Friday, April 10, 2009

Madame Castel's Lodger - General Beauregard

Madame Castel's Lodger, by Frances Parkinson Keyes, was one of two books I had in mind when I started this blog. This book had a surprise ending for me when I first read.

A piece in the "Author's Notes," states:

"My friend Mrs. Kenneth T. Price, whose late husband was for many years District Manager of the Freeport Sulphur Company at Port Sulphur and was therefore a long-time resident of Plaquemines Parish, who was also fully familiar with this work, made the arrangements for the visit (to Fort Jackson) and took me to Fort Jackson in her car, with a stop for lunch at the Sulphur guest house, long one of my favorite haunts; the oyster pies, corn puddings and steak with "rusty" gravy... ." "This excursion was so delightful and so successful that, a week or so later, Mrs. Price and I undertook the trip to the even more isolated Fort Livingston on Grande Terre Island... ."

This historical novel, based on the life of Confederate General Pierre (P.G.T.) Beauregard, initially grabbed my attention because of the Civil War affiliation and the colorful General himself. Literally, in the midst of reading it, I asked my sister about her husband Frank's family background for my genealogical research. Two seemingly unrelated events, that is until I read the author's notes and realized that the Mrs. Kenneth Price referenced therein was none other than Frank's grandmother. The confluence of genealogical research and reading for pleasure was wonderful and inspiring.

After learning more about the Price family from Frank, he put me in touch with his mother, Joan. Joan grew up as an only child in Port Sulphur, south of New Orleans, Louisiana. She related that her mother, Lois (Blunt) Price, met Mrs. Keyes, a most formidable woman, when she (Lois) as president of the local PTA contacted Mrs. Keyes, asking her to speak to students in Port Sulphur. After the speaking engagement, Mrs. Price and Mrs Keyes became friends.

The house where General Beauregard lodged with Madame Castel is real, is now known as the Beauregard-Keyes house and is open for tours. The house itself becomes a supporting character in the book and was where Beauregard honeymooned with his second wife, Caroline Deslondes, before the start of the Civil War. After the war, General Beauregard, a widower for the second time, returned to the house in New Orleans, destitute, and living in the house's former slave quarters where he spent time organizing his papers and reminiscing about the past.

"Simone Castel had been on the rear gallery when he found her. Now, after that startled moment of silence, he turned and looked across the neglected patio toward the building which had once been the slave quarters and which was in a sad state of dilapidation. He had never been in it, but Caroline had; she had gone there to see a sick slave and she had described it to him. Now he asked a question, as surprising to himself as to his hearer. 'This quarters--they're empty now, aren't they?' '...but I thought, if the quarters were empty, perhaps you'd let me move out there.' 'General Beauregard---in the slave quarters!'

I was even more surprised when Joan (my sister's mother-in-law) told me that as a newlywed, she and her husband also lived in the slave quarters of the Beauregard-Keyes House. She was Madame Keye's lodger!

Madame Castel's Lodger is also a novel that includes an authentic genealogical chart, a family history and the Beauregards as they were listed in the 1830 Census taken in St. Barnard Parish. There is also an excerpt from a plantation expense journal, gumbo recipes, an explanation of Southern and Louisiana customs, a glimpse into the lives of planters and New Orleans.

Madame Castel's Lodger is a novel that illustrated, through the life of P.G.T. Beauregard, the cultural differences experienced by a French-speaking Louisiana planter's son who furthers his education at a New York City military school and how he adapted to being part of both worlds.

Beauregard experienced the bureaucracy of the American Army after graduating from West Point. When there were slights, real or imagined, from the Army or otherwise, he found great comfort with his wife, his beloved Laure, and was thrown into despair when she died in childbirth.

Madame Castel's Lodger provided the impetus to visit New Orleans and especially the Beauregard-Keyes house, which we did. Reading it a second time, years later, after becoming familiar with various landmarks mentioned in the novel, is even better. The plantations of Beauregard's friends and family were located in St. Bernard's Parish and Plaquemines Parish; we've camped in St. Bernard's State Park and travelled the length of Plaquemines Parish, after first crossing over in a ferry boat, visiting Port Sulphur and destinations south. We've visited Fort Jackson, for which "Captain" Beauregard was responsible as an Army engineer.

The War of 1812's Battle of New Orleans, was part of the Beauregard family's oral history. P.G.T. Beauregard's Uncle Joseph had "...taken part in the Battle of New Orleans and had commanded a band of young Creole planters at Proctor's Point on Lake Borgne...". A plantation belonging to the Villeres family, to which Laure belonged, was central to the Chalmette Battlefield, as were plantations of other Beauregard friends.

The patriarch of the Villeres family, Jacques Philippe Roy Villeres, held "court;" "...every morning the old man seated himself in the shade of a great tree, situated in what seemed to him an ideal meeting place, and awaited the arrival of his six sons. Only the gravest type of emergency would excuse their absence and, as soon as they were gathered around him, he gave his orders for the day...".

While the Villeres followed the customs of the older generation, P. G. T. Beauregard was one who made when he deemed it necessary. The "...Creole custom was for a newlywed couple to remain confined in a room at the bride's home for several days (or longer); ...that, in Beauregard's opinion, was nothing sort of barbarous. That opinion was one of the 'American' ideas which he had formed in the north...". He borrowed a friend's garconniere and opted for an 'American' honeymoon instead.

The Spanish Beauregard learned as a boy as a result of the Canary Island natives who lived in the area helped him once he participated in the Mexican War. He stated that "I was called on, quite often, to interpret for others when I was the only Spanish-speaking officer around."

Beauregard returned home as a hero from the Mexican War. Some time after being narrowly defeated in the election for Mayor of New Orleans, he returned to West Point where he taught until he resigned when Louisiana seceded from the Union.

After P. G. T. Beauregard was summoned to Montgomery, Alabama, the capital of the new Confederacy, he told Caroline, "...I won't be gone long...I've only been asked to attend a conference." As he later related to Madame Castel, "I've been gone four years. I never saw her again." The Civil War had intervened as had General Beauregard's triumphs in that war as well as his ultimate surrender.

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