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.

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