Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Corpse in the Cask (James Pattle)

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996), p. 87.

'Oh the old Pattles! They're always bursting out of their casks.'[19] The reference is to the sensational end of Julia Jackson's grandfather, James Pattle, notorious liar and drinker and member of the Bengal Civil Service, who reputedly drank himself to death and whose body, sent back to England in a cask of rum, exploded out of its container during a storm. The shock drove his widow mad and she died on the journey home; the sailors drank the rum. This Pattle story was always popping up: on a visit in 1918 to the redoubtable Lady Strachey Virginia and Leonard heard 'how old Pattle shot out of his tank, & thereby killed his wife, who thought him come to life again'.[20] There was an even more sensational version of the same story in the reminiscences of Ethel Smyth, which Virginia read in 1919, long before they met. Virginia relayed it with relish in her essay on Julia Margaret Cameron, and it's there again, a family heirloom, in Quentin Bell's biography -- though a less sensational and possibly truer version does not mention the widow's insanity, and maintains that it was James Pattle's brother, Colonel William (known as 'Jemmy Blazes', and leader of a famous charge against the Amirs of Sindh in 1843), who drank himself to death.[21]

19. VW to Violet Dickinson, [13 Apr 1937], The Letters of Virginia Woolf, 6 vols., Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, eds. (Hogarth Press, 1975-80), VI, 3235, p. 120.
20. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 5 vols., Anne Oliver Bell and Andrew McNeillie, eds. (Hogarth Press, 1977-84), 18 Jan 1918, I, p. 107.
21. For the two versions, see Boyd, pp. 14, 143. [I couldn't find in the notes and bibliography any further details on the Boyd reference. --bc]

Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography (NY: Harvest Books, 1974), p. 14.

James Pattle [...] was, we are told, a quite extravagantly wicked man. He was known as the greatest liar in India; he drank himself to death; he was packed off home in a cask of spirits, which cask, exploding, ejected his unbottled corpse before his widow's eyes, drove her out of her wits, set the ship on fire and left it stranded in the Hooghly.

The story has been told many times. Some parts of it may be true.