In 1774 Directors of the East India Company who were hostile to the then Governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, sent three new councillors, General Clavering, Colonel George Monson and Philip Francis, to Calcutta, with instructions to undermine Hastings’s authority. Joseph Fowke (1716-1800) sailed down the Hooghly to greet them before they could reach Calcutta. Joseph had a plan to ensnare Hastings in a prosecution for corruption. Philip Francis, the youngest and brightest of the triumphirate, became Joseph’s closest associate in this conspiracy – which failed. The following year, Joseph Fowke and Maharajah Nuncomar, a wealthy Hindu banker, were tried for conspiracy and Nuncomar was hanged.
Philip Francis stayed on in Calcutta, as did Joseph Fowke. One evening in 1777 Francis was caught red-handed with a ladder up against the window of the beautiful wife of a young company employee, George François Grand. A duel was narrowly avoided and Catherine Grand ended up as the mistress of Francis, kept in style in a house up the Hooghly River for the next three years. She eventually returned to London, then became a courtesan in pre-revolutionary France, fleeing back to England when the revolution started in 1789. In 1794 she returned yet again to Paris where she married Prince Talleyrand, Napoleon’s famous foreign minister.
‘La Belle Indolente’ was not stupid or she would never have snaredTalleyrand, but she was notorious for her naïve repartee. Once Tallyrand was a giving a dinner for a M, Denon, recently returned from Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, and Tallyrand had encouraged his wife to read a chapter from Denon’s account so as to be able to converse about his travels. She picked up Robinson Crusoe by mistake. During the dinner she remarked to Denon what a pleasure it had been to read about his trip – in particular his encounter with Man Friday.
Catherine’s portrait is by Vigée le Brun, 1755-1842, herself a very remarkable woman, painted at a time when Vigée was much patronised by Mairie Antoinette and while Catherine was a courtisan in Paris .