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Virginia Woolf And the Women Who Shaped Her World by Gillian Gill Book

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Virginia Woolf And the Women Who Shaped Her World by Gillian Gill Read Book Online And Download

Overview: An insightful, witty look at Virginia Woolf through the lens of the extraordinary women closest to her.


How did Adeline Virginia Stephen become the great writer Virginia Woolf? Acclaimed biographer Gillian Gill tells the stories of the women whose legacies—of strength, style, and creativity—shaped Woolf’s path to the radical writing that inspires so many today.


Gill casts back to Woolf’s French-Anglo-Indian maternal great-grandmother Thérèse de L’Etang, an outsider to English culture whose beauty passed powerfully down the female line; and to Woolf’s aunt Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who gave Woolf her first vision of a successful female writer. Yet it was the women in her own family circle who had the most complex and lasting effect on Woolf. Her mother, Julia, and sisters Stella, Laura, and Vanessa were all, like Woolf herself, but in markedly different ways, warped by the male-dominated household they lived in. Finally, Gill shifts the lens onto the famous Bloomsbury group. This, Gill convinces, is where Woolf called upon the legacy of the women who shaped her to transform a group of men–united in their love for one another and their disregard for women–into a society in which Woolf ultimately found her freedom and her voice.


Virginia Woolf And the Women Who Shaped Her World by Gillian Gill Book Read Online And Download Epub Digital Ebooks Buy Store Website Provide You.
Virginia Woolf And the Women Who Shaped Her World by Gillian Gill Book





Virginia Woolf And the Women Who Shaped Her World by Gillian Gill Book Read Online Chapter One


Virginia Woolf’s Indian Ancestresses—Thérèse de l’Etang and Adeline Pattle 


A TRADITION in the family of Virginia Woolf had it that the aristocratic beauty of the women on her mother’s side could be traced back to her great-great-grandmother Thérèse Blin de Grincourt. She was a late-eighteenth-century heiress who married the Chevalier Ambroise-Pierre-Antoine de l’Etang. That Virginia Woolf had a touch of the French aristocracy is one of the little themes that come up in her own letters and in those of her sister Vanessa Bell. To her composer friend Ethel Smyth, for example, Woolf wrote, “If you want to know where I get my (ahem!) charm, read Herbert Fisher’s [her politician first cousin’s] autobiography. Marie Antoinette loved my ancestor; hence he was exiled; hence the Pattles, the barrel that burst and finally Virginia.” We shall be finding out about that barrel later in this chapter.

A few stories about her great-great-grandparents Thérèse and Antoine de l’Etang came down to Virginia Woolf, wrapped in gossamer and giving off a faint but intoxicating scent of palaces—the apple blossom and lavender of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, the jasmine and frangipani of the Nawab of Oudh’s palace at Lucknow. Thus, in her introductory essay to the Hogarth Press’s volume of the photographs of her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron—one of Thérèse de l’Etang’s granddaughters—Virginia Woolf wrote, “Antoine de l’Etang was one of Marie Antoinette’s pages, who had been with the Queen in prison till her death and was only saved by his own youth from the guillotine. With his wife, who had been one of the Queen’s ladies, he was exiled to India and it is at Ghazipur, with the miniature that Marie Antoinette gave him laid upon his breast, that he lies buried.”

Note how, in this version, perhaps recounted to Virginia by her mother, Julia Jackson Stephen, or her maternal grandmother, Maria Pattle Jackson, the beautiful ancestress is a French aristocrat whom misfortune brings to India.

In his groundbreaking 1972 biography of his aunt Virginia, Quentin Bell gives a different but equally colorful version of the family story about the Chevalier de l’Etang: “His person was pleasing, his manners courtly, his tastes extravagant, and his horsemanship admirable. He was attached to the household of Marie Antoinette, too much attached, it is said, and for this he was exiled to Pondicherry.”

Both stories are delightful and full of novelistic flair. Neither, unfortunately, was quite accurate. Tristram Powell, who reedited the Hogarth Press book on Cameron in 1973 and had new research to go on, felt obliged to correct the record. “The Chevalier de l’Etang was banished by the King before the Revolution, when he was an officer of the King’s bodyguard and superintendent of the Royal Stud, he had written a book on horse management for the French army. Mme. de l’Etang was not one of the Queen’s ladies. She was born in Pondicherry, India, the daughter of the Captain of the Port, and she did not go to France until she took her granddaughter there to be educated, probably in the 1820s.”

In Powell’s new account, Thérèse is at least placed firmly on the subcontinent for her birth and formative years, but the tacit assumption remains that she was European on both sides. Thérèse’s very names seemed gratifying proof that she had been a French aristocrat, and so her reputation as the original family beauty could be proudly passed down to Virginia Woolf and Thérèse’s many other descendants. What Virginia Woolf apparently never knew, because the nineteenth century had chosen to forget it, was that Thérèse was part Bengali.

That fact was uncovered only around the year 2000 by one of Virginia Woolf’s distant cousins, William Dalrymple, a prominent historian of the British in the Indian subcontinent. His book White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India documents how some Englishmen serving the East India Company became part of Indian society, speaking the local languages, dressing in the local clothes, and marrying the local women. This “early promiscuous mingling of races and ideas,” Dalrymple realized, had escaped both nationalist historians and postcolonialist critics because it was “on no one’s agenda and fitted nobody’s version of events.” In his introduction, Dalrymple writes,

 



This was something I became increasingly sensitive to when . . . I discovered that I was myself the product of a similar inter-racial liaison of the period, and that I thus had Indian blood in my veins. No one in my family seemed to know about this, though it should not have been a surprise: we had all heard stories of how our beautiful, dark-eyed Calcutta-born great-great-grandmother [that is, Sophia Pattle Dalrymple] . . . used to speak Hindustani with her sisters and was painted by Watts with a rakhi—a Hindu sacred thread—tied around her wrist. But it was only when I poked around the archives that I discovered she was descended from a Hindu Bengali woman from Chandernagore who converted to Catholicism and married a French officer in the 1780s.

Ambroise-Pierre-Antoine de l’Etang immigrated to Asia when France was barely clinging to its remaining possessions in the subcontinent, as England took over most of northern India. De l’Etang probably landed in the bustling Franco-Indian port of Pondicherry, and there he found the woman who would become his wife and the mother of his children, Thérèse Josephe Blin de Grincourt.

Given the beauty of Thérèse’s female descendants, it seems plausible that family legend is accurate and that she was a great beauty, but the only portrait that came down in the family was a miniature that Vanessa Stephen Bell wore in a locket as a young woman and seems to have been lost. As we shall see, Thérèse de l’Etang lived well into the photographic era when most families, even those of modest means, had their images captured for posterity. This paucity of portraits or photographs of Thérèse is, I would suggest, not incidental.

Thérèse’s beauty may well have caught de l’Etang’s eye, but her father would still have needed to come up with a significant dowry in order to tempt the extravagant young French aristocrat Quentin Bell paints for us. As the capitaine du port, Thérèse’s father was clearly a man of means as well as a prominent citizen, and the “de” in their name marked the Blin de Grincourts as part of the nobility. All the same, in Pondicherry, Mademoiselle de Grincourt would have had a lower status than the Chevalier de l’Etang, not because, or not just because, the young woman had Asian blood, but because the young man had been born in France. Those born in the homeland moved to the top of the social hierarchy in the French colonies, which was one reason why ambitious young men were drawn there. What part of Thérèse’s dowry derived from her maternal family we shall probably never know, but given the legendary wealth of late-eighteenth-century Indian noble families, it could have been considerable. The Indian legacy in the maternal family of Virginia Woolf was very probably monetary as well as genetic.

Antoine de l’Etang had once run the royal stud farm for Louis XVI and written a book on horse management, and when he moved on from Pondicherry to Lucknow to enter the service of the Nawab of Oudh, he found a very lucrative niche. Oudh (now usually known as Awadh) was a fabulously ancient, extremely rich princely state in the heartland of Bengal that had already come under the hegemony of the British East India Company. Horses had come into India from Mongolia, Turkey, and Persia in the sixteenth century when the Mughal invaders triumphed over the native Hindu armies, thanks largely to their cavalry. For Muslim rulers like the Nawab of Oudh, sovereign power was inseparably linked to horses, horse breeding, and equestrian skills.

We will probably never know exactly why King Louis XVI exiled the handsome master of his royal stud to a regiment in India, but it was clearly not a promotion. Tout compte fait, however, exile turned out to be a stroke of luck for Antoine de l’Etang. When the French Revolution broke out, he was safe in the vastness of India, and thus missed out not only on the Terror and the guillotine but on that final blow to his noble class—the ascendency of an upstart Corsican runt called Buonaparte. As for the legend of the chevalier and the queen, I wonder if it was not the well-calculated invention of a man with his way to make in a new world, a piece of cut-rate Alexandre Dumas energetically passed down in the family and finally gussied up for publication by those talented fantasists Virginia Woolf and Quentin Bell. Historians now tell us that the list of poor Marie Antoinette’s lissome lovers existed mainly in the sadistic imagination of her enemies, and it is an established fact that there was no devoted and delectable little page called Antoine de l’Etang to brighten the torture of the queen’s final months in the dungeons of the Conciergerie. Maybe the gift for storytelling was part of Antoine de l’Etang’s legacy.

The documentation on Thérèse Blin de Grincourt de l’Etang is still sparse, but it is now established that she had some five children, including two sons who seem to have died young, and then a number of grandchildren. But then, for reasons that have never been made clear, Madame de l’Etang moved from the India of her birth to France. Her husband, Antoine, remained in India and continued an active and successful life as a soldier and manager of equestrian centers, dying in 1840 in his very late seventies.

The probability is that Madame de l’Etang came to France as early as 1817 or 1818 and that she was accompanied by her daughter Adeline de l’Etang Pattle and Adeline’s children. Certainly, a miniature by a French artist of Mr. and Mrs. James Pattle and their children places Adeline in France in 1818, since the picture shows the three oldest Pattle daughters (Adeline, Julia, and Sarah) as little girls, plus baby Maria, who was born in 1818.

Adeline was courageous to accompany her mother, Thérèse, on the arduous voyage from India to France. Though only in her mid-twenties, Adeline had already given birth to four, possibly five, children over the previous eight years, losing two of them in infancy, including the precious baby boy, and she was already pregnant again with a child who turned out to be another girl—Maria. The voyage indicates that there was an exceptionally strong bond between Adeline and her mother, and this was to set a pattern for the generations to come. As we shall see throughout this book, the relationships among the women in Virginia Woolf’s maternal family—not just sisters and mothers and daughters, but aunts and nieces—were strong and close. The fiercely loving and protective relationship Virginia Woolf had with her sister Vanessa and Vanessa’s three children, which we will be examining in Part V, echoed a pattern of female relations that dated back at least to the early nineteenth century.

 



The Pattle family, 1818 

 


Leaving her homeland and her husband was a radical move for Thérèse de l’Etang. Perhaps, at the beginning, she planned only to pay a visit to a place she had heard so much about, found she liked the country and the climate, and decided to stay and provide a home away from home for her Pattle granddaughters. The education of the Pattle girls is one piece of information that came down loud and clear in the family lore, and it is important to note that both Thérèse and her daughter Adeline had lost their only sons and thus failed to continue the family name and provide male heirs. Persuaded that the future of the family depended on the granddaughters making advantageous marriages, the two women may have decided that the Pattle girls needed the social polish and purity of language that only Paris could supply. Whatever Thérèse’s reasons for emigrating, however, it obviously took energy, determination, and significant financial resources for a woman in her fifties to pack everything up and start a new life on a new continent.

Madame de l’Etang set up her household on a small estate in the little provincial town of Versailles, not far from Paris. Looked at prospectively rather than in hindsight, this was a far from inevitable choice of residence, but from this point the name Versailles becomes embroidered into the family history. Once settled in France, Madame de l’Etang proved herself able enough to manage her household and business affairs without husband and sons, and seems to have exercised a measure of matriarchal authority over her far-flung family in India and England. Over the years—and they were many, as we shall see—she received visits from one or more of Adeline’s seven daughters, and from at least one of her English great-granddaughters, Isabella Somers-Cocks, known as an adult as Lady Henry Somerset.

A poor little rich girl destined to inherit half of the fortune of her very rich papa, Charles Somers-Cocks, the 2nd Earl Somers, Isabella lived in awe and terror of her beautiful, worldly, and intensely ambitious mother, Virginia, Countess Somers, Adeline Pattle’s sixth daughter. Isabella looked forward to her visits to Madame de l’Etang, finding with her a freedom that she never knew at Eastnor Castle or the magnificent Somers London townhouse at Prince’s Gate. In the words of Lady Henry Somerset’s biographer Ros Black, on the modest estate in Versailles, under the benevolent eye of her very old Franco-Bengali great-grandmother, “Isabel reveled in the freedom to explore the woods, to spend time talking with the old lady, and to laugh, without censure, at the French Punch-and-Judy show.”

In the story of Thérèse Blin de Grincourt de L’Etang of Pondicherry, Awadh, and Versailles, these visits to Versailles by Lady Isabella Somers circa 1860 are of surprising importance. They anchor the fact that Thérèse de l’Etang was quite astonishingly long-lived. Her birth has been given as 1767, and her death was in 1866, which would have made her ninety-eight or ninety-nine when she died. This means that, if Isabella Somers could spend vacations with her great-grandmother, her first cousin, Julia Jackson (Virginia Woolf’s mother), born in 1846, might easily have done so too. Julia Stephen’s mother, Maria Pattle Jackson, was one of the Indian-born granddaughters sent back to Thérèse in Europe to be educated—Virginia Woolf refers to her grandmother, whom she knew very well, as “Dr Jackson’s half-French wife.”

Given the continuing influence of Madame de l’Etang over three generations and given that some of the Pattle women and even some of their children knew her personally, we can assume that her deep-rooted Indianness would have been clear to them—which perhaps is why there are no photographic images of her. The fine detail afforded by a daguerreotype might have revealed things about her appearance—the darkness of her skin, the abundance of her hair, the flash of her dark eyes—that were more Indian than French. A portrait would have risked telling a story that her family, transplanted from India to Europe and rising fast in the social hierarchy in England, did not wish to tell.

If the members of the de l’Etang–Pattle family chose to forget and conceal their mixed racial heritage, it was not just an example of individual family prejudice. It was the result of deeply rooted societal preference. As William Dalrymple points out in his book, “this [late-eighteenth-century] promiscuous mingling of races and ideas, modes of dress and ways of living, was something that was on no one’s agenda and suited no one’s version of events.” Only at the beginning of the twenty-first century was it possible for a descendant of Thérèse de l’Etang not only to uncover the facts of her biracial heritage but also to announce them happily to the world. In the times of Thérèse’s daughter Adeline de l’Etang Pattle, of her granddaughter Maria Pattle Jackson, of her great-granddaughter Julia Jackson Stephen, and even of her great-great-granddaughter Virginia Stephen Woolf, what we call multiculturalism was called miscegenation.

Today many of us like to celebrate evidence of a mixed racial heritage as a source of richness, but all through the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, a “black” Indian or Caribbean ancestress (it was usually a woman) was something that English people with strong connections to the empire—and there were many—consistently chose to bury. Lytton Strachey’s astonished protest in 1912 when his friend Leonard Woolf chose a “black” Sri Lankan protagonist for his first novel, The Village in the Jungle, was typical. After seven years as a colonial administrator in what was then Ceylon, Leonard Woolf—an English Jew, not incidentally—had learned to see the “natives” as people and even tragic “heroes.” His friend Lytton, in contrast, never made the “passage to India,” even though service in India over at least three generations had brought the Strachey family to eminence and affluence. As his letters document, when encountering “blacks,” be they jazz musicians or Indian diplomats, Lytton Strachey felt an instinctive revulsion, and he was far more typical of his generation of Englishmen than was Virginia Woolf’s husband.

What Thérèse Blin de Grincourt’s descendants chose to remember was that she had secured the handsome, dashing Chevalier Antoine de l’Etang as a husband, and for those set on rising to the top of society—Virginia, Countess Somers, Virginia Woolf’s great-aunt, for example, or George Duckworth, Virginia Woolf’s half-brother—the idea of aristocratic French ancestors was intoxicating. Madame de l’Etang and her residence in a dower (widow’s) house at Versailles could be spun into a story of a nobleman who had loved the queen and married one of her ladies before taking exile in India, and the name de l’Etang had a decidedly pleasant ring to it, much nicer than Pattle.

Thus, it was not by chance that Virginia Woolf’s mother called her second son Gerald de l’Etang Duckworth, and that that was how young Gerald liked to sign his name in his letters home to Mama from Eton College. When the older Duckworth son, George, and his noble wife, Lady Margaret Herbert, had a son, the child was christened, as Virginia Woolf sardonically noted in a letter, Henry Austen George Herbert de l’Etang Duckworth. Woolf, unlike her Eton- and Cambridge-educated brothers perhaps, had more than enough French to see that pairing the word étang, “pond,” with “duck” was a tad ridiculous.

I find it fascinating to realize that so many people in Virginia Woolf’s family knew firsthand that the family stories about the aristocratic French ancestors, the de l’Etangs, were at best partially true. On some level, they knew that Thérèse de Grincourt had, in her descendant William Dalrymple’s phrase, “Indian blood.” Maria Jackson certainly knew, which means that Julia Stephen—the daughter who was so close to her and who, like her sisters, was born in India—could easily have known too. And since Mrs. Maria Pattle Jackson lived with her daughter Julia’s family at Hyde Park Gate for most of her last decade, curious, story-loving little Virginia Stephen herself could have known. She could have gone upstairs for a courtesy visit to her invalid grandmother and idly said one day: “Grandmamma, tell me about your grandmamma. I hear she was French and very beautiful and lived in India and that I look rather like her. What was she like?”

We can be reasonably sure that such a conversation never happened. If it had, Virginia would have locked it away in memory and perhaps one day fashioned it into a story to amuse her husband, who knew India and wrote about it. Judging by a letter Virginia Woolf (then Stephen) wrote to her close friend Violet Dickinson in 1904, the story passed down in the family was that Thérèse de l’Etang was French. Virginia wrote to Violet that her family had received a visit from her first cousin Florence Fisher Maitland: “[Florence] said that my diamond and ruby ring was supposed to be precious and originally belonged to our great-great-grandmother, the Frenchwoman whose portrait Nessa wears in her locket. She [Florence] has a sapphire brooch which belonged to her for which she was offered five hundred pounds. She [Thérèse] was a rich old Lady, and most of our [presumably the Stephens’ and the Fishers’] things apparently descend from her and are old French.”

Racism was largely (though not entirely) foreign to both Virginia and Leonard, and for Virginia herself and her nephew Quentin Bell after her, it was cultural snobbery rather than social ambition that made so irresistible the story of a male ancestor carrying a miniature of the queen Marie Antoinette into his grave. As she makes plain in her famous novel Orlando, Woolf often wished she could leap back past the late Victorian era she had been born into, with its antimacassars and aspidistras and dumpy little monarch. Her goal as a writer and salonnière was to recapture the elegance, wit, and sexual abandon of France under the ancien régime, and her elective affinities moved from Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, and Sir Thomas Browne in England to Voltaire, Madame du Deffand, and Choderlos de Laclos in France.

It rejoiced Virginia Woolf’s aesthetic soul to imagine that, before there had been Maria Pattle Jackson, a grandmother she had known only too well and who talked of dogs and digestion, not Pondicherry and Lucknow, there had been the Chevalier de l’Etang, galloping along the Grande Allée next to the queen’s carriage, sweeping off his hat, and daring to kiss his gloved hand.

❧ 

From the information we have, it seems that the child with whom Thérèse de l’Etang was most closely allied was her daughter Julie-Antoinette-Adeline, and it was the marriage of this daughter to James Pattle that would define the maternal ancestors of Virginia Woolf as quintessentially English, with only charming tinges of French. When, as we shall see in the next chapter, the Pattles decided to move their whole families out of the India where most of them had been born and brought up, they settled in Kensington and the Isle of Wight, not Versailles and Paris. The transformation of Julie-Antoinette-Adeline de l’Etang into Adeline Pattle, and of her sister Virginie de l’Etang into Virginia Beadle, illustrates the rapid Anglicization of a Franco-Indian family in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Julie, Antoinette, and Virginie are names deliciously redolent of the ancien régime, but Adeline could be said in a solidly English way and Virginie easily became Virginia, so these were the names passed down in the family to Virginia Woolf. She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen and, until her marriage to Leonard Woolf, she used the initials AVS to distinguish her from her older sister Vanessa, whose initials were VS.

A striking portrait of Adeline de l’Etang as a young woman has recently come to light. It shows an exceptionally beautiful woman, elegantly clothed and hatted, with a long, oval face, dark eyes, dark hair, and thick dark eyebrows she may well have inherited from her Bengali maternal ancestors. The portrait strongly supports the family tradition that, like her mother Thérèse de l’Etang, Adeline the first was very beautiful, and her beauty may well have attracted the attention of James Pattle. However, following the death of their two brothers, Adeline and her sister or sisters became joint heiresses to the estate of their wealthy parents, so the de l’Etang–Pattle marriage was as much an alliance as a love match. Two prominent colonialist families in India, the one equipped with the elegance and grandeur of the fading French aristocracy, the other solidly part of the rising English bourgeoisie, with serious money, were combining their assets. James’s father, Thomas Pattle, had been with the East India Company in the glory days when the company was taking over one Indian kingdom after another, and not incidentally earning fabulous profits for its shareholders. Thomas Pattle made a very large fortune, which he was able to pass on to his eldest son, James. 

 



Adeline de l’Etang Pattle 

 


Virginia Woolf, in her introduction to Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Women by Julia Margaret Cameron, states that James Pattle, Julia’s father, was one of those thorough bad hats that Great Britain happily bequeathed to her colonies. Woolf got this salacious story from the father of her good friend Ethel Smyth, who had heard it years earlier back in India, but this is another piece of Pattle oral history that turns out to be wrong. A recent contribution to the Wikipedia article on Adeline Pattle by her direct descendant Deborah Spooner establishes that Ethel Smyth’s father was confusing James Pattle with a rapscallion younger brother. 

Far from being a drunken rascal, James Pattle was a highly respectable public servant and a pillar of the English administration in Bengal. He and Adeline were married in Murshidabad, where James was a presiding judge, but he had moved to Calcutta when he was promoted up the legal hierarchy. In Calcutta, the James Pattle family lived in the exclusive neighborhood of Chowringhee, in a house so magnificent that it subsequently became the episcopal palace. James also seems to have been quite the family man, since he and Adeline had eleven children, ten daughters and one son. Of these, seven survived to adulthood—Adeline Marie, Julia Margaret, Sarah (or Sara) Monkton, Maria Theodosa, Louisa Colbrooke, Virginia, and Sophia Rickett—all, it will be noted, girls.

The sex of the surviving Pattle children mattered. When it came to the inheritance of estates, English law endorsed male primogeniture, whereby the eldest or only son inherited all or most of his father’s estate. If there was no son, however, and no entail on an heir male, the daughters of a marriage divided their father’s estate equally among them. The Pattle daughters were thus heiresses, though just how large a fortune they jointly inherited is one of the hard facts about the Pattles yet to be established.

James Pattle died in 1845, and according to Deborah Spooner, his dying wish was to be buried in the family plot in Saint Giles’ Church, Camberwell, alongside his mother. Adeline determined to honor her husband’s wishes and take his body back to England. Her teenage daughters Virginia and Sophia would go with her. The passage to and from India in the early nineteenth century was long, arduous, and full of risk, but the Pattle women had set sail for Europe before, and Adeline de l’Etang Pattle was a woman made of strong stuff. Within months of her husband’s death, she found a buyer for their magnificent house in Chowringhee, sold off most of its accoutrements, and supervised the packing of the rest, including James Pattle’s corpse, sealed up and preserved in a barrel of rum, as was standard for families who could afford it. Adeline and her daughters then set off on the arduous thousand-mile overland journey to the port of Pondicherry, whence they took ship for the even more arduous passage to France.

But if Adeline de l’Etang Pattle, age fifty-two, set sail with hopes of reuniting with her mother and making a new life in a new country surrounded by her children and grandchildren, those hopes were quickly dashed. It seems that the bung stopping up the cask of rum bearing James Pattle was not properly driven home. Thus, according to one version of the story, one night at sea, the cask suddenly burst and disgorged its contents. Adeline emerged from her cabin and, faced with the ghastly sight of her husband’s pickled remains, went mad and died. The sailors, who were not a fussy lot, scooped up as much of the rum as they could.

For many decades, variations on this story of Adeline Pattle and the barrel of rum made the rounds of Anglo-Indian society, and one was related, firsthand, to Virginia Woolf in 1918 by Lady Strachey, Lytton Strachey’s elderly mother. Lady Strachey had spent most of her early life in India, and she knew the Pattle family well. In a casual chat with Mrs. Woolf, she reminisced about “beautiful dead Pattles and Dalrymples . . . how old Pattle shot out of his tank and thereby killed his wife who thought him come back to life again, how the sailors drank him dry on the voyage to England.”

The story of James Pattle and the barrel of rum is so marvelous, you can see why his descendants told it, with embellishments, from one generation to another, but let us pause for a moment to consider the grievous plight of Virginia and Sophia Pattle in the middle of the Atlantic. These two teenagers now presumably had to find two empty, sound barrels for the bodies of both parents, plus, amid the wrath of the ship’s crew, enough rum to fill both casks. Then, on their arrival in England, after visiting Grandma in Versailles, they had to have both corpses conveyed to Camberwell for a decent burial under a proper headstone—all this before turning to the important business of finding husbands.

Sophia and Virginia Pattle were very young, but they coped, though, alas, we do not know how—revealing themselves worthy of their maternal heritage. The Pattle women, if you ask me, were pretty cool customers, and the more I think about Adeline Pattle, the less I am inclined to believe that she was terrified into madness and death. Confronted with the shattered barrel, the pool of rum, and the decomposing corpse of her husband, Adeline was a woman to curse the servant back in Calcutta who had not driven the bung home and demand another barrel of rum from the ship’s captain. Given the death of her husband and the hectic pace of her activities in the previous months, she may have taken sail in a state of mental and physical exhaustion and fallen victim to some stray infection—but that sort of run-of-the-mill death does not make a fun story. On my reading of the sparse evidence, Adeline the first passed on not only beauty but energy, determination, pragmatism, and managerial skills to her female descendants—among them the successful writer, real estate investor, and publisher Virginia Woolf.


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