This Regency individual intrigued me early on and those of you so fortunate as to have read my novels know that I included this notorious woman 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 amusing and credible. 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. Never have I incorporated these people into the tale in a way that would contradict reality. So with the Countess de Lieven I simply had her be there, say a few words, and open her Salon to our favorite couple and the good Doctor in a way that was totally within character.
So who was she?
Dorothea Brenkendorff was a Russian noblewoman born in 1785. In 1800, at the tender age of 14, she was married to Count Christopher (Kristofor) von Lieven – he was 26. As a quick aside: I have seen their name written as von Lieven, de Lieven, and just plain Lieven… so your guess is as good as mine! After a brief stint as minister in Berlin, Count Lieven was appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London in 1812, a post he would hold until 1834 when he was recalled to Russia. She birthed 6 children to her husband, remaining married to him until her death in 1857. However, after only three years dwelling with the now Prince Lieven in Russia, Princess Lieven moved to Paris in 1837. There she remained living with her lover, the French statesman Francois Guizot, until her death. Prince Lieven died in 1839.
OK, that is the dry narrative! Who was she really?
It was clear from a young age that this woman of superior intelligence, charisma, and humor was driven to be more than just the pretty trophy wife of a powerful man. In a day when women could rarely hope for more than that, she was determined to excel beyond the norm. Additionally she was a rabid 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’; the friendships she fostered were comprehensive; the lovers she took were prominent; the secrets she gleaned were significant; the power she wielded as the first foreign Patroness of Almack’s Assembly was absolute; and her control over Society, fashion, protocol, and etiquette was extraordinary, including introducing the Viennese waltz.
I will let some of the quotes speak for themselves:
“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
“Her cleverness was generally recognized, but her tact was shown rather in her fastidiousness than by her geniality, and the impression she produced was that she as fully conscious of her own superiority as she was of the inferiority of those with whom she was brought in daily contact.” Lionel Robinson, translator of her letters
“There never figured on the Courtly stage, a female intriguer more restless, more arrogant, more mischievous, more (politically, and therefore we mean it not offensively) odious than this supercilious Ambassadress,” A scorching valediction in The Times
“The most feared, most flattered, worst hated female politician of her day.”
“It is a pity Countess Lieven wears skirts. She would have made an excellent diplomat.” The Russian Tsar
“She succeeded in inspiring a confidence with prominent men until now unknown in the annals of England.” Russian foreign minister Count Nesselrode
She knew “everyone in the Courts and cabinets for thirty or forty years”; she “knew all the secret annals of diplomacy” a French diplomat
“She is a stateswoman and a great lady in all the vicissitudes of life.” The Russian Ambassador to France
She discovered in herself a flair for politics and as Ambassadress she had 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 among 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 extend 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 were 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.
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 honestly do not know what this means, but it sounds pretty heavy! Even after she left England her power and political sway would continue both in Russia and in Paris where her second Salon and affair with Guizot aided her desires to politically and socially meddle. All said, this is a woman to rival many queens through the ages.
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 the Count was enamored and suffered deeply by her indifference 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.
I cannot say that I wholeheartedly admire the Countess’ tactics, many of them frankly immoral and therefore a bit repugnant to me. Nonetheless, she certainly had nerve! I suppose I am enough of a modern woman to feel a need to shout Hurrah! to a woman who managed to exert such influence in a time when women essentially had zero rights as individuals. Whole books have been written on this remarkable lady, several others that are compilations of her translated correspondence, and she is noted in literally every biography written about any other famous figure of the Regency Era. She was complex, intriguing, and important.
I will end this with a few of her own words:
“This beautiful England is always the same – an endless chain of perfections which appeal to the reason but leave the imagination untouched….. I am everywhere received as no other foreigner has been and I flatter myself that I have been a success, but never would I wish to die in this country.”
“It is not fashionable where I am not.”
“English domestic politics excite my curiosity and interest to the upmost.”