If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ll have figured out that for me, the journeys undertaken by medieval manuscripts from their European origins to their American repositories, and the hands they passed through on the way, are of particular interest. This week, I’ve got a Louisiana histoire d’amour for you.
Eustace Surget (1830-1882) was the third of six children of Francis Surget, his family one branch of a large and wealthy southern family of land- and estate-holders. His grandfather, Pierre, had immigrated to Natchez, Mississippi in the 1780s holding a Spanish land grant. By the mid-nineteenth century, the extended family’s holdings had spread throughout Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas and included cotton plantations, thousands of slaves, and significant wealth.
In August 1864, while a Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate Army, Eustace married Clara H. Sprigg. Two days later, he left his new bride for a wartime assignment in Meridian, Mississippi. For months, Eustace was a faithful and devoted correspondent. But, according to an article in the New Albany, Indiana Daily Register (December 22, 1866, p. 9), “Suddenly the wife ceased to receive letters. Rumors, vague and dark, reached her ear of a change in his affections. Unable to account for this painful silence, the young wife refused to believe the injurious and, to her, painful rumors. But at length a letter was received from her absent husband that to her was a cruel confirmation of these tidings. The letter contained the cruel confession of the loss of his affection or her. It stated that he had long loved a lady who reciprocated his affection so fervently that his marriage with his wife was bringing this lady to the grave. Nothing, the letter said, could restore her to life but a final separation from his spouse.”
Distraught, Clara responded with an appeal to the laws of chivalry, begging him not to abandon her to shame and disgrace. But Surget was determined. “He acknowledged the deep guilt of his conduct to her, the depth of misery to which it reduced her…but said that fate had fixed his love so unalterably elsewhere that, come what would, his separation from his spouse was then final and forever. The shock that the wife received at this last cruel treatment was so wounding to her feelings as a woman, so hurtful to her affection as a wife and hoping mother, that she pined under the blow, sorrowed and sickened for months. At length the death of her stillborn child, induced by the mental and bodily anguish, severed the last tie which bound her to her faithless husband.” In August 1865, she appeared before the Sixth District Court in New Orleans to sue for divorce, which was granted (apparently after much deliberation) in December 1866.
As was the case with many significant Antebellum families, the Surget family’s wealth, tied up as it was in real estate and slaves, was decimated by the loss to the North. In 1867, Eustace left the United States for Bordeaux (not far from his grandfather Pierre’s birthplace of La Rochelle), joining “the other woman,” his cousin and soon-to-be wife Mary Atwell Linton (and her sister Charlotte, who was married to Eustace’s brother Francis Jr.). The complex Surget family tree is outlined here; Eustace’s father Francis was the brother of Mary’s grandmother Charlotte, making them first-cousins once-removed.
Mary and Eustace had known each other since childhood, according to a heavily-romanticized account of their story in Early Romances of Historic Natchez by Elizabeth Dunbar Murray (Natchez, 1938):
“In early childhood an attachment was formed between Mary and Eustace Surget, but as time passed Mary decided she would never marry.” Mary was, of course, a beauty “with soft brown eyes and golden hair.” Eustace, for his part, was “tall and slender, with dark eyes and hair [and] the elegance of manner and speech peculiar to gentlemen of the Old School.” The cousins were separated by time and distance. Eustace “fell a victim to the charms of the widow [Clara] and they were married.” As Clara herself had reported, Eustace had come to realize that his was a loveless marriage. “He could not tear the image of his first love from his heart. He had risen rapidly in the ranks and had become Colonel Surget. Shortly after Mary’s return to Georgia he was ordered to that section and a meeting between the two seemed inevitable. It occured in an army hospital where Eustace was trying to locate a wounded soldier. He came upon Mary standing by the bedside of a boy whose pain she had lulled into slumber by her gentle touch. Recognition was instantaneous. For a few seconds neither spoke – and then Mary said, ‘Married! Married!’ There was scorn and reproach in her voice. But Eustace replied, ‘There is no true marriage where there is not love and my heart has never forsaken its first love.’ The meeting was brief but in those few moments both realized that love is a power apart from will and circumstance, and that the love of their youth would be a love for eternity.” (pp. 59-61)
You may wonder what any of this has to do with medieval manuscripts. Here’s the connection. While in Bordeaux, Eustace used his business acumen to rebuild his net worth, and he and Mary became art collectors of some note. Their engagement with local connoisseurship is demonstrated by their association with the Société des Amis des Arts de Bordeaux from 1869 on. After Eustace’s death in 1882, Mary inherited their collection along with his estate and what was left of his US holdings, all of which she held until her own death in 1888. She left instructions for her sister Charlotte to donate the entire collection to the City of New Orleans which in turn deposited the collection at Tulane as the founding pieces of what is now the Newcomb Art Gallery. According to a report presented to Congress in 1889, the bequest included “1000 volumes, principally works on art, two statues, and forty-five valuable paintings” [including the portrait of Mary’s grandmother Charlotte shown above].
The New Orleans Times-Picayune recorded an exhibit of the collection in 1892, noting in particular that “Conspicuous among [the exhibited items] is an illuminated Latin missal, the work of a French monk in the fourteenth century. The labor involved in arranging such a work…can be appreciated by every lover of the curious and antique.” (6 March 1892, p. 6)
That “illustrated Latin missal” is almost certainly this beauty, a late fifteenth-century Book of Hours said by de Ricci (Census I:741, no. 1) to be Use of Paris. A laid-in typescript note claims that the manuscript is from southern France (suggesting that it was purchased by the Surgets in or near Bordeaux), but stylistically and liturgically it is clearly northern. I’ve only seen three pages (and I thank profusely Tulane Professor Michael Kuczynski for the images and for additional information), but even just the first half of the calendar for January suggests northern use (the Translation/Invention of Firminus on 12 January; the unusual date of 8 January for St. Severinus; and 10 January for St. Rigobert of Troyes) while the illumination style also seems northern. I hope someday to get a more detailed look at the calendar as well as the Litany, the Hours of the Virgin and the Office of the Dead, so that the Use can be more accurately determined.
Tulane also holds a nice assortment of single leaves (again, my thanks to Prof. Kuczynski for the images):
The last leaf (shown at left) is from a mid-fifteenth-century French Book of Hours that preserves lines 208-224 of the same French verse Vie de Sainte Marguerite that I explored (in a different manuscript) in this post a few months ago.
Finally, Tulane houses an impressive collection of Mesoamerican documents in the William Gates Collection, described in the Census (I:742-746). It is unclear what became of the two manuscripts listed in the Census as belonging to the Howard Memorial Library (Census I:741): the second manuscript listed, a Dutch prayerbook, may still belong to Tulane; the first, a late fifteenth-century Cassiodorus, is lost.
We’ll turn eastward now, following the Gulf of Mexico for a few weeks. Next stop, Birmingham, Alabama.
5 responses to “Manuscript Road Trip: The Big Easy and the Widow Surget”
Where can I buy, Early Romances of Historic Natchez by Elizabeth Dunbar Murray (Natchez, 1938)?
You can find it used on Amazon or at AbeBooks.com
I am a Surget descendent–(Pierre, James Pierre, James Pierre the Younger, etc.) and enjoyed this entry immensely.
My gggg grandfather was a slave at the Cherry Grove Plantation. His name is Marshall Surget. His daughter Sarah/Sallie Surget.
My husband and I just purchased Gloucester Place in Natchez, which at one time was owned by the Surgets! Excellent story, and one I hadn’t heard before! Thanks!