Rita Mae Brown

High Hearts

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High Hearts Summary

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High Hearts (1986) is a romantic historical novel by American author Rita Mae Brown. Set in the early years of the American Civil War, the novel follows 18-year-old Geneva Chatfield as she disguises herself as a young Confederate soldier in order to accompany her new husband to the front. Meanwhile, Geneva’s mother, Lutie, grows in compassion and confidence as she steps up to the challenge of managing the family plantation and nursing wounded soldiers. The novel interweaves deeply researched historical detail with a polemical perspective on gender roles in time of war, the latter of which might be expected from Brown, who is best known for the pioneering classic of lesbian fiction Rubyfruit Jungle (1973). High Hearts received mixed reviews, with most critics concluding that it is one of the weaker novels of a talented writer: “Although the chain of events is formulaic and the outcome less than surprising, Brown’s style is energetic, her message humane, and her characters unconventional and lively.”

The year is 1861, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, 18-year-old Geneva Chatfield, the daughter of a wealthy horse-breeder and slave-holder, is getting married to her beloved, Nash Hart, a sensitive and bookish young man. Serious and capable, Geneva is very tall for a girl and reputed to be the best rider in Albemarle County. Uninterested in feminine frivolities like dress and social occasions, she is already involved in the running of her late father’s estate and the work of breeding horses.

Her “honeymoon” takes place on the plantation, and with her new husband, Geneva becomes intoxicated with the sensual pleasures of young love. However, their bliss is interrupted by news of the bombardment at Fort Sumter. The Civil War has broken out.

Nash is reluctant to leave his bride, but there is no question that he will ride off to defend the Confederacy. He feels fortunate that, at least, his wife is more than capable of running the plantation in his absence. He leaves Geneva as the de facto head of the household, with only her fragile mother, Lutie, and their slaves for company.

Geneva misses Nash powerfully, resenting the interruption of their newly fledged married life. She also resents being left out of an adventure. Before long, she resolves to crop her hair, dress as a boy and gallop off to join her husband on the front.

At the camp of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, Geneva presents herself as “Jimmy.” At first, the soldiers laugh her away, taking her for a boy, but a barely pubescent one. However, impressing the soldiers by demonstrating that she is a better horseman than any one of them, Geneva is permitted to enlist.

Geneva reveals her identity to her husband while keeping it a secret from the other men. Although Nash thinks her plan is crazy, the newlyweds are glad to reunite, until the campaign starts and they find themselves in the thick of hard marching and cannon fire. Geneva, always tomboyish and practical, thrives on the hardship of the military life, learning that she is even tougher than she knew. Meanwhile, sensitive Nash, disgusted by battle—the violence and loss of life—, finds the hardship debilitating. As their outlooks diverge, the newlyweds clash, beginning to question their compatibility.

Their relationship comes under further pressure when their commander, the handsome and charming Colonel Mars Vickers, takes a shine to young “Jimmy.” The depth of his affection for this young “boy” troubles Mars, while Geneva, too, feels the attraction, together with a twinge of disloyalty. When Nash spots the mutual affection between his commander and his wife, he is jealous; his rivalry with Mars begins to undermine the cohesion of the cavalry.

The progress—and many of the characters—of the novel’s First Virginia Cavalry closely parallel those of the real-life Virginia Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Fitz Lee. Geneva and Nash are present at the First Battle of Manassas, where “Stonewall” Jackson earns his nickname. Brown sets out each battle in detail, describing the tactics of each side. As the battles grow fiercer, Geneva finds herself increasingly drawn to the courageous Mars and less sympathetic to Nash’s refusal to endorse the military ethic.

Meanwhile, behind the lines, Lutie is initially in disarray. Before her daughter’s departure, her main occupation was having long conversations with an imaginary lover. However, the struggle to manage the plantation in war conditions brings her back to reality, and she comes to rely on a spirited elderly slave, Sin-Sin. Together they establish a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers, and in tending to horrific, often fatal wounds, Lutie develops inner strength and compassion. Brown portrays the women on the home front as “a shadow Army,” coming together to serve the greater good.

Elsewhere on the plantation, Geneva’s favorite slave, the beautiful and intelligent Di-Peachy, begins a dangerous relationship with a white man.

The Virginia Cavalry’s campaign culminates in the Battle of Second Manassas, the largest and bloodiest battle yet. Nash is killed and the Confederates defeated. Mars learns Geneva’s real identity, and the two admit their love for one another.

The novel ends many years in the future, as Geneva—now a grandmother—looks back on the war years, when “David flung his pebble at Goliath and missed.” We learn that Mars—her husband—ran for office and that both he and Lutie became people “other people turned to” in Albemarle County. But Geneva still bears the scars of the war: “‘Mother,’ Geneva whispered, as she listened to the water in the fountains, ‘I just don’t believe as you did. I wish I could, but I don’t have much use for the human race. I love a few people and that’s all. I don’t have your wide embrace, your high heart. There are other wars out there, Mother. They’ll be worse. We haven’t learned a thing!’ She sighed. ‘May God have mercy upon us; we have none for one another.’”