Fabulous Forebears

This is a brief introduction to some of Virginia Woolf’s many forebears through her mother, Julia Stephen’s, line of descent.  

I have come to think of them as fabulous, not only because many were very colourful and larger than life, but also because they were often the subject of fables and stories. Some of them consciously invented and re-invented their own fabulous identities. These stories were passed down the generations, becoming more sensational with each retelling; gathering accretions through the years which sometimes gained the status of accepted fact. Woolf recrafted and retold these stories, especially those about her great-great-grandfather, the Chevalier de L’Étang, or her great-grandfather, James Pattle. Equally interesting are the family stories which she did not tell, which were forgotten, consciously or unconsciously suppressed, or maybe never known, but which were just as fabulous, such as the exploits of her great-grandfather, the Free Mariner George Jackson. These were as amazing as anything Woolf imagined for Orlando. 

Virginia Woolf – maternal ancestry

Left, bottom: Julia’s mother, Maria (Mia) Jackson née Pattle; left, middle, Mia’s parents, Adeline and James Pattle; left, top: Adeline’s father, Ambroise Antoine de L’Étang, the Chevalier.

Middle: Virginia Woolf on her mother, Julia Stephen’s, knee.

Right, bottom: Julia’s father, Dr John Jackson; right, top: John’s father, George Jackson, the Free Mariner.

Julia Stephen

Julia Stephen with Virginia on her knee.

Almost at the end of her life, Woolf was still continuing her exploration of her own identity. Her memoir, A Sketch of the Past, was started, she claims in her opening sentence, precisely on ‘Sunday 16th April 1939’. 

She begins by retrieving her earliest memory of her mother. She is aware of the gaps in her recollection: she cannot remember how or where they were travelling to or from, perhaps St Ives. She had already creatively transformed such memories and stories into fiction especially in To the Lighthouse. But here, in what purports to be a factual memoir, she is also self-consciously crafting her material for artistic effect, blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction; reality and fable. 

This is evocative writing, but it is very difficult for a biographer. It is often almost impossible to ascertain what actually happened. However, what is as important as any question of strict accuracy, is the poetic truth of the story; what it tells us of how the people involved were perceived, and what it suggests about the personality and motivation of the story teller.

Ambroise Pierre Antoine de L’Étang

Virginia Woolf often playfully linked herself to her great-great grandfather, Ambroise Pierre Antoine de L’Étang, who married Thérèse Josephe Blin de Grincourt in Pondicherry, a French enclave in India, in 1788. This is one of the very few uncontested ‘facts’ about them. Ambroise Pierre Antoine de L’Étang, more usually known in the family as the Chevalier, was a master story-teller, endlessly recreating himself and the story of his life, including his supposed closeness to Marie Antoinette just before the French Revolution. He changed sides and worked for the British East India Company and for the Nawab of Oudh. Thérèse’s background and life were just as colourful. She lived much of her later life in Versailles where she looked after many of her grandchildren. For their amazing story see Chapter 2 in A Vision of Beauty, my biography of Julia Stephen. 

James and Adeline Pattle

The Chevalier and Thérèse’s daughter, Adéline, married James Pattle who had a reputation as a remarkable teller of tall tales and, by some accounts, as ‘the greatest liar in India’. 

No tale could be taller or more fabulous than that of the deaths of James and Adeline – the story of the barrel that burst, which fascinated Virginia Woolf and was passed on through the family becoming more and more sensational and lurid with each retelling:

[James Pattle] was a gentleman of marked, but doubtful, reputation, who after living a riotous life and earning the title of ‘the biggest liar in India’, finally drank himself to death and was consigned to a cask of rum to await shipment to England. The cask was stood outside the widow’s bedroom door. In the middle of the night she heard a violent explosion, rushed out, and found her husband, having burst the lid off the coffin, bolt upright menacing her in death as he had menaced her in life. ‘The shock sent her off her head then and there, poor thing, and she died raving.’ It is the father of Miss Ethel Smyth who tells the story (Impressions that Remained), and he goes on to say that, after ‘Jim Blazes’ had been nailed down again and shipped off, the sailors drank the liquor in which the body was preserved, ‘and by Jove, the rum ran out and got alight and set the ship on fire! And while they were trying to extinguish the flames she ran on a rock, blew up, and drifted ashore just below the Hooghly. And what do you think the sailors said? “That Pattle had been such a scamp that the devil wouldn’t let him out of India!”’. 

Virginia Woolf ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’ 1926 (E4, 375-376). 

James and Adeline’s stories are told in Chapters 3 and 4 of A Vision of Beauty.

John and Maria (Mia) Jackson  

Equally interesting, I think, are the stories which were not told, or not listened to – the fables which were not constructed as part of family history. In Woolf’s case many of these were stories of her grandfather, John Jackson. He left his home in Lincolnshire, aged 26, and set sail for Calcutta to take up a post as Assistant Surgeon with the East India Company. He remained in India pursuing his medical career for the next 25 years. It was here that he met and married Maria Pattle, usually known as Mia, one of the seven strikingly attractive daughters of James and Adeline.

Julia Stephen born 1846, Calcutta

Town and port of Calcutta (1848) by Sir Charles D’Oyly

John and Mia Jackson’s daughter, Julia, was born in 1846 in the vibrant cosmopolitan port of Calcutta. She would grow up to become Mrs Julia Stephen and Virginia Woolf’s mother. Like her older sisters, Adeline and Mary, she was brought up in France and in England. For the story of Julia’s childhood and the Jackson family in India and in England see especially Chapters 3, 4 and 5 of A Vision of Beauty.

George Jackson

An image thought to be of George Jackson, family possession.

But Virginia Woolf seems to have had little interest in John Jackson’s story or the exploits of the rest of his family. If she had explored this side of her ancestry she would have uncovered possibly the most amazing story of all – that of her fabulous great-grandfather, the Free Mariner, George Jackson.

According to family story George left his home in Gainsborough Lincolnshire and ran away to sea when he was 14 years old ending up in India. Some 24 adventurous years later, when he married Mary Howard in Calcutta in 1796, he was recorded as being a ‘Captain of the Country Service’. Officers on Country Ships were called Free Mariners because as well as trading for the owner of the ship, and possibly for the East India Company as well, they negotiated lucrative deals on their own behalf. They were skilled sailors and independent, resourceful buccaneers. Their cargoes were mostly cloth from India, tea and porcelain from China, and teak, opium and local foods where they could get them. 

The Princess Royal

The East Indiaman ‘Princess Royal’ 1770.

Typical of his voyages is that on the Princess Royal. George Jackson is listed as First Officer leaving India in December 1785 for a round trip to China. When they sailed back to Calcutta almost three years later in October 1788, he was Captain. 

Thankfully there was a resident story-teller on board. John Pope, the third officer, only 14 when they set sail, was an educated, observant young man who wrote frequent, detailed letters to a friend in India, which have been preserved. 

For George Jackson’s story see Chapter 1 in A Vision of Beauty.


To find out more…

To find out more about all of Virginia Woolf’s fabulous forebears, especially her mother, read A Vison of Beauty: A Biography of Julia Prinsep Stephen.


Picture credits

  1. Virginia Woolf photographed by George Charles Beresford, 1902. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND-3.0 https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw08081/Virginia-Woolf (accessed 19/04/21).
  2. Virginia Woolf on her mother, Julia Stephen’s, knee. Leslie Stephen photograph album, 36f, Mortimer Rare Book Collection, MS 00005, ©Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, Massachusetts.
  3. Town and port of Calcutta by Charles D’Oyly. © British Library Board. http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/019xzz000000666u00005000.html (accessed 17/04/21).
  4. The East Indiaman ‘Princess Royal’ 1770 by John Cleveley the Elder.  ©The National Maritime Museum. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND. https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/15037.html (accessed 19/02/21).
  5. All Other images: family possessions.