The Princesses of Courland
I’ve been doing research for my third Malcolm & Suzanne Rannoch book, which is set in Paris after Waterloo (the second book takes place before and during the battle). The setting offers me the chance to revisit many of the real historical characters I wrote about in Vienna Waltz (there I am to the left celebrating Vienna Waltz's release with my editor Audrey LaFehr and my agent Nancy Yost). The characters I'm revisiting in the new book include the fascinating Wilhelmine, Duchess of Sagan, and her younger sister Dorothée de Talleyrand-Périgord. Both sisters were in Paris in that tumultuous summer, and both were involved in tangled love affairs. Wilhelmine, after a brief affair with Caroline Lamb’s brother Frederick, had become involved with Lord Stewart, the hot-tempered half-brother of British foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh, while Alfred von Windischgrätz (her lover in Vienna Waltz) was still pursuing her. And of course, Prince Metternich was in Paris as well and far from over Wilhelmine (I don’t know that Metternich ever entirely got over her). Meanwhile, Dorothée was continuing the affair with Count Karl Clam-Martinitz (which begins in Vienna Waltz). Her husband, despite his own numerous affairs, was far from complacent, and fought a duel with Clam-Martinitz. Prince Talleyrand, Dorothée’s uncle by marriage, had his own complicated feelings for Dorothée, which Dorothée perhaps reciprocated more than she would even admit to herself. The life of a Courland princess was never simple.
Courland, located in what is now Latvia, had been a semi-autonomous duchy nominally paying fealty to Poland. In 1795, Peter von Biron, Duke of Courland, Wihelmine and Dorothée’s father (who plays a key role in the backstory of Vienna Waltz), ceded the duchy to Russia. However, Duke Peter had purchased substantial estates that stretched to Sagan in Silesia, only a day’s journey from Berlin. He left Sagan to Wilhelmine, the eldest of his four daughters.
The four Courland princesses, Wilhelmine, Pauline, Jeanne, and Dorothée, grew up almost in their own court, with lavish house parties, a resident troupe of actors, a private orchestra. When Jeanne was sixteen she fell in love with Arnoldi, a violinist from the orchestra who had been hired to teach the music to the Courland sisters. Jeanne became pregnant, and she and Arnoldi ran off together. A Prussian officer discovered her and packed her home. Duke Peter disinherited her in a fit of temper shortly before he died. She had to give the baby up for adoption. Meanwhile, Count Wratislaw, Chief of the Bohemian Police, who became the girls’ guardian on their father’s death, lured Arnoldi back to Bohemia, probably with a forged letter from Jeanne, and had him imprisoned and executed.
Jeanne was married off to the Neapolitan Duke of Acerenza. By the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1814, both she and her sister Pauline (married to Friedrich Hermann Otto, Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen) were separated from their husbands and sharing a house in Vienna. Jeanne had a long time liaison with a Monsieur Borel, and the two of them were apparently like an old married couple.
Duke Peter’s marriage to his much younger wife, Anna Dorothea, had been a dynastic union. Dorthothée (who was ten years younger than Jeanne, the sister nearest to her in age) was almost certainly the daughter of her mother’s lover Count Alexander Batowski. Not long after Duke Peter died, the duchess ended her affair with Batowski and began a liaison with the Baron Gustav Armfelt. Armfelt took a keen interest in the education of clever young Dorothée. Unfortunately the interest he took in Wilhelmine, then eighteen, was less fatherly. They began an affair. One night the duchess noticed someone had taken a candle and went to see who was abroad at such an hour only to find her daughter in the arms of her lover. She slapped Wilhelmine. Her sapphire ring drew blood.
By that time Wilhelmine was pregnant. Armfelt, being an aristocrat, was not executed like Arnoldi, but Wilhelmine, like Jeanne, was compelled to give up her child, a loss that haunted her through the years and that drove many of her actions at the time of the Congress of Vienna (and in the plot of Vienna Waltz). She was hastily married off to the well-born but penniless Louis de Rohan, but her affair with Armfelt continued, with the three of the them traveling together and living off Wilhelmine’s extensive dowry. Eventually Wilhelmine shed both men, first breaking off with Armfelt, then divorcing de Rohan. She later married the Russian Prince Troubetskoi, but by 1814 she had divorced him as well. In 1813, though in the midst of a love affair with the dashing cavalry officer Alfred von Windischgrätz (to whom readers of Vienna Waltz will know she would later return), she began an affair with Austrian foreign minister Prince Metternich. An affair which was still intense when the Congress of Vienna opened. Metternich swore to use his influence to help Wilhelmine recover her daughter (then fourteen). The child was in Finland with Armfelt's relatives. Finland was then under Russian control. Metternich said he would intercede with Tsar Alexander and told Wilhelmine he would make the safety of Russia depend on it. However, at the Congress, Metternich and Tsar Alexander were increasingly acrimonious rivals everywhere from the council chamber to the boudoir. Eventually Wilhelmine appealed to the tsar directly. She also broke with Metternich, possibly at the tsar's insistence. But even with the tsar's support, she never recovered her daughter.
Dorothée meanwhile, much younger than her sisters, had fallen into adolescent love with Polish Prince Adam Czartoryski (the longtime lover of Tsarina Elisabeth of Russia, wife of Tsar Alexander). Czartoryski, though still in love with Elisabeth, was open to the marriage, but through the connivance of Dorothée’s mother and Prince Talleyrand, Dorothée instead end up married to Talleyrand’s nephew Edmond. It was not a happy match. Dorothée, as Suzanne thinks in Vienna Waltz, loved books. Edmond, a cavalry officer, was more likely to be found with his horses or at the gaming tables. Or with his mistresses.
In 1814, Dorothée’s mother once again found herself losing a lover to a daughter. Duchess Anna Dorothea was Talleyrand’s mistress before the Congress of Vienna (he wrote very eloquent letters to her when Paris was falling to the Allies). But it was Dorothée Talleyrand took with him to Vienna as his hostess. In Vienna, he began to see her as more than his nephew’s wife, a story that begins to be dramatized in Vienna Waltz and that I’ll continue to explore in the book I’m now beginning.
What are some of your favorite real historical characters in fiction? Has a novel ever driven you to seek out nonfiction history and biographies to learn more about a particular person? Writers, which historical characters you've written about have particularly captured your imagination?