stringing him up—Major Harney had fled the city aboard a steamboat and proceeded to Washington City to request a transfer so he would never have to return to Missouri. The officers had come to warn the old master that anger against slaveholders throughout the county was soaring, and he ought to take care until it subsided.
Julia squeezed her hand. “Did you hear? That bad man will never come back. Papa says Washington City is about as far from St. Louis as you can go.”
She nodded, her throat constricted too much to allow speech, but her heart pounded, her mind flooded with images of a slave woman screaming in anguish as the rawhide cut into her skin, falling to her knees in a pool of her own blood—
She scrambled away from the window and fled to the woods, closing her ears to Julia’s beseeching cries.
She fled to the safest place she knew, the fairy bower, where she lay down on the soft moss and hugged her knees to her chest. Before long Julia arrived, breathless and anxious. “I knew you would come here,” she said, sitting down beside her. “You mustn’t be afraid. What happened to that poor Hannah will never happen to you. I swear I’ll never beat you and I won’t let anyone else either.”
She felt a small measure of comfort, enough to compel her to sit up and wipe the tears from her face. But she knew Julia was just a little girl, eight years old like herself, and incapable of fighting off anyone who might want to hurt her.
“I don’t like it when people call you Black Julia,” the young mistress suddenly declared. “It’s not a proper name, even for a servant. But you can’t be Julia, because I was Julia first.”
She didn’t contradict her, although she was the elder by two months and so had been called Julia longer. Her mistress was the first to be called Julia at White Haven, and she was a Dent. It was fair that she kept the name.
“I’m going to call you Jule,” she said. “It’s almost Julia, but different enough so no one will need to put anything else before it to tell us apart. Do you like it?”
“Yes,” said Jule, after a long moment. “It’s nice.”
“Then Jule it is,” Julia proclaimed, beaming.
Jule was proud of her new name. It wasn’t quite as well earned as Gabriel’s, or as fancy as Suzanne’s, but it was nice, and it was hers alone.
“Miss Julia says we all supposed to call me Jule now,” she told Annie that night as the weary slaves gathered at the kitchen house to eat their supper, deferred while the Dents and the livestock were seen to.
“Really.” Scooping stew into bowls, Annie gave her an inscrutable sidelong look. “You proud of that odd name, ginger girl?”
“It ain’t odd,” said Jule, lifting her chin. “Some girls called Ruby or Opal or Pearl. Why can’t I be called Jewel?”
One of the field hands guffawed into his stew; it might have been Dan, but she couldn’t tell in the darkness, which on that moonless night was lifted only by the light spilling from the kitchen-house doorway and the campfire Tom and Gabriel had built.
“It’s pretty,” piped up Suzanne, the housekeeper’s walnut-colored daughter. She would be the maid for Julia’s next-eldest sister someday but as yet was too young to be much more than a playmate.
“Pretty, huh?” Still clutching her spoon, Annie planted a fist on her hip and regarded Jule from beneath raised brows. “You ain’t called jewel like no pearl or sparkling ruby. You called Jule to be short for Julia.”
“Annie,” chided Tom mildly. “She’s just a girl.”
“She’s eight years old, old enough to know how things are. She ain’t got no mamma, so it falls to me to tell her.” Annie’s expression turned solemn as she crouched low beside Jule and held her gaze. “Listen here. Your new name just a piece of her name, just like she think you no more than a little piece of her. There’s us, and there’s them, and you one of us.”
“I know that,” said Jule sullenly.
“No, I don’t think you do. Listen, ginger girl. You ain’t never gonna be a part of that family, no matter what Miss Julia say now, no matter how she hold your hand and tell you she love you. Soon Miss Nell gonna be old enough to be a real friend and not just a pesky little sister, and as years go by you gonna be less a friend and more a slave. It always happen that way. Unless you want your heart broke, you best get ready and watch for it coming, so it don’t catch you by surprise.”
Miss Julia was different, Jule told herself fiercely, interlacing her fingers over her growling stomach as Annie filled bowls with stew and she waited for one to be passed her way.
Miss Julia was different, and Jule was different. They were ginger and cream. It was not their fault they were mistress and slave too.