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An unusual annotation in Bengal records from 1777 recalls the infamous life of Catherine Grand

An unusual annotation in Bengal records from 1777 recalls the infamous life of Catherine Grand

On July 10, 1777, a marriage was recorded in the Bengal Parish Registers between Francis Grand, a writer in the East India Company’s service, and Varle of Chandernagore in present-day West Bengal. Sometime afterwards, the register was annotated in a different hand “This is the famous Madame Grand, afterwards wife of Talleyrand”.

Register entry for marriage of Francis Grand and Catherine Varle. Photo credit: India Office, Bengal Baptisms, Marriages, Burials (1755-1783)

Annotations of this sort in official registers are highly unusual and someone thought Madame Grand famous (or infamous) enough to add the note. So, what was the story of Madame Grand?

Nöel Catherine Werlée (sometimes Worlée, Verlée or Varle) was born in Tranquebar in present-day Tamil Nadu – sources put her date of birth as November 21, 1761 or 1762. She was the daughter of the Captain of the Port, Peter John Werlée, and had both Danish and French heritage.

She met George Francis Grand in Bengal at Ghireti House, home of Monsieur Chevalier, Governor of the French Settlement at Chandernagore, and the couple formed an attachment. At the time of her marriage to Grand in 1777, Catherine would have been in her mid-teens. In Narrative of a life of a gentleman, Grand wrote:

  …never did a union commence with more brightening prospects. On our parts, it was pure and disinterested and blessed with the sincerest attachment. 

Estranged relationship

Despite settling down to married life in Calcutta, the couple’s happiness was not to last. The young Catherine Grand came to the attention of the notorious politician Philip Francis, and on December 8, 1778, Grand returned home to the news that Francis had been apprehended in his house after attempting to seduce his wife. Grand acted swiftly to banish Catherine to her family in Chandernagore and to successfully sue Francis for “criminal conversation” or adultery in court, receiving a judgement of 50,000 sicca rupees.

Catherine Grand appears to have lived at Hooghly under the protection of Philip Francis during 1779. Perhaps having been rejected by her husband she felt she had little choice. The affair was not to last, and Madame Grand did not stay in India, leaving for Europe in December 1780. By 1783 she was in Paris, where she was painted by Élisabeth Vigeé Le Brun.

Sometimes described as a courtesan, Catherine Grand moved between London and Paris during the French Revolution, rumoured to be supported by a number of wealthy men. By 1797 she was living with French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.

Catherine Grand was divorced from her husband in absentia in 1798, and in 1802 she married Talleyrand, supposedly at the behest of Napoleon in order that the wives of foreign dignitaries could be received by her. As a result of her marriage, she became Princess de Benevento and later Princess de Talleyrand.

After their marriage, the Talleyrands settled at Neuilly in France. The marriage did not seem to suit them and they began to lead separate lives. By 1815 the couple was estranged, with Catherine living in London, England, although she continued to receive financial support from Talleyrand. She returned to Paris later in life and lived at Auteil, where she died on December 10, 1835.

Lesley Shapland is a Cataloguer, India Office Records.

This article first appeared on the British Library’s Untold Lives Blog.

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