The Woman Behind Talleyrand
Princess Dorothea of Courland was born in 1793, daughter of the last Duchess of Courland. Her father is a matter of dispute — a running theme in this story. Ostensibly it was Peter Biron, the senile 69-year-old Duke of Courland. But it could just as easily have been Count Alexander Batowski, her mother’s lover.
Despite being born a princess of Courland, Dorothea didn’t grow up there. When her father sold Courland to Catherine the Great for two million rubles, he established a lavish court at his Prussian estate, Sagan.¹ There, Dorothea watched her older sisters make less-than-stellar marriages, each desperate to escape the loveless home life created by their selfish mother. Wilhelmina, for example, married a penniless French count…then cheated on him with her mother’s latest lover.
Dorothea’s tyrannical governess made her life hell, whipping her and forcing her to “run naked in the icy cold of a Prussian winter.” ² As a result, she was sad, withdrawn, and frequently sick.
Dorothea later said, “I remember so perfectly how I longed to die…” ³
It was her mother’s lover who finally realized she couldn’t read or write and decided to teach her. Within a week, he realized she wasn’t just a grumpy little girl — she was a borderline genius. Not only did she start reading in English, French, and German, but she excelled at math and fell in love with astronomy.
The more she learned, the more she wanted to hang out with adults. As a pre-teen, she established her own version of her mother’s well-known salon, gathering interesting people to talk about culture, history, and philosophy.
A Mother’s Dirty Trick
But the Napoleonic wars disrupted Dorothea’s stable life.
She fled from Napoleon’s invading army, staying with the exiled Bourbons in Mittau (in present-day Latvia). When Napoleon made peace with Emperor Alexander I, she settled with her mom in Saxony. There, in 1808, Alexander I dropped by for a visit.
With him was a young French aide, Count Edmond de Talleyrand-Périgord.
If the name Talleyrand rings a bell, it’s because Edmond’s uncle was the famous former bishop and French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.
Talleyrand had no heir, so the bulk of his estate would pass to Edmond — and he wanted Edmond to have a wife before he came into that inheritance.
On Talleyrand’s behalf, Alexander I asked the Duchess of Courland to greenlight a marriage between Dorothea and Edmond.
There was just one problem.
The duchess had always said Dorothea would have final approval on any proposed marriage — and ever since childhood, a former tutor had convinced her she was destined to marry Prince Adam Czartoryski.
So her mom tricked Dorothea into believing Adam was engaged to someone else, complete with fake letters from Warsaw. Dorothea believed her mother and married Edmond on April 22, 1809.
Two days later, Edmond rode off to join his regiment. Dorothea and her mom went to Paris and stayed with Edmond’s uncle, the famous Talleyrand. He instantly began an affair with Dorothea’s mom.
A Marriage of True Minds
In Paris, Dorothea became a model of good behavior. As one of Empress Marie Louise’s ladies in waiting, she had every opportunity to participate in the schemes and affairs so common at court.
She refused, earning Napoleon’s respect.
In 1812, her mother left the French court and went back to Saxony. Without his mistress, Talleyrand began to pay more attention to her daughter, Dorothea — and as it turns out, they fascinated each other.
Dorothea was in awe of his wit and wisdom. He, in turn, was captivated by her honesty and intelligence.
But when Napoleon suffered a massive defeat in Russia, it was obvious his days were numbered. Dorothea told Talleyrand as soon as Napoleon returned to France— information that helped him continue plotting against the emperor.
When the pursuing Russian army reached Paris and Napoleon was deposed, Talleyrand recruited Dorothea and her mother to help entertain Tsar Alexander I. Dorothea’s job was to keep everyone calm and create a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere that didn’t prejudice Alexander and his allies against France.
She did it perfectly.
So perfectly, in fact, that Talleyrand asked Dorothea to be his hostess at the Congress of Vienna. Not his wife, mind you — his 21-year-old niece by marriage. She said yes.
At the Congress of Vienna, Dorothea rose above the schemes and intrigues of her mother and sisters. Instead, she ran a salon that presented the French at their best. She invited important and interesting people, facilitated sparkling conversation, and made sure everyone went away feeling smarter, happier, and in a better mood than they arrived.
Talleyrand came to trust her, confiding in her and listening to her advice.
He later said of her, “If she had lived at the time of the Fronde she would have been one of the great women of history.” ⁴
For her part, Dorothea realized she liked being close to a powerful man. Women weren’t allowed in political office, but by attaching herself to a powerful man, she could be a part of events that changed the course of history.
Their mutual admiration begs the question — were they sleeping together? Biographer Philip Ziegler says no. For one thing, her mother arrived in Vienna and moved in with them. Secondly, Dorothea fell in love with a major in the Austrian cavalry, Count Clam-Martinitz.
In 1815, after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, Dorothea moved into Talleyrand’s house in Paris — without her husband. Clam-Martinitz followed her, eventually fighting a duel with Edmond. Before long, the stress of this awkward love triangle got to Dorothea. She fled to Italy with her Austrian major.
But it didn’t last.
In Italy, there were no great men, no great causes to serve, nothing that could ease her growing ambition….or her need to be with Talleyrand.
It appears he felt the same way about her.
He was still married and writing love letters to her mother, but he missed Dorothea’s wit, charm, and adoration.
So when Dorothea ditched Clam-Martinitz in 1816, Talleyrand gladly took her in. She made one power play soon after her return, insisting his ditzy wife be exiled to England. Although that plan failed, Talleyrand never lived with his wife again.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Four years later, in 1820, Dorothea’s husband suddenly moved back in with them in Paris. A few months later, his massive gambling debts were paid in full.
That December, Dorothea had a baby daughter, Pauline.
Gossips said Talleyrand had bribed Edmond to return once Dorothea got pregnant, to make the baby appear legitimate. Six months later, Edmond left and never returned.
Was Talleyrand the father? Society believed he was, and painted Dorothea as a wicked, fallen woman. Dorothea didn’t care. She had chosen Talleyrand, and never looked back.
In her memoirs, Dorothea obliquely addressed their 40-year age gap:
“As a child, I accustomed my mind to the idea of marrying a man who was twenty-five years older than me.” ⁵
Royal and noble girls were often married to much-older men, so she has a point. The jury’s still out on the ick factor of the uncle-by-marriage and the mother’s-ex-lover factors.
When the restored Bourbon dynasty fell in 1830, the new king — Louis-Philippe d’Orléans — asked Talleyrand to be his ambassador in London. But by this point, Talleyrand was 76 years old and often ill. When he hesitated, Dorothea helped convince him to accept.
There, just as she had in Vienna, Dorothea functioned as his secretary, public relations officer, and event planner. And just like before, Dorothea nailed it.
Her old flame, Adam Czartoryski, said, “Dorothea…had great influence over Talleyrand…the inexhaustible wit of the host and the amiability of the hostess made these receptions the most brilliant and the most sought after in London.” ⁶
Every night, little Pauline waited in a carriage outside the embassy for Talleyrand to get off work and come for a drive with her. But it was obvious that Talleyrand was slowing down — not mentally, but physically.
Finally, Talleyrand decided it was time to go home. Dorothea, knowing this was probably the end of her dream of being present on the world stage, acquiesced.
She stayed with him until his death in 1838.
The Winter of Her Discontent
After his death, she wrote about how much she missed Talleyrand’s intelligence:
“My long intercourse with M. de Talleyrand has made it difficult for ordinary people to get on with me; I meet minds which seem slow, diffuse, and ill-developed; they are always putting on the brake, like people going downhill; I have spent my life with my shoulder to the wheel in uphill work.” ⁷
She made friends with the heir to the throne, the Duc d’Orléans, and rekindled old friendships with politicians, but she was no longer in the room where it happened, so to speak.
As she aged, she spent more time in Prussia than France, eventually buying the duchy of Sagan from her sister.
Then, in 1842, she met Prince Felix Lichnowsky and fell head over heels in love at age 49. After fighting for the Carlist cause in Spain, Lichnowsky had become a politician in Prussia. He was dashing, exciting, and fulfilled her need to be involved in public life.
But the world around her was changing. In 1848, a revolution in France led to uprisings in Vienna, Baden, and Prussia. When riots broke out in Frankfurt, arch-conservative Lichnowsky went to talk to the crowd, unarmed.
They tore him to pieces.
The disturbances even spread to Dorothea’s property of Sagan, where the neighboring castle was attacked.
“If we have to die,” she wrote, “at least we will not do so without a struggle. I shall not run away and have no fear….” ⁸
Finally, the Prussian king granted reforms to de-escalate the situation.
Dorothea remained in Sagan, nursing her broken heart. She went back to France for her granddaughter Marie’s first communion and later hooked Marie up with Prince Antoine Radziwill, grandson of her childhood bestie, Princess Louise of Prussia. But the thrill and energy of life were gone.
In 1861, Dorothea was out for a carriage ride when she got caught in a hailstorm. Her horses bolted, spilling the carriage into a ditch. Dorothea crawled away, only to be battered by baseball-sized hailstones for over an hour.
She never truly recovered. She died the next year, on September 19, 1862.
¹ Dino, Souvenirs, preface.
² Ziegler, Dino, 22.
³ Dino, Souvenirs, chapter 3.
⁴ Ziegler, Dino, 72.
⁵ Dino, Souvenirs, chapter 7.
⁶ Czartoryski, Memoirs, 318.
⁷ Dino, Memoirs, 184–5.
⁸ Ziegler, Dino, 329.
Czartoryski, Prince Adam. Memoirs of Prince Adam Czartoryski, Vol. II. London: Remington & Co., 1888.
Dino, Dorothée de Courlande and Jean de Castellane. Souvenirs de la duchesse de Dino. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1908.
Talleyrand-Périgord, Dorothée de and Princesse Radziwill. Memoirs of the Duchesse de Dino, 1836–1840. Second series. 1910.
Ziegler, Philip. The Duchess of Dino. New York: The John Day Company, 1963.