Tallien, Thérésa (1773–1835)
Tallien, Thérésa (1773–1835)
Tallien, Thérésa (1773–1835)
One of the most controversial women in French history, famed for her beauty, marriages, and liaisons, who intervened on behalf of supplicants during the Reign of Terror and was the queen of high society during the Thermidorean Reaction and the Directory.
Theresa Tallien; Thérèsia Tallien; Thérèse or Teresa Cabarrus; Theresia de Tallien; Madame Jean-Lambert Tallien; formerly Marquise de Fontenay; later Comtesse de Riquet-Caraman and Princesse de Chimay. Pronunciation: tair-RAY-sya ka-BAR-oos tall-YEH. Born Juana-Maria-Ignacia-Teresa Cabarrus, later Jeanne-Marie-Ignace-Thérésa Cabarrus, on July 31, 1773, at the château of San Pedro de Carabanchel de Arriba, near Madrid; died at Chimay,Belgium, of liver disease, and was buried at the Chimay parish church; daughter of François (Francisco) Cabarrus (1752–1810, a banker) and Maria-Antonia (Galabert) Cabarrus (1756–1827); educated in Paris at the Convent of the Presentation and the pension of Mme Leprince de Beaumont; married Marquis Jean-Jacques Devin de Fontenay, in 1788 (divorced 1793); married Jean-Lambert Tallien (1767–1820), in 1794 (divorced 1802); married Comte (François-) Joseph de Riquet-Caraman (b. 1771), later Prince de Chimay, in 1805; children: (with Fontenay) Théodore (Antoine-François-Julien-Théodore-Denis-Ignace, 1789–1815); (with Tallien) Rose-Thermidor-Laure-Joséphine Tallien, who eventually called herself Laure, then Joséphine (1795–1862); (with Gabriel-Julien Ouvrard, but surnamed Cabarrus) Clémence-Isaure (1800–1884), Jules-Joseph-Édouard, known as Édouard (1801–1862), Clarisse-Gabrielle-Thérésa, known as Clarisse (1802–1877), and Stéphanie-Caroline-Thérésa, known as Stéphanie (1803–1887); (with Prince Joseph de Chimay) Prince Joseph (1808–1866), Alphonse (1810–1866), Marie-Louise (1813–1814), and Marie-Louise-Thérésa-Valentine (1815–1876).
Was in Paris with her mother (1784–88); hosted a salon frequented by leading political figures (1788–93); in Bordeaux with Tallien, aided many people in avoiding trial or execution (1793–94); imprisoned in Paris and played a role in the fall of Robespierre (1794); was the leading social figure during the Thermidorean Reaction (1794–95); while mistress of Paul Barras, continued as leader of high society during the Directory (1795–99); was in Egypt and England (1798–1801); was mistress of "the richest man in France," Gabriel-Julien Ouvrard, but ostracized from court by Napoleon (1800–04); while married to the Prince de Chimay, continued to entertain notable figures, especially from the world of music, and engaged in numerous charitable activities (1805–35); resided principally in Belgium (1815–35).
Thérésa Tallien married for the first time well before she turned 15. Barely into adolescence, she was already a stunning beauty. Her physical attributes, in fact, lay at the root of her fortunes and misfortunes. Writers have made her the subject of a shelfful of fictionalized accounts. Any attempt to establish the truth about her continually confronts obstacles raised by her own often fanciful accounts and the legends, rumors, and innuendoes she inspired. Because so much of what was said about her—and for that matter was important about her—revolves around her private life, the unvarnished truth can never be known. And to return full circle, it was her beauty that kindled the imaginations of her contemporaries, spawning the tales that would shape her place in history.
She was born on July 31, 1773, near Madrid at the château of San Pedro de Carabanchel de Arriba. She and brothers Domingo-Vincente (b. 1774) and Francisco (1776–1794) were the children of François Cabarrus and Maria-Antonia Galabert Cabarrus . François was the elder son of Dominique Cabarrus (the Elder), a prosperous wholesale merchant (and a candidate for the nobility) in Bayonne, on the Spanish frontier, whose family had originated in Spanish Navarre. He sent François at age 18 to Valencia to learn Spanish and business. There he fell madly in love with Maria-Antonia, 16-year-old daughter of Antonio Galabert, Dominique Cabarrus' local agent (correspondant). Both families opposed a marriage, so the pair eloped. Facing an uncertain future, they were "rescued" by Maria's grandfather Don Pedro Galabert, who in the spring of 1773 made François manager of a neglected soap manufacturing operation at Carabanchel de Arriba. That summer their first child arrived and was baptized Juana-Maria-Ignacia-Teresa. (When she took French citizenship she became Jeanne-Marie-Ignace-Thérèse, but she always signed herself, and was called, "Thérésa" or "Thérésia.")
Very little about her life before her first marriage is known for certain. Family tradition, for example, holds that her mother's labor pains came on at a ball at the French embassy in Madrid; but this seems most unlikely because her parents plainly still lacked the requisite social standing to be invited. She is said to have spent her first three years with a peasant wetnurse, ignored by her parents. Growing up she was vivacious, impressionable, pretty, warm-voiced, and enjoyed being the center of attention.
François Cabarrus, not one to stay mired in a soap factory, soon discovered he had great talent in finance. He rose rapidly in high Madrid circles. After becoming a Spanish citizen in 1781, a year later, barely 30 years old, he became Charles III's chief financial advisor and received a charter to create the Banco de San Carlo, the direct ancestor of the Bank of Spain. It began operation on May 13, 1783. Possibly late that year or early in 1784, Thérésa, her mother, and probably her brothers went to Paris to begin her final education and the hunt for a husband.
It is impossible to establish a firm chronology of her education and social contacts before December 1787, when her father, back in Spain, received a letter about a projected marriage to Jean-Jacques Devin de Fontenay. She probably was educated by Benedictine sisters at the Convent of the Presentation on the Rue des Postes, and then at a well-known finishing school (pension) run by Mme Leprince de Beaumont , where she formed lifelong friendships with the future Mmes Champagny and Montalembert, and the writer Sophie Gay (1776–1852). Gifted in the arts, Thérésa became a respectable practitioner of watercolor and especially music (piano, harp, guitar, and voice), which she loved with a passion.
It seems likely she returned to Spain at least once in these years. Allegedly, her mother's bachelor brother, Uncle Maximilien, aged 32, visited Carabanchel, fell in love with her, and sounded François about marriage. He roundly disapproved and sent her (back?) to Paris. While there, she and her mother were helped by the Le Couteulx de Noraye family and Mme Boisgeloup de la Mancelière , people prominent in financial and judicial circles. Invitations to balls, theaters, dinners, and soirées abounded. Thérésa's precocious beauty and gracious good humor won notice. There was Alexandre de Méréville (aged 26), son of Marquis Jean-Joseph de Laborde, with whom she had a brief summer's infatuation. There was also Marquis Charles-Louis Ducrest, brother of the writer Comtesse Stéphanie de Genlis (1746–1830). He was a serious candidate, but his age (40) probably stood in the way. And the Prince de Listenay—but he was a rake.
It was Mme Boisgeloup who discovered Devin de Fontenay late in 1787. Aged 26, he was a member of the Parlement (High Court) of Paris, where his father, president of the Cour des Comptes (financial administration), also sat. Fontenay was short and not handsome but was described to François as witty, serious, and well mannered. Thérésa had little to say about the match, accepting it without feeling love or repugnance for her prospective mate. The financial arrangement, signed on February 2, 1788, showed her bringing 400,000 livres plus another 100,000 over ten years and three fine Paris residences François owned. Fontenay brought 830,926 livres plus 60,000 livres annually from the Parlement seat. (These were very large figures; ordinary workers earned only about a livre per day.) Soon after the marriage Fontenay bought a transmissible marquisate for 400,000 livres to solidify his somewhat shaky title.
On February 21, 1788, the pair married at the Church of Saint-Eustache before representatives of finance and the judiciary. It was agreed that until she was older they would live with his parents on the fashionable Île de Saint-Louis in the present Hôtel Chenizot. They also spent time at the family's Château de Fontenay-aux-Roses, in a Paris suburb near Sceaux. On May 2, 1789, Thérésa, not yet 16, had her first child, Théodore. The marriage, however, was already foundering. Fontenay proved to be a philanderer of the first order. Her childhood innocence had been speedily shattered. They stayed together for the sake of social acceptance, while Thérésa's mother reproached herself bitterly for hurrying her into marriage at such a tender age.
The Fontenays cut a large figure on the Paris social scene in the earliest years of the Revolution. They entertained numerous guests, among them the Marquis de La Fayette, writers Nicolas de Chamfort, Antoine Rivarol, Louis de Champcenetz, and the ducs de Monmorency and La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt. Thérésa's beauty soon was legendary, and remained so for decades. "When she entered a drawing room," recalled the composer Daniel-François Auber in old age, "she brought day and night with her—day for herself, night for the others." At 5'6", she was quite tall for that time, "a Diana the Huntress," as Mme Henriette de La Tour du Pin put it in an oft-quoted description. "No human being," she went on, "has left the Creator's hand so beautiful." Her face was a perfect oval, her head somewhat small but well formed and crowned with ebony hair of the finest silk. She had large brown eyes, generous dark lashes and eyebrows, an "Irish" nose (slightly turned up at the end), a small mouth, small, sculptured red lips, brilliant teeth, a round chin, and very fair skin (whiteness was much prized). Her sculpted hands and arms were pleasantly fleshed out, neither fat nor thin, as was her attractive figure. She exuded robust health and youth, "uniting lovable French vivacity with Spanish voluptuousness," wrote Antoine Thibaudeau. Her every movement was a picture of grace, and her expression kind. "She exercised a charm which no word can express," said Mme de La Tour du Pin. Her slight foreign accent added an exotic touch, if one were necessary. Even those who maligned her for personal or political reasons denied neither her beauty nor her generosity of spirit (bonté). At a very young age and to all appearances without half trying, she was a phenomenon.
She and her husband kept close company with the early, moderate (constitutional monarchist) leaders of the Revolution. Mme Charles de Lameth was her good friend, and through her she mingled on intimate terms with the Lameth brothers, Charles, Alexandre (especially), and, to a lesser extent, Théodore, prominent soldier-politicians during the Estates-General and the Constituent Assembly (1789–91). She also numbered the Duc d'Aiguillon, Antoine Barnave, and the Comte de Mirabeau among her friends. It is said the latter two escorted her around the Bastille shortly after its fall. Other intimates included the brothers Félix and Louis Le Pelletier de Saint-Fargeaux. (She once described herself as "très liée" with the latter, who was famously assassinated—"martyred"—the day after Louis XVI's execution on January 21, 1793.) Progressive ideas from the Enlightenment attracted her. She joined the Loge Olympique of the Freemasons and the Club de 1789, founded by La Fayette, Abbé Sieyès, and the philosophe Condorcet. She also attended sittings of the Constituent Assembly and later the Legislative Assembly (1791–92) and the Convention (1792–95). Her husband—more from opportunism than conviction, one suspects—joined the (still moderate) Jacobin Club, where he made no waves. After the parlements were abolished, he tried to be elected a judge in December 1790 but won only seven votes in his best showing.
An interlude occurred late in 1789 when she and her husband traveled to Madrid so he could at last meet her father. Things turned out badly when a male companion he had brought along made a scandal at court. They returned early in 1790 with their marriage all but ended. More unhappiness followed when she learned on July 16 that her father had been arrested and imprisoned. After Charles IV had succeeded to the throne of Spain in 1788, his chief minister, Floridablanca, and some financiers jealous of her father's success brought about his arrest for malversion of funds. Thérésa was so upset that she beseeched La Fayette, commander of the National Guard, to invade Spain. He politely demurred.
Thérésa's social life continued apace. In April 1791, her name surfaced in the papers in an unfavorable light. Liberty of the press being exercised with abandon now, Paris was swamped with papers and pamphlets. As political tensions mounted in the spring of 1791, unbridled, libelous denunciations of one's foes became more than ever the norm. Hence, Thérésa's connection to the constitutional monarchist faction made her fair game, especially for diehard royalists. On April 21, 1791, the royalist Journal de la Cour et de la Ville insinuated that she was offering more than wine and cake to her guests, and mentioned some names. La Chronique scandaleuse also weighed in. She protested to the editors in print. Whether her husband insisted on or wrote the letter is debated, although it seems clear he was becoming largely absent in her life.
It is impossible to say if this gossip held any truth. Had she been one of the myriad conquests of Mirabeau, the greatest early leader of the Revolution and now suddenly dead (April 2, 1791)? Or of Alexandre de Lameth? Or the Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeaux brothers? Or Condorcet? She was still only in her teens, was trusting, too often indiscreet, on the outs with her husband, and perpetually surrounded by awe-struck males. Moreover, the Jacobins' Republic of Virtue had not yet arrived to smother the licentiousness of the Ancien Régime. In short, the hyperventilating press scarcely needed more stimulation to conjure up visions of this delicious creature engaging in sexual romps with controversial figures, particularly one's political opponents.
As time went on she drifted leftward in her political opinions, and in the autumn of 1791 she broke with the Lameths because they had become more pro-monarchist. Nothing concrete is known about her activities from then until the ceremonial celebration on July 14, 1792 (the Fédération). The country was speeding into a storm. War had been declared (April 20) and the Prussians were invading. Chancellor Pasquier recalled in his memoirs encountering her at the Fédération and hearing her express fears about the future. Ironically, in light of later developments, she is said to have sat with Robespierre at the ceremonies and applauded him at the Jacobins on July 20 when he called for the French to rally in the face of looming disaster.
With the fall of the throne (August 10) and the convening of the Jacobin-dominated National Convention (September 20), her situation darkened. The Law of March 21, 1792, had made all foreign-born persons subject to surveillance by local watch committees, and she was feeling the pressure. Coincidentally, a law passed on September 20 legalized divorce. She and Fontenay wasted no time. They began proceedings on November 30, and the divorce became final on April 5, 1793. Her first thought now was to quit Paris, perhaps for Spain. She, her ex-husband, and little Théodore left for Bordeaux, arriving early in May. (Bourquin says Théodore stayed behind with his grandparents until they sent him to Bordeaux in early April 1794.) Fontenay, who wanted to flee to Martinique but was unable, soon took shelter in Normandy at Estimauville (Calvados), where he stayed until he returned to Bordeaux in March 1794 to go to America. Thérésa remained in Bordeaux even though she had a passport for Spain, probably made wary because France and Spain were now at war and her father was still in prison.
In Bordeaux, she lived with her great-uncle, Dominique Cabarrus (the Younger), and his son Jean Valère, prosperous shipowners. Nothing is known with absolute certainty about her activities before the approval of the Boyer-Fonfrède petition on November 13, 1793 (see below). There exists an oft-quoted tale of a trip, beginning by mid-June, to the spa at Bagnères in the Pyrenees. She was accompanied by a maternal uncle, Pierre-Vincent Galabert (aged 35), Édouard de Colbert (1774–1853), Baron Étienne-Auguste de Lamothe (1772–1836), and her 17-year-old brother Francisco. All, including her brother, were in love with her. On the way, at Langon, Colbert and Lamothe dueled over her attentions. Lamothe was wounded, so she stayed behind to nurse him. The others dispersed, while she and Lamothe spent a summer's idyll at Bagnères until he had to rejoin the army. (Lamothe, who left an amusing account of the affair, went on to become a general, as did Colbert.)
When Thérésa returned to Bordeaux, she felt obliged to move from her great-uncle's home. She took a vast second-floor apartment at the Hôtel Franklin. Meanwhile, Bordeaux had become locked in a struggle with the Convention in Paris, which was now dominated by left-leaning Jacobins (the "Mountaineers") and their Committee of Public Safety (CPS). The Mountaineers had expelled their rivals, the "Girondins," a group of moderates among whom were several from the department of the Gironde, which included Bordeaux. On October 16, four representatives-on-mission, armed with sweeping powers, and supported by a small force under General Guillaume Brune, entered Bordeaux and installed the Terror to bring the proud city to heel. Young Jean-Lambert Tallien took the lead.
On October 25, the representatives issued a decree saying anyone who solicited on behalf of detainees would be arrested. Yet, on November 13, the Surveillance Committee granted Thérésa's request for a release of the sequestered property of Mme Justine Boyer-Fonfrède , widow and sister of two Girondins guillotined in Paris on October 31. Events would prove Thérésa was brave and good-hearted, but it is likely she had every reason to believe her request would be honored. On November 18, two agents of the CPS reported that Tallien was having "liaisons intimes" (whatever that may have meant) with Thérésa Cabarrus-Fontenay. She was arrested some time between November 30 and December 10 and imprisoned at the Fort du Hâ, but was quickly released (perhaps within hours) through Tallien's intervention. All details about this arrest—if it happened, although it seems probable—have disappeared.
When you go through a storm, you can't always choose the plank you cling to.
The agents' letter apparently did not hurt Tallien, for he had many friends among the Mountaineers and knew too much about the horrifying Paris prison massacres of September 2–7, 1792, to be readily attacked by his enemies. He had risen rapidly. A tall, handsome man with blond curls, energetic, friendly, and capable of impassioned eloquence, he was the son of the butler of the Marquis de Bercy, who had paid for his education. Intending to be a notary, he found the Revolution opened doors to undreamed-of opportunities. He became a copyreader for Panckouke, a leading publisher; organized a fraternal society in the seething faubourg Saint-Antoine; founded (August 1791) a newspaper, L'Ami des Citoyens; became the leader of his Paris section, Lombards, and secretary of the Paris Commune (city government), which toppled the throne; was carried along (and hence implicated) in the September Massacres, in which he nevertheless saved some victims, notably Mme Germaine de Staël ; was elected to the Convention (at 25 nearly its youngest member) by the department of Seine-et-Oise after Marat and Robespierre opposed him in Paris as an ideologically suspect climber; and in 1793 voted for the king's execution, implacably opposed the Girondins, and was appointed a representative-on-mission in the southwestern departments.
Such was the man who would give Thérésa Cabarrus the name by which she would be known to history. Had they met before he arrived in Bordeaux? Probably several times: at the Paris studio of Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun , where she was posing for a portrait; at the home of Mme Alexandre de Lameth , where he delivered some proofs while she was visiting; and, most important, in September 1793 while he was inspecting in the Pyrenees (at Bagnères?). Mme de La Tour du Pin said Thérésa once told her he had done her a favor on that occasion (getting her brother Francisco transferred from a cavalry draft?). Did their "liaisons intimes" begin soon after Tallien entered Bordeaux on October 16? In any case, she plainly had enough influence to get the Boyer-Fonfréde petition approved, to intercede (it appears) to get Jean-Valère Cabarrus' sequestered property returned to him before her arrest, and to be released speedily once imprisoned. Whatever their relations to date, by mid-December it was public knowledge that they were lovers.
On December 10, 1793, Thérésa sat on the stage with Tallien at the Festival of Reason, thus making their liaison "official." Thereafter, they continually consorted in public, although she forbade him to move in with her. Her role, which became famous, was to mitigate the Terror through her influence over Tallien, who loved her for the rest of his life. He despised the Girondins and was harsh during his first months in Bordeaux. But executions fell off in January to 16 from 34 in December. In February, they sank to 10. Tallien returned to Paris on February 22, but numbers remained 10 or lower (none in May) until Thérésa left Bordeaux; they then rose to 21 in June and shot to 126 in July, after which the Terror ended. Grim as such figures are, they pale beside those recorded in many other locales. Thérésa's bravery, gentle presence, subtle influence, and countless intercessions to obtain passports or commute or remit sentences played a signal role in sparing Bordeaux the worst. A grateful citizenry cheered her in the streets, and Tallien himself became one of the few representatives around the country to win some popularity. He was mature enough to grasp that intimidation is more productive than outright repression. But the moderation of the Terror in Bordeaux also owed even more to the nature of the city's social makeup and mentality. Moderation seemed bred into its bones, murderous ideological passion alien to its soul. It was no coincidence that the moderates in the Convention had found leaders among the men from the Gironde.
From the outset, Tallien proved jealous. Apparently Thérésa was attracted to the dashing General Brune (later one of Napoleon's marshals), who lived a few steps from her place. Because he was often seen entering there, tongues wagged. Tallien got Paris to abolish Brune's command, and on December 22 he was ordered away. A decree from the Convention to hold a celebration honoring the retaking of Toulon from the British provided Tallien a chance to mollify Thérésa by letting her shine at the ceremony on December 30. He read the "Discours sur l'Éducation" he had begged her to write for the occasion. Dazzling in a blue worsted riding habit with red velvet trimmings and yellow buttons, she basked in the public's admiration. Her essay abounded in the Rousseauistic platitudes of the hour, lauding simplicity, naturalness, and patriotism, and asserting that "children belong to the State before belonging to their parents." The Convention received it and sent it to the Education Committee for burial.
The most damaging charge made against Tallien and Thérésa has been that of avarice—that their famous "moderation" was no better than a racket which filled their pockets with money extorted from supplicants. If so, why didn't the supposed victims say so in their memoirs or, better still, to the CPS? Tallien's "crime," in Robespierre's eyes, was "moderatism"; if he had had evidence of peculation, he, the high priest of the Republic of Virtue, surely would have used it. Thérésa was independently wealthy, while Tallien never was, before or afterwards. The few known gifts they received were not regarded by the donors as extorted. The money from fines—which were substantial, in this commercial center—went by Tallien's own order to support the armies or public good works, huge sums, notably, to the hospice established at the former convent of the Benedictines at Saint-Croix.
Early in February 1794, Tallien removed the more hardline members of the two commissions running the Terror. After the CPS got word, he left on February 22 to defend himself in the Convention, which he did with great success. He supported Danton and the "Indulgents" against the Robespierrists, and during the Dantonists' final surge he served a term as president of the Convention (March 21–April 5). Ironically, his presidency witnessed the defeat and execution of the Dantonists. The Convention, overawed by Robespierre and Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, approved—but with deepening uneasiness. If Danton could be reached, who might be next?
Tallien's sudden departure left Thérésa quite shaken. They had quarreled recently when he learned she had written to an old flame, Félix Le Pelletier de Saint-Fargeaux. But she did miss him and, especially, felt exposed as the Terror escalated nationally. She turned her charms on the sole remaining representative, Claude-Alexandre Ysabeau, and on a hotly Robespierrist inspector (April 1–24), Marc-Antoine Jullien. The latter resisted and once back in Paris reported on her unfavorably.
No sooner had Tallien left than her ex-husband arrived to settle money matters before emigrating to Martinique. The agreement (March 28) left her essentially with what she had brought to the marriage. Still, he asked for, and she gave him, all her jewels so he would have some liquid wealth. He did not thank her. The jewels she wore later during the Thermidorean period were probably these, repurchased by her father once he was released (1795) from his Spanish prison (says Bourquin), and not crown jewels stolen by Tallien after the September Massacres, as their enemies alleged.
To firm up her standing with the Jacobins, she wrote (perhaps with help) an "Address to the Convention on the Obligations [engagements] of Citizenesses," which was read on April 14 at the Club national de Bordeaux. It proposed for young unmarried women a kind of national service obligation to work in shelters for the poor and sick, and affirmed her desire to be among the first. It was no feminist tract, for it praised the domestic virtues and said women should be men's companions, not their competitors—orthodox Jacobin theses. A well-written piece, it was sent to the Convention, which voted it honors and sent it to the CPS and the Education committee, which filed it away. She also incorporated (April 2) a saltpeter works (for gunpowder) with Jean Martel, the 14-year-old son of a businessman needing to demonstrate his republican zeal. It was no fictional enterprise and operated after her flight.
She left Bordeaux on May 5 or 6 with a passport for Orléans. Despite the risk, she went on to Paris. The Convention had decreed (April 16) that all ex-nobles and foreign-born persons with whose countries France was at war must leave Paris, fortified places, and port cities. She left son Théodore with relatives and traveled with two servants and one Jean Guéry, a young man with the Cabarrus firm, to escort her. (Inevitably, insinuations have been made about Guéry.) After a brief stop in Paris, she went to Fontenay-aux-Roses, where Tallien furtively joined her for a few days. The local agent of the CPS spotted her, and on May 22 a warrant for her arrest went out.
After some murky intrigues involving double agents, the "femme Fontenay" was arrested at Versailles on the night of May 30–31 and brought to the Petite-Force prison in Paris. There she was strip-searched by eight leering jailers, given a filthy gown and her slip, and isolated in a windowless, vermin-infested cell. For 25 days, she recounted, she was not let out, nor was her straw changed or waste pail emptied. She took sick. According to a probably apocryphal story, when someone asked Robespierre to ease her regime, he replied, "Well, once a day let her look in a mirror." Finally, she was allowed an hour a day in a sunlit room with others and eventually won more favors in return for sketching her jailers. Every day she felt a sickening fear when the warden read the names of those called before the Revolutionary Tribunal—and to almost certain death, because under the law of the 22nd Prairial II (June 10, 1794) the court could refuse to hear a defense, and death or release were the only verdicts allowed.
When Robespierre presented the 22nd Prairial law, he had stared at Tallien, who was shouted down when he objected. The key provision of the law removed the Convention deputies' immunity. Robespierre was planning to purge at least a half-dozen, Tallien and Joseph Fouché for certain. Why did he then delay? Little is known for certain, but it appears that even though he had had Tallien expelled from the Jacobins (June 14), he was leery of his support in some sectors of the Mountain and wanted an airtight case. Hence, Thérésa was not executed forthwith but instead pressured by promises of a release and a passport for her and her son if she would testify against him. She refused. With executions soaring in June and July (the "Great Terror"), events now moved to a climax.
A conspiracy against Robespierre took shape. Tallien, Fouché, Paul Barras, Stanislaus Fréron, and others (about a dozen, all Mountaineers) quietly stoked the deputies' fears that they might be on Robespierre's "list." Quarreling behind the scenes in the CPS aided their efforts. Robespierre, probably sensing that his hold was weakening, lay low until he made a great speech in the Convention on the 8th Thermidor (July 26) defending his policies and attacking unnamed conspirators. But he made a fatal tactical mistake when he refused to answer shouts from the floor to give names. This only confirmed the fears spread by the conspirators, who by now included Jean Collot d'Herbois and Jacques Billaud-Varenne of the CPS.
The showdown came the next day after a night of feverish activity. When Saint-Just, Robespierre's most reliable spokesman, his "prosecutor," went to the rostrum, it was now or never for the conspirators. Tallien instantly interrupted him on a vague point-of-order—Collot was presiding and allowed it—and proceeded to denounce him and Robespierre for "divisiveness." The atmosphere turned electric. Others followed Tallien to prevent Saint-Just, who seemed stunned, from speaking. They charged Robespierre with "tyranny" and "dictatorship." At a critical moment, when the debate threatened to wander into trivialities, Tallien intervened to refocus it. The drama reached its peak when Robespierre repeatedly tried to speak and was howled down by the now-stampeding Convention. Tallien melodramatically flourished a knife and cried that he intended to kill Robespierre if the Convention failed to act. Motions to arrest Robespierre and certain of his supporters were shouted through. After they escaped to the Paris City Hall and tried to raise a revolt, the Convention outlawed them. The Paris sections failed to rise, Convention forces led by Barras took the rebels captive, and the next day (July 28) they were dispatched to "the National Razor."
Thérésa played a role in this historical turning point and ever after took immense pride in it. But its true importance is disputable. Briefly, at some point while imprisoned she began to exchange letters with Tallien, doubtless with the connivance of the warden or a turnkey. For ink she used paint or her blood. On the 7th Thermidor (July 25), she wrote a letter which, unlike the others, has not survived and whose wording differs slightly in several reported versions. The best-known text runs as follows:
The police administrator has left; he has just announced to me that tomorrow I shall go to the tribunal, that is to say, to the scaffold. That bears little resemblance to a dream I had this night…. Robespierre no longer ex isted and the prisons were opened. A brave man sufficed perhaps to bring it about; but thanks to your signal cowardice, there remains nobody who can enjoy such a benefit. Adieu.
Tallien replied, "Have as much prudence as I shall have courage, and above all stay cool." It is often said that Tallien, mortally afraid his mistress was about to die, now resolved to attack Robespierre immediately; that is, the letter in some manner triggered the events of the 9th Thermidor. When the story became known—not through Tallien, who never spoke of it and disliked talking about himself—the 21-year-old Thérésa was hailed by the public as their savior, "Notre Dame de Thermidor."
What to make of this story? There probably was a letter. That she called him a coward is disputed because at least one account by her does not mention it. What grounds did she have for such an accusation? Did he not tell her he was conspiring? Possibly, out of prudence. Maybe it was from desperation, in order to jolt him into action. Tallien (with Barras) played the leading public role on the 9th Thermidor. But the timing of the showdown clearly had nothing to do with her letter. Robespierre's speech on the 8th had lit the fuse. Judging from a speech by Tallien himself on August 9, the choice of the 9th Thermidor seems to have depended on information fed to Fouché from inside the CPS about divisions which were isolating Robespierre. When Saint-Just rose to speak on the 9th, the die was cast, for the conspirators knew his customary role all too well. Tallien saw in a flash what was coming and rushed to the rostrum. Collot let him speak, and all unfolded from there.
As for Thérésa, she was not taken to the tribunal on the 8th as she had been told to expect. Nobody knows why. Did her letter influence the course of events? It was Tallien, after all, not another, who seized the initiative and assumed the mortal risk of belling the cat. Why doubt that his sure judgment and genuine eloquence during the harrowing debate were fueled not just by fear for his own skin (as was true of all the conspirators) but also by knowledge that his beloved Thérésa was in mortal danger? As she wrote to a friend several years later, "The 9th Thermidor, the most beautiful day of my life, because it was a bit [un peu] by my little hand that the guillotine was overthrown." Putting it that way, she spoke the truth.
From this point until Napoleon Bonaparte seized power on November 9, 1799, French politics were unsettled more than ever. The socalled Thermidorean Reaction lasted until October 26, 1795, when the Convention dissolved and was replaced by a new regime featuring a bicameral legislature and an executive of five men called Directors. (It was the Directory, so called, that Napoleon ended.) The country remained a republic but one continually threatened by unrepentant Jacobins on the left and resurgent monarchists on the right. The men in power kept the regime afloat by basculement, tilting to one side, then to another. To complicate matters, France was continually at war with a shifting coalition of enemies and experienced both victory and defeat in the fighting.
Tallien, now on the CPS (for a month), saw to Thérésa's early release, on the 12th Thermidor (July 30). She first spent some time reestablishing herself financially. Being property rich—although her ex-husband had sold off some without her consent—but cash poor, she sold personal effects. In mid-September, she went to Bordeaux to settle affairs and retrieve young Théodore. She took residence in Paris at 9, rue Saint-Georges off the rue Chausée-d'Antin. Although she and Tallien were seen everywhere together, they lived apart. On December 26, 1794, however, they married in a civil ceremony. Having learned from experience, she had had a rigorous marriage contract drawn—it looked as if she anticipated a divorce—which left her in complete control of her assets. Why did she marry him? Out of gratitude for twice saving her life? A sympathy inspired by shared danger? For protection from public attacks on her ("la Cabarrus," as she was called)? The fact that she was four months' pregnant? As she put it once, "When you go through a storm, you can't always choose the plank you cling to." Moreover, she was ambitious and felt drawn to powerful men. Tallien was a leading figure. Doubtless the pair anticipated a brilliant future.
Unfortunately, that prospect foundered in the tempests of the Thermidorean Reaction. While the Convention hesitated in the first weeks after Robespierre's fall, not knowing whether to end the Terror or continue it under new auspices, Tallien sensed that the public wanted it over. So he helped clear the air by denouncing it and the whole Jacobin Party (August 28)—for which he had to resign from the CPS. So deeply did he become involved in the anti-Jacobin movement, even (with Barras and especially Fréron) supporting gangs of overdressed young men, the "Jeunesse dorée" (Gilded Youth), to intimidate opponents, that reports circulated that he was in league with the monarchist émigrés. Still, when an émigré force landed and was crushed at Quiberon Bay (June 23–July 20, 1795), it was he who was sent, with Claude Blad, as a representative-on-mission to deal with it. He would have preferred to spare the prisoners, but the law required otherwise, and no promises had been made. Doubtless sensing, too, a need to burnish his republican credentials, he set in motion the drumhead trials and executions of 754 émigrés held over the next seven months. In the last weeks of the Convention, he tacked toward the Jacobins by calling (unsuccessfully) for nullification of the recent elections for the new legislative bodies because they reflected a conservative, possibly monarchist, revival. All in all, by the end of the Thermidorean Reaction, Tallien's political credit had sunk very low.
While Tallien's star waned, Thérésa's only burned brighter. Some time after their wedding they moved into a residence in her dowry, "La Chaumière" (The Cottage), which became famous as housing arguably the leading salon in Paris. (Borquin says they occupied "La Chaumière" in the spring of 1796.) "La Chaumière" was half-hidden amidst market gardens on a country lane, nowadays the rue Montaigne near the Champs-Élysées. She had it painted to look like a stage farm, with carefully imitated dilapidated bricks and woodwork and a roof of moss-grown thatch. The interior, however, while not large, was sumptuously furnished. Bankers, contractors, ex-nobles, generals, and deputies flocked to this reputedly most "political" of the salons. After years of Jacobin austerity, luxury and refinement reappeared—at least among the fortunate few, for the common people, victimized by galloping inflation, were enduring terrible deprivations during the winter of 1794–95, one of the coldest of the century. As if to mock Robespierre's Republic of Virtue, pre–1789-style indulgence ruled again. A dance craze swept society. The Thermidoreans probably were less immoral and licentious than has traditionally been alleged, but their reputation is not ill-deserved.
Thérésa Tallien constantly entertained or attended parties, balls, concerts, or the theater. Pregnancy seems not to have interfered all that much; she was at the Théâtre Feydeau when she went into labor with her daughter Rose-Thermidor-Laure-Joséphine Tallien, at first known as Thermidor, then Laure, then Joséphine Tallien , born May 17, 1795. She was the fashion pace-setter, introducing the "Grecian" style, which became the rage among "les Merveilleuses" (the Wonderfuls), a troop of trendy young women. It featured light fabrics, clinging robes secured with a belt fastened by a large cameo, light cashmere shawls, sandals, bare feet with toe rings, and wigs of every hue. Modifications became ever more daring. Victor de Broglie tells of seeing her arrive at the Ranelagh ballroom "dressed like Diana, bust semi-nude, shod in buskins and clothed, if one may use the word, in a tunic which did not go below the knees." Talleyrand once remarked of her, "One could not be more richly undressed." Mme Hamelin , not to be out-done, won her moment of fame by strolling topless from the Luxembourg to the Champs-Élysées, followed by a jeering crowd.
Frivolity abounded, causing vehement resentment among the hungry masses. The salons not only paraded the (often ill-gotten) wealth of their habitués, but also exerted huge political influence. Jaundiced observers have portrayed the times as subject to a greatly disproportionate influence of flighty, generally immoral women. The great historian Albert Mathiez once wrote, "The Revolution had destroyed these women's pleasures, diminished or threatened their fortunes, and changed their habits. How could they fail to loathe it?"
At first blush, Thérésa seems to fit this bill. Yet she did not "loathe" the Revolution per se, the freedoms it had brought, but only the bloodshed and brutality, the Revolution of the Terror, not of 1789. Frivolous her life was in many respects, yet for good reason she came to be called "Notre-Dame de Bon Secours" (Our Lady of Good Help). She answered a seemingly endless litany of pleas, especially from returned émigrés and ex-nobles but also from distressed souls of the humblest sort. Probably hundreds of prisoners owed her a debt for their release. She also worked to smooth relations between political opponents. No small part of her active social life, above all her salon, was a calculated effort to acquire influence which she could then use to help others. Moreover, her generosity extended even to showing no jealousy of other women's efforts, accomplishments, or beauty—no small virtue in that hothouse milieu. It is striking that one of her husband's most bitter foes, the deputy-memoirist Antoine Thibaudeau, wrote that "her rule [over society] dried many tears and, as far as I know, cost nobody anything."
By the summer of 1795, her marriage was dying. She later claimed that Tallien's role in the Quiberon affair caused her to become "disgusted" with one who had "too much blood on his hands." It may have been the last straw, anyhow. Tallien found himself reduced to a shadowy presence in society, tortured by jealousy which, she told a friend, once even led to threats to shoot her. By summer, too, she had become involved in a web of relationships that defies secure chronicling.
On August 6, 1794, Tallien had secured release from prison of a close acquaintance, one Joséphine (Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie), 31-year-old widow of General Alexandre de Beauharnais, recently executed. Thérésa and Joséphine (or Rose, as she was then called) became best friends; it was Joséphine who was chosen as baby Thermidor's godmother. At "La Chaumière," Joséphine met Paul Barras, an assiduous attender there. One day Barras brought along a strange-looking, somber, small, emaciated, bright-eyed young (aged 26) man with shoulder-length hair, Brigadier General Napoleon Bonaparte, currently vegetating in Paris while angling for a good assignment. (Barras had met him when he had been put in charge of the artillery at the siege of Toulon, where Barras was a representative-on-mission.) Thérésa took pity on him and had a tailor replace his shabby uniform with a fine outfit. Bonaparte had begun looking for a wife. Among others, the story goes, he approached Thérésa, who laughed him off with an out-of-character remark that she felt she "could do better." Fateful words. (Some claimed she granted him "favors" anyway.) The rejection would one day haunt her.
Meanwhile, Joséphine had become Barras' mistress du jour, although Thérésa was never far from his view. On the 13th Vendémiaire III (October 5, 1795), events took a dramatic turn. To meet an uprising in Paris against the expiring Convention by sections stirred up by monarchist plotters, the Convention (as on the 9th Thermidor) appointed Barras commander of the defense. He in turn made Bonaparte in effect his second-in-command. At the critical moment, the young general smashed the uprising with well-sited artillery. The action catapulted him to prominence. As for Barras, he was elected one of the five Directors when the new regime debuted on October 26, and in short order became the dominant personality; of the five, he was the only one who lasted until Bonaparte overthrew the regime in November 1799.
Immediately after Vendémiaire, Bonaparte began to court Joséphine. Barras was tiring of her, and by January, at the latest, Thérésa had replaced her as mistress of Barras, then the most powerful man in France. On March 9, 1796, Bonaparte and Joséphine quietly married. As witnesses she chose her notary, the Talliens, and Barras—a piquant tableau.
Paul-François de Barras (1755–1829) was a ci-devant viscount and ex-army and naval officer blessed with extraordinary political instincts. Tall, handsome, vigorous, intelligent, with a grand seigneur's manners and presence, he habitually surrounded himself with beautiful young aristocratic women and (it was noted) handsome young men. He had married in 1791 but left after a few weeks to pursue a political career. In 1792, he won election to the Convention, which sent him and Fréron on mission to Toulon, where they (unlike Tallien) conducted a merciless repression. He was a gambler at the tables and in life, and an accomplished rake. Ambitious, venal, cynical, and amoral in excelsis, he attained similar heights as a lover of fine food, fast women, and the arts. Pleasure was his deity. And now to crown it all, he had the reputedly most beautiful woman in France for a mistress and as hostess for his ceaseless receptions, balls, and entertainments at "La Chaumière," the Luxembourg Palace (where the Directors resided), and his charming suburban Château de Grosbois, which had once belonged to Louis XVI's brother, the future Louis XVIII.
Directory society was a continuation of Thermidorean society on a grander scale and at a less frenetic pace. Thérésa, seconded by Joséphine, the stunning Juliette Récamier , and a squadron of blueblooded lovelies, starred at the Luxembourg Palace, to which she restored a luxurious éclat after the Revolutionary austerity had gutted it. She moved out of "La Chaumière" to reside at 21, rue Chausée-d'Antin, in the emerging Right Bank center of fashionable society, but spent most of her time as hostess for Barras at the Luxembourg and the Château de Grosbois when not visiting other homes, theaters, or ballrooms. These venues mixed ex-nobles, deputies, bureaucrats, service officers, and foreign dignitaries with bankers, artists, writers, musicians, army contractors, speculators, and sundry nouveaux riches—altogether the motleyest collection French high society had ever witnessed. Women were exceptionally visible. François Furet has observed that during these years between the religious and social prohibitions of the Old Regime and the Civil Code severities of Napoleon's empire, "women enjoyed a brief emancipation, revelling in the homage which the new society paid to feminine beauty and draping their bodies in scanty pseudo-classical garments."
Along with her strictly social role, Thérésa continued to answer pleas for help or favors. Most of her non-family correspondence consists of letters on behalf of others. Many years later she said her intention was to be useful to victims of all political opinions and that she felt she had nothing to fear from any party. Her motto was "Forget errors, pardon wrongs." Many came to her, of course, in order to reach Barras. She played no role in politics à la Mme de Pompadour ; her domain lay outside questions of policy. Rather, she was a dispenser of charities and a "fixer," someone to see who could drop words in the right places. She probably accepted money at times, her husband having none, but how much and under what circumstances is unknown. Certainly Barras kept her well supplied. She enjoyed spending yet also had a good head for finances. She loved money, Barras recalled, not for itself but for the pleasures it could get her.
At least once she appeared to overstep herself. Her father, out of prison and back in favor, turned up for two months in the summer of 1797, and after soundings was proposed by Spain in January 1798 as ambassador to France. Thérésa was delighted at the prospect, but her promotion of his candidacy hurt more than it helped. Talleyrand, the foreign minister, viewed her and her father as probable future intriguers, which he did not need, particularly because her royalist connections—the monarchists persistently courted her—promised trouble in the wake of the recent pro-Republican coup of the 18th Fructidor V (September 4, 1797). So the government politely evaded Spain's request by invoking a decree forbidding any French native to represent a foreign state in France. François returned to Spain, where he was richly consoled by being made minister of finance.
Thérésa loved the limelight, loved being applauded, admired, and courted. Not surprisingly, her celebrity reaped criticism and even hatred. A story goes that at a ball someone attached to the back of her gown a card reading "Respect national property." The press, as always, revelled in scurrilous rumors about "the New Marie Antoinette ," "Notre-Dame de Septembre" (recalling Tallien's link to the 1792 massacres), and "orgies" at "La Chaumière." When her liaison with Barras became obvious, a song went the rounds, "Ah! Ah! Madame Barras." A pamphlet signed "Belzébuth" appeared: "Letter from the Devil to the Greatest W…. in Paris. Do You Recognize Her?" She could hardly expect to escape unscathed, indeed, because the Directory was never popular—attacked from all sides, perpetually at war, exuding odors of corruption and license while the masses grappled with hunger and runaway inflation.
Tallien, meanwhile, limped along as a lowly deputy in the Council of Five Hundred. On February 26, 1797, Thérésa filed for divorce. He persuaded her to attempt a reconciliation, but it soon broke down. The stillborn son she delivered on December 20, 1797, probably was not Barras', as was assumed, but the fruit of this March reconciliation. At her friends' urging and because of her pregnancy and her father's candidacy for the ambassadorship, she allowed proceedings to stall. Misfortune dogged Tallien. The law of the 22nd Floréal VI (May 11, 1798) resulted in the nullification, for purely political reasons, of a number of recent elections, among them Tallien's. Unemployed now and desperate, he prevailed on Bonaparte to enroll him in the large civilian staff for the campaign in Egypt, departing on May 19. He may have hoped, too, that his absence would make Thérésa's heart grow fonder, and he wrote to her frequently. But it would be three years before that disastrous expedition ended and he could regain France. The wanderer found things considerably changed.
In January 1799, Thérésa and Barras had parted by mutual accord. The affair had worn thin, and Barras, his finger ever to the wind, had concluded that criticism of her had become dangerous to him, excess ballast. He was content, therefore, to drop her over the side into the waiting arms of a friend, "the richest man in France," Gabriel-Julian Ouvrard (1770–1846). Barras had smoothed the way. During a hunting party at Grosbois in late-1798, he had put her and Ouvrard in adjoining rooms. After the two separated from the others in the woods during the hunt and returned late, eyebrows went up. The new arrangement was inaugurated when in February 1799 she bought from Barras a splendid one-story Left Bank manse on the rue Babylone. Built by the Marquis de Barbançon, then owned by the Duc de Maine, it had been confiscated during the Revolution and bought by Barras. She added extensive gardens and furnished the place lavishly. Until his death in 1829, she and Barras remained on friendly terms.
Ouvrard, at 29 only three years older than she, had a wife (since 1795) who refused to leave her native Nantes for Paris. Charming, elegant, generous, and fairly handsome, he had rocketed to immense wealth by foreseeing the Revolution's ravenous appetite for paper. He bought and sold vast quantities and then, after hiding out in the army to escape charges of profiteering, returned to Paris following the 9th Thermidor to become active in business, foreign trade, and banking. In 1797, he became the navy's supplier-general and loaned ten million francs to the Directory.
Bonaparte's coup ending the Directory (November 9, 1799), sounded the knell for Thérésa Tallien's starring role in public life. She talked her way into the Luxembourg, which was surrounded by soldiers, to try to persuade Barras to resist, but he knew better. Bonaparte, who resented Ouvrard yet needed his wealth and competence, had him detained briefly in 1800 but soon called upon him to keep Paris supplied with wheat and then become supplier-general to the army, an obscenely lucrative commission. He would not, however, allow Thérésa entrée. He blamed her for Joséphine's misbehavior during his absences in Italy and Egypt, regarded her consorting with Barras as reprehensible, and, as noted, may have carried a grudge for her having put him down.
Almost nothing of a personal nature is known of her and Ouvrard's liaison, which lasted until 1804, save that they had four children. The pair lived on opposite banks of the Seine, entertained lavishly, and at the end parted with coolness but no obvious animosity, meeting mostly at weddings of their children, for whom he was a good father by the undemanding standards of the time. All the children bore her maiden name, Cabarrus. Clémence Cabarrus , born February 1, 1800, married Baron de Vaux, colonel in the Royal Guard, but was widowed early and turned to charitable works, ending as Mother-Superior of the Congrégation de Saint-Louis; Édouard Cabarrus, born April 19, 1801, married Adèle de Lesseps , sister of the great engineer, and became a distinguished physician whose clientele included Alexandre Dumas, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Charles Gounod, and Emperor Napoleon III; Clarisse Cabarrus , born May 21, 1802, married a leading journalist, Achille-Ferdinand de Brunetière; and Stéphanie Cabarrus , born September 2, 1803, married Baron Amédée-Ferdinand Moisson de Vaux, of Normandy. Ouvrard, it seems, was a busy man; on September 7, 1801, his actual wife gave birth to a daughter.
As for poor Tallien, he regained France in April 1801 after being captured and released by the English only to learn that Thérésa was pregnant with her second child by Ouvrard and was resuming divorce proceedings. The divorce became final on April 8, 1802. They corresponded regularly until his death, mostly because of daughter Thermidor (now known as Joséphine). Thérésa habitually referred to him as "the friend par excellence." He was an affectionate father and helped as far as he could with his daughter's education. The elder Joséphine (after 1804, Empress), about his only remaining ally, paid her tuition at a pension. In April 1815, she married Comte Félix de Narbonne-Pelet, not rich but bearer of a fine name. Tallien lived on to a sad end. Napoleon spurned him because he had criticized his abandonment of the army in Egypt (1799), but he finally yielded to his pleas and named him (November 2, 1804) consul at Alicante, Spain. He fell very ill almost immediately and returned to France, where he lived on his modest salary until Napoleon's fall. Louis XVIII took pity on him (or sarcastically patronized this regicide) and granted him a small pension just before he died, all but destitute, on January 15, 1820.
Thérésa, her liaison with Ouvrard at an end, met Comte Joseph-Philippe de Riquet-Caraman late in 1804 at the salon of Germaine de Staël. They lost no time; the banns were published on January 6 and 13, 1805. Until the marriage, however, they were occupied with obtaining an annulment of her first marriage (the civil marriage with Tallien being a nullity in the eyes of the Church) and overcoming opposition from his family. At length, the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal de Belloy, decided the marriage had been "null and abusive" because of its speed and her age. The civil ceremony took place on August 3, and on August 18 a small religious service followed at the Saint-François-Xavier parish church in Paris. She was now Comtesse Riquet-Caraman. A trip to Italy followed, partly on business connected with Joseph's inheritance, partly to try to persuade his outraged father to give them his blessing by obtaining that of the pope. The couple was well received in Venice, the courts of Florence and Naples, and by Pius VII, who duly blessed them. It did no good. Joseph's father died in 1807, unreconciled.
Joseph, two years her senior, came from an ancient noble family and had emigrated during the Terror. Tall and athletic, he was an imposing figure, refined, cultured (an excellent violinist), and upright in character. Soon, upon the death of a maternal uncle, he inherited the lands of Chimay, a former principality of the Holy Roman Empire located on the French border in the Belgian Ardennes (Hainault). Henceforth, he bore the courtesy title of Prince de Chimay, the principality having been annexed by France since 1795. In 1814, after Napoleon's fall, Chimay became part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which until 1830 included Belgium. François reluctantly changed his citizenship from French to Dutch, and in 1824 King William I of the Netherlands at last officially recognized Chimay's special status—thus legitimizing Thérésa's title of Princesse de Chimay.
The Château de Chimay had been unoccupied for two centuries. Pending its restoration, the couple resided at the rue Babylone manse and the Château de Menars, near Blois. Because of her exclusion from Napoleon's court during the Consulate (1800–04) and the Empire (1804–15), Thérésa's salon fell to the second tier, visited now mostly by longtime friends, foreign notables passing through, and artists and musicians. The Château de Chimay, too, became a favorite resort for the latter, among them composers Luigi Cherubini and Daniel-François Auber (who wrote an opera for her, Jean de Couvin, 1813, performed in her theater at the château); tenor Pierre Garat and the great Spanish mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran (1803–36); violinists Charles de Bériot, Pierre Rode, and Pierre Baillot; pianist George Alexander Osbourne; poet Népomucène Lemercier; and painters Horace Vernet and Jean-Baptiste Isabey. The latter gave her lessons she used in painting excellent miniature portraits.
Napoleon, while in exile at St. Helena, recounted that Thérésa would meet him secretly at a masked ball every year and beg to be admitted to court, but he remained adamant. If you were Emperor, he retorted, would you admit a woman who had "two or three husbands and children by everybody?" One mistake can be excused, but a second, "and on and on?" She could not, of course, cite his own sexual transgressions, or those of his sisters Carolina, Elisa , and Pauline Bonaparte . Moreover, he absolutely forbade Joséphine to see her, a gratuitous cruelty. After he divorced Joséphine (1810), however, they had a tearful reunion at Malmaison. Joséphine's early death (May 29, 1814) affected her greatly.
Thérésa had four children with Joseph: Prince Joseph de Chimay, born on August 20, 1808; Alphonse, born on June 16, 1810; Marie-Louise de Chimay, born on August 6, 1813 (died on January 14, 1814); and, at age 41, Marie-Louise-Thérésa-Valentine de Chimay , born on February 19, 1815. François did not adopt her six other children but treated them kindly as his own. Only a week before her lastborn arrived, her son Théodore, not yet 26, died (February 10). He had caused her much grief for years because of his gambling and incessant borrowing. Joséphine got him a post on General Junot's staff. Badly wounded, he retired to his paternal grandparents' Île-Saint-Louis home, where he had largely been raised, and soon died despite Thérésa's care.
At Chimay, she became a much-loved figure in this poverty-ridden region. "La Bonne Dame de Chimay" founded a 540-bed hospice and thread mill for the destitute, visited the poor and sick, gave money away, and furnished prizes for charity fairs and lotteries. "Doing good for others," she said, "is the sole happiness unmixed with pains that Heaven affords."
Her charitable labors helped her overcome the depression she suffered because of her exclusion (again) from court functions at The Hague by William I, a famously stubborn man. Her revolutionary past tracked her relentlessly through these years of political reaction. Joseph insisted, nevertheless, on fulfilling his court duties as chamberlain to the king and member of the First Chamber of the Estates-General. He and the children received invitations, but she did not. She spoke ill of nobody in public, but in private she wrote that this humiliation was a "moral assassination." She did not receive the support from her husband she might have expected and wrote that she felt useless and wanted to die. He became somber and morose, perhaps, she feared, seeing her as an obstacle to his advancement. "Tell me," she wrote in a pathetic letter, "that you do not regret having married me." In the end, she refused to be broken by her exclusion and by the calumnies to which she was becoming exposed in recently published memoirs: "I have lived to this day," she wrote on July 25, 1829, "without having caused any tears to be shed, without having experienced a feeling of hatred or desire to take revenge; I want to die as I have lived."
For years she suffered from liver disease, which caused her belly to swell. Eleven childbirths, a dangerous proceeding in those times, also took a toll. She bled frequently. She visited spas at Plombières and Dieppe; while at Nice in October 1830 she experienced a crisis. It recurred in July 1834, and she declined thereafter. Near the end, her once-famous figure was swollen to the point of deformity. On January 15, 1835, she had herself carried to the terrace outside her room to savor the view one last time. That night at about 10 pm she died.
A huge crowd from around the region attended her funeral on the 19th. She was buried in the Old Cemetery in the center of town, but when it was closed her remains were transferred to the vault of the princes of Chimay beneath the choir of the parish church. In 1852 a monument was erected on the square containing four figures, three of princes of Chimay, one of her. The slab over the empty grave in the Old Cemetery contains a faint epitaph: "Consoler, Secourir, Charmer, violà tout sa vie" (To Console, to Aid, to Charm, that was her whole life).
Few persons have lived lives so representative of their times. "What a novel my life has been!" she declared in old age. Indeed. The decades of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire remain some of the most event-filled passages in world history. "Though I have never been a queen," she observed, "I have lived for a time in a whirlwind not far different from that which surrounds a throne." As a woman, she was excluded from political power as such. Her gender limited her opportunities severely even though, as has been noted, the years when she was most in view saw European women experiencing more freedom than before or for a long time afterward. Men did the choosing. Without her legendary beauty she would not have drawn attention, for she possessed no truly extraordinary mind or abilities. A contemporary noted in 1821 that "she spoke well and knew how to be witty without seeking to appear so." But her wit left no bons mots. She was talented in music and painting, but never enough to overcome the prejudices against female artists. In her correspondence she seldom rose above banalities.
François Furet has cited Barras and Ouvrard as representative founders of the new union between power and finance which would mark the modern age. Thérésa Tallien linked them as a person, while her life in turn was representative of the life women experienced among men at the highest levels of society. She was thrust onto the grand stage when she was too young—much too young to be anything but dazzled by her easy victories over the crowd of men who coveted her. She was more a coquette than a grande amoureuse; she had no secret or passionate loves and wrote no burning love letters. In his memoirs, Baron de Frémilly described her as "a woman without a rudder, with a fragile heart and a Spanish temperament." Her beauty was her passport, the source of her rise, but also her burden, pushing her into situations which exposed her immaturity. She yielded to temptation too often, perhaps because "victory" was so easy. To her great credit, however, in the "whirlwind," enveloped by uncertainty and a society whose moral compass was swinging wildly, she remained in heart uncorrupted, a woman sincerely mourned by the legions she had helped in the course of a turbulent existence.
Bourquin, Marie-Hélène. Monsieur et Madame Tallien. Paris: Perrin, 1987.
Castelnau, Jacques-Thomas de. Madame Tallien, révolutionnaire, favorite, princesse. Paris: Hachette: 1938.
Erlanger, Philippe. "Madame Tallien," in Aventuriers et favorites. Paris: Perrin, 1963, pp. 271–312.
Ferrus, Maurice. Madame Tallien à Bordeaux pendant la Terreur. Bordeaux: Feret, 1930.
Frénilly, M. de [Auguste-François]. Recollections of Baron de Frénilly, Peer of France (1768–1828). Edited by Arthur Chuquet. Trans. by Frederic Lees. NY: Putnam, 1909.
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David S. Newhall , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, and author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (1991)