Dorothea de Lieven, A Woman of Influence

Dorothea de Lieven, A Woman of Influence

This Regency woman of influence first intrigued me years ago and those of you who have read my novels know that I worked her into the pages a couple of times. Before I get into a dissertation about her, let me just say that one aspect of the fun in writing a literary piece set in a particular time period is name dropping! Of course, the fact is that a man of Darcy’s wealth and prestige would hobnob with members of royalty and the elite gentry. So tossing a name out here and there is as credible as it is amusing. Still, I would never want to have a real life person, even if deceased for over 200 years, say or do something that is out of character. I always try to incorporate these people into the tale in a way that does not contradict reality. As for the Countess de Lieven, I simply had her appear, say a few words, and open her Salon to our favorite couple and Dr. George Darcy in a way that was totally within character.

DOROTHEA BRENKENDORFF . . . was a Russian noblewoman born in 1785, the daughter of General Baron Christoph von Benckendorff (1749-1823), who served as the military governor of Livonia, and the Baroness Anna Juliane Charlotte Schilling von Canstatt (1744-1797), who held a high position at the Romanov Court as senior lady-in-waiting and best friend of Empress Maria Fyodorovna. Dorothea was educated at the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg, a school for daughters of the nobility. In 1800, at the tender age of 14, Dorothea was married by arrangement to the 26-year-old Count Christopher (Kristofor) von Lieven. They had one daughter and five sons, three of whom predeceased their mother: Magda, Paul (1805-1866), Alexander (1806-1885), Konstantin (1807-1838), Georg and Arthur. The couple would remain married until his death in 1839, and by all accounts, their relationship was harmonious until the latter years when they lived in a permanent state of estrangement.

As a quick aside: I have seen the name written as von Lieven, de Lieven, and just plain Lieven.

Prince Christopher de Lieven by Sir Thomas Lawrence

In 1808, Count Lieven was assigned to the Russian Foreign Office, but by December of 1809, he was sent to represent Russia at the Prussian court. When Napoleon prepared to invade Russia in 1812, Lieven was appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London, a post he kept for 22 years, until 1834, when he was recalled to Russia.

As illustrious as Count/Prince Christopher de Lieven was, his wife outshone him every step of the way. By all accounts, she immediately fit into her role as the wife of a diplomat, however, it was upon arriving in London that she blossomed. Her beauty was notable and indisputable, a fact she was well-aware of and used to her advantage. Beyond physical prowess, Dorothea’s superior intelligence, charisma, and humor set her apart. In an era when women could rarely hope to be more than a trophy wife and perfect hostess to a powerful man, she aspired to excel. She rapidly rose to a position of power within London Society, including being the first foreigner elected a patroness of Almack’s Assembly Rooms, where she is credited with introducing the waltz to England.

It is clear that the Countess was immensely popular with the ladies of Society. A leader in fashion and style, witty and a sparkling conversationalist, her friendships were extensive and social calendar jam-packed.


Her cleverness was generally recognised, but her tact was shown rather in her fastidiousness than by her geniality, and the impression she produced was that she was as fully conscious of her own superiority as she was of the inferiority of those with whom she was brought in daily contact.  ~by Lionel G. Robinson, the editor of Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven, during her Residence in London, 1812-1834


She always has an entourage; she can keep off bores, because she has the courage to écraser [crush] them…. The pleasantest women…in my opinion, go constantly to her.  ~Harriet Granville (daughter of the Duchess of Devonshire)

Princess von Lieven, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, circa 1813

Above all, she was a fierce Russian patriot. While her husband performed his duties and used his power to cement relations between the two great countries — always with Russian interests his prime goal — she utilized her own gifts to do the same. The Salon she opened was exclusive and called “the listening/observation post of Europe.” She welcomed members of the Government and of the Opposition, her enthusiasm for her favorites tending to rise and fall in accordance with their influence and position, a fact that was not lost on those she cast aside.

She possessed a flair for politics and a wealth of connections that she judiciously used with incredible political acumen. Her lovers included the Duke of Wellington, the Austria Chancellor Metternich, King George IV, several Prime Ministers, Lord Castlereagh, and Lord Grey, amongst others. Her liaisons, however, are not to be considered a simple matter of a harlot working her way through the prestigious movers and shakers of Regency England like a rock star groupie. Romantic entanglements were just one method of how she used her extensive charms to increase the intimacy and relationships with prominent people of the Era.

Her actual influence in matters of State were considered marginal at the time; however, in the decades since her death, as her numerous letters to family and especially Prince Metternich (who she was mistress to for some eight years) have been released by her descendants, the full extent of her involvement is now known. Tsar Alexander enlisted her as a diplomat in her own right, charging her with a mission to utilize her clout in any way possible, including as a spy. It is clear from her letters to Metternich that information from gossip to governmental secrets

Tsar Alexander enlisted her as a diplomat in her own right, charging her with a mission to utilize her clout in any way possible, including as a spy. It is clear from her letters to Metternich that information from gossip to governmental secrets was passed to him, leading to the statement that “Austria had two ambassadors, the official one, and Dorothea.” The level of detail she relays in her letters to family in Russia clearly reveal a woman who was extremely aware of the most intimate knowledge from the King on down.

The methodical and laborious despatches of Prince Lieven would have availed little to shape Russian diplomacy had they not been supplemented by his wife’s keener appreciation of passing events, and by the personal judgment which she brought to bear upon the leading men of the Cabinet and the Opposition.  ~Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven


In the 1820s, a series of sessions of the Congress of Verona met in her Salon where she acted as a conduit between the diplomats. It is said that she was instrumental in the birth of modern Greece, and made a notable contribution to the creation of today’s Belgium.

“I have no doubt the inclination of the lady to do this country all the mischief in her power in return for much kindness and good will with which she was treated during a long residence here…… She can and will betray everyone in turn, if it should suit her purpose.”  ~The Duke of Wellington

“It is a pity Countess Lieven wears skirts. She would have made an excellent diplomat.”  ~Tsar Alexander I in October 1825


Princess von Lieven line engraving by William Bromley, after a drawing by Sir Thomas Lawrence, published 1825

In 1826, when Nicholas I ascended the Russian throne, Dorothea’s brother became head of the Russian secret police and her eldest son Paul was appointed to the Russian mission to the United States. Count von Lieven’s mother became a 1st Princess of Lieven, whereby he also received the title of Prince, thus Dorothea became Princess von Lieven. Her letters, as well as those of her husband, seem to indicate a relationship between the two that was a bit one-sided in matters of love. That he was enamored and suffered deeply by her indifference as their marriage moved on is strongly indicated. However, in matters of politics, they were a formidable partnership. She supported his position with intense loyalty and freely gave of the information she gleaned, in all the various ways, providing an invaluable service in advancing Russian foreign policy.

In 1834, a diplomatic stand-off led Tsar Nicholas I to recall Prince Lieven to Russia, where he became governor and tutor of the Tsar’s son, who later became Alexander II. The Princess took up her duties as lady-in-waiting to the Empress, but she was miserable after leaving her life and friends in London. Life got tragically worse in 1835 when her two youngest sons, George and Arthur, died a month apart. By that September, Dorothea moved to Paris without her husband. Just as she had in London, Dorothea submerged herself in the Parisian beau monde, opened a popular Salon, and launched herself into French politics with a passion.

“. . . she is a purely political woman, she must have the people in power. If today the executioner was appointed President of the Council she would be delighted to receive him in her home.” ~Lady Granville, wife of the British ambassador to Paris


In 1837, she became the mistress of François Guizot, a widowed historian and politician who served as foreign minister of France from 1840 to 1848. This liaison, the intensity of which never diminished despite their increasing age, was of public notoriety and gave rise to a magnificent correspondence that was as much about their feelings for one another as about politics. When Guizot became ambassador to London in 1840, the Princess prepared the way for him and soon joined him there. The fact that the mistress of the Minister of Foreign Affairs was a Russian subject set tongues wagging. However, while she was never hesitant to express her opinions, by all appearances the essence of their relationship was one of deeply devoted love. In fact, she remained unfailingly attached to Guizot, even when Prince von Lieven completely cut off her allowance. They traveled together but never lived openly in the same house, not that the affair was a secret. Curiously, after the death of the Prince in 1839, Dorothea and Guizot did not marry. Historians speculate his family was strenuously opposed to the match, but in truth, it is a bit of a mystery as all agree that theirs was a genuine and lasting love.

Princess de Lieven in 1855
Francois Guizot by Paul Delaroche, c. 1839
Bust of Princess de Lieven by Thomas Campbell

Dorothea von Lieven died of “inflammation of the chest” on January 27, 1857, in Paris, at the age of 71. Guizot was by her side. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried in a velvet dress, with a diadem on her brow, at the Lieven family estate of Mežotne, south of Riga, next to her sons George and Arthur.


“Truth and trust have always been the mainstays of our friendship, hence its solidity and its gentleness.”  ~François Guizot, in her eulogy.





Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven: During Her Residence in London, 1812-1834

François Guizot and Dorothea von Lieven

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