Monthly Archives: January 2021

January in review

Time always seems to take on an elastic quality in January; the month can appear to stretch so that, by its end, it’s hard to believe we haven’t really moved on and are still stuck in the middle of winter. The sense of time taking on a different meaning in January has certainly been reinforced by how much seems to have taken place in the outside world in the space of thirty-one days; already the month is divided up, in my mind at least, into the “before” and “after” of major political events and the reimposition, here, of a national lockdown. It has been a month in which feelings of fear and sadness have oscillated with those of hope and optimism. January 2021 has, it seems, been the entirety of 2020—its best and its worst—distilled down into a single month.

On a more practical level, time has become increasingly precious this month as my partner and I, like millions of other parents, juggle work, home schooling, and the challenging joy of 24/7 childcare. Here, we have returned to a pattern we adopted last spring: we divide the day into two four-hour shifts (08:30–12:30 and 13:00–17:00) for work and home schooling/childcare, come together to cook and eat at mealtimes, and try to keep on top of emails when our daughter has gone to bed (although that point in the evening has been creeping ever later). For us, this is the least-worst model, but it is, of course, far from ideal—while the time available for work has halved, the amount of work remains the same. It is a familiar frustration.

I was very fortunate at the beginning of January to take part in a virtual writing retreat organised by Dr Joanne Norcup for the Historical Geography Research Group of the RGS-IBG. The retreat—which operated via Twitter and Zoom—was a great opportunity for participants to set writing goals, report on their progress, and, at the end of the retreat, to discuss strategies and to share hints and tips. I have tried, as far as possible, to maintain the momentum the retreat gave me. The retreat was also helpful in reminding me that, while the length of my working day has been halved as a result of home schooling, I am still able to devote four uninterrupted hours to research and writing each working day—something that feels like a real privilege under the circumstances.

Progress reduced to its basic unit of measurement: words per day.

Unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, I have been increasingly less productive (at least in terms of raw word count) as time has progressed. In November, I was averaging 930 words per day. By December, this had reduced to 865, and in January it was down to 650. By and large, this is a simple function of having less time each day in which to work, but is also—perhaps inevitably—the consequence of the accumulating fatigue that each week of home schooling adds. Trying to write a historical monograph in four-hour bursts is also far from ideal; I find it takes me at least an hour each day to get back into the rhythm and thinking from the previous day and that I only really begin to hit my stride when it’s time to stop. All that being said, I am closing in on the 25,000-word mark. Although this is a welcome (although entirely arbitrary) milestone, it is giving me some cause for concern; currently each of those 25,000 words is part of the book’s first empirical chapter which is, itself, a long way from being finished. At this stage, however, I am putting that worry to the back of my mind and focusing on moving the book forward, certain in the knowledge that a good deal of restructuring will be required at a later stage. Looking ahead to February, my main task will be to bring this Caribbean chapter to a final close and to turn, then, to follow Macintosh to India.

Found in translation

Reading almost any historical source can, at times, feel like an exercise in translation, as you work to make sense of a document written using a syntax and grammar, or in a particular social context, that might render it opaque. This metaphor, of course, becomes literal when dealing with sources written in another language—and the task of interpretation almost invariably become more complex still. I was reminded of these difficulties recently when trying to make sense of a legal deed, written in Paris in 1781, that concerns Macintosh’s involvement with Catherine Grand, who, in the late 1770s, had been at the centre of a scandalous and widely publicised trial in India following an affair she had had with Philip Francis, an East India Company colleague of her husband, George Grand.

Catherine Grand in 1783, by Vigée Le Brun. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 50.135.2.

Under circumstances that I do not yet fully understand, Macintosh became involved in ensuring Catherine’s welfare after her separation from George (this may have been at the request of Francis, who seems to have been keen to end the affair and to dispatch Catherine to Europe as rapidly as possible). While some historical sources suggest that Macintosh accompanied Catherine on her return voyage, I have not been able (thus far) to establish the accuracy of that claim. What is undisputed, however, is that on that journey Catherine struck up an intimate friendship with a Madras civil servant, Thomas Lewin, and that the pair enjoyed a brief romance, living together first in London and then in Paris. The relationship was short-lived, but Lewin provided an annuity for Catherine to afford her a degree of financial security.

Extract from a deed of annuity, 9 December 1781. Archives départementales de Vaucluse, 2 E Titres de famille 85.

I knew that the deed (above)—which I had found among Macintosh’s papers some years ago—concerned this annuity, but I had struggled to read it due to 1) my woefully limited French, 2) some contractions I was unfamiliar with, and 3) the particular legal phrasing employed in parts of it. Keen not to admit defeat, I wrote to a number of historians of eighteenth-century France and was eventually put in touch with the freelance researcher Dominique Lussier, a regular contributor to the work of the Voltaire Foundation, who was kind enough to agree to produce a transcription and a translation of the deed.

Even with Dominique’s help, however, parts of the deed resisted straightforward interpretation, being either obviously in error (it describes Catherine as Macintosh’s brother, for example), or hard to disentangle as a consequence of its use of long sentences with many conditional clauses and legal phrases. In this last context, I was, on the recommendation of a colleague, able to draw on the insights of a legal historian, Michael Lobban, who was kind enough to cast his eye over the deed and offer me his reading of it.

Although I still have some work to do on the document, it does, at least, establish Macintosh’s connection with Catherine unambiguously. The deed shows that the annuity had been purchased by “a close relative of the aforementioned Mrs Grand that did not wish to be named [une personne proche parente de lad. De. Grand qui n’a voulu être nommée]” (i.e., Lewin). The deed also imposed conditions, and stated that Catherine was permitted to draw on the annuity throughout her life only “If she does not take Holy orders and does not go back to her husband [Si elle n’embrasse pas l’état religieux et ne se reunit point avec son mari]”. If Grand were to fail to satisfy these conditions, the deed seems to indicate that the annuity would pass to Macintosh.