Two hundred and thirty-eight years ago, in 1784 CE, a handsome 27-year-old Frenchman reached the shores of Madras (now Chennai). He arrived in India with a racy story and went on to become the link between India and English writer Virginia Woolf, one of the literary greats of the 20th century.
And what was the intriguing story that brought Antoine Ambrose Pierre De L’Etang to India? De L’Etang was banished from the Palace of Versailles by the King of France. He was no more than a Page of Honour when he fell in love with Queen Marie Antoinette and soon had become her lover.
We do not know much about the early years of Antoine De L’Etang except that he was born in 1757 CE in Versailles, to a French cavalryman, the same year Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah lost Bengal to Robert Clive. Thirteen years later, in 1770 CE, when the 15-year-old Austrian Princess, Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette) Josepha Johanna married Louis-Auguste, the future French monarch, Louis XVI, Antoine De L’Etang was employed as the Page of Honour to Marie Antoinette, on her arrival at the Palace of Versailles. For him, it was love at first sight!
De l’Etang remained obsessed with the Queen even after he was promoted from Page Boy to Cavalryman in the royal stud. In time, gossip reached the ears of Louis XVI, who was already overwhelmed because of the many love affairs of his Queen, and he banished De L’Etang from France.
It All Began In Pondicherry
We pick up the tale in 1784 CE, when De L’Etang arrived in India, heart-broken and forced to start life afresh. Soon after he got here, he was appointed as a Sergeant in the French Army, in the then French settlement of Pondicherry. Here, he married an India-born Anglo-French girl, Therese Blin de Grincourt, who through her grandmother had part Bengali ancestry.
Therese and De L’Etang had five children – two sons and three daughters. Both sons died young and unmarried. Their three daughters were Julia Adeline Antoinette De L’Etang Impey, Adeline Marie De L’Etang Pattle and Virginia De L’Etang Beadle. All three of them were married to very influential men with affiliations to the British East India Company (EIC).
Over the next century, successive generations of De L’Etang descendants moved back and forth between India, France, England, Switzerland and even Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Many of them became popular public figures in their respective professions.
Arrival In Calcutta
After the execution of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in 1793 CE, Antoine De L’Etang left the French Army and Pondicherry, and after a bit of a meandering reached Calcutta with his family. In time, he met Julius Soubise, a slave-turned-black British gentleman in Calcutta, who was running a fencing and riding school for men and women in the city. He also owned and operated a repository for horses. Both he and De L’Etang became business partners.
In 1798 CE, when Soubise fell while trying to tame a horse and died from that injury, De L’Etang took over the riding school and repository, combined with a veterinary business. He added an auction room for the sale and purchase of pet animals and fancy goods but he wound up the business in a couple of years in favour of a much more honourable posting.
First Veterinary Surgeon In The EIC
In 1802, De L’Etang accepted the position of a Veterinary Surgeon, probably the first such position within the East India Company, at the newly formed Household Cavalry Regiment at Ballygunge, Calcutta. (The Household Cavalry Regiment later became the Governor-General’s Bodyguard or GGBG, and is at present the President’s Bodyguard or PBG, the elite and senior-most household cavalry regiment of the Indian Army).
In 1806, De L’Etang resigned from his post and went to Lucknow to work for the Nawab of Awadh as the Superintendent of the Nawab’s Stud and a Veterinary Surgeon. However, soon he returned to the services of the GGBG and stayed there until his death.
De L’Etang’s Legacy
If at all history should remember Antoine De L’Etang, it would be not for his love for Marie Antoinette or his banishment from France to India. It would be for the family he raised and his descendants, who by blood and by marriage were luminaries in the civil, military, judicial and creative fields, in both imperial India and England. The most illustrious of them, of course, was Virginia Woolf.
Most of De L’Etang’s well-known relatives were descendants of his seven granddaughters, who were raised in Calcutta. Called the ‘Pattle sisters’, they were the children of De L’Etang’s second daughter Adeline Marie and her husband James Pattle, of the Bengal Civil Service and Senior Judge of the Court of Appeal. He was an influential and early member of the then just-formed Bengal Club (which still exists in Kolkata and is popular among the city’s elite) in line with the London clubs in Pall Mall.
De L’Etang’s great-great-granddaughter, Virginia Woolf, was one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century. Born in England, she was a pioneer in the use of ‘stream of consciousness’ as a narrative technique. But it wasn’t only her innovative writing style that made her famous. Her novels, essays, biographies and letters mirrored the society in which she lived and explored the key motifs of modernism, which included the subconscious, time, perception and the impact of war. Woolf is best known for her works Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927).
Among De L’Etang’s famous relatives in India was James Prinsep, Orientalist and antiquarian, best remembered for deciphering the Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts of ancient India. It was due to this breakthrough that scholars, for instance, were able to read Emperor Ashoka’s edicts.
Another noted relative was James Fitzjames Stephen, creator of The Indian Evidence Act 1872, one of the pillars of Indian jurisprudence.
De L’Etang died on 1st December 1840 at the age of 83. He never left India, not because his King had ordered him not to, but because he wanted to be buried alongside his beloved son Eugene, who had died at the age of 25. Today, both father and son are interred in the local Buxar cemetery in Bihar.
Cover Image: Susan Mary Rayner Green
ABOUT THE AUTHOR-
– Devasis Chattopadhyay writes for various Indian newspapers, magazines and online portals. He specialises in writing on facets of Public Relations & Communications and Urban History, mostly relating to Kolkata.