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.