The fall of Robespierre had been a long time coming during the last days of La Terreur. As Robespierre grew more paranoid and began to send his closest political allies to the guillotine, it became obvious that he had to go. Everything came to a head on the fateful day of 9 Thermidor. And it was Theresia Carbarrus who sparked it.
Theresia Carbarrus Tallien was born on July 3, 1775, the daughter of a wealthy Spanish financier. Like many daughters of rank during her time, Theresia was educated at a convent school in her mother’s native France. When she was fifteen, Theresia was married to Marquis Jean-Jacques Devin de Fontenay. It was a marriage of convenience for both: Theresia married into an old aristocratic family with a title, and her dowry replenished the dwindling Fontenay fortunes. Theresia was presented to Queen Marie Antoinette, and she very quickly became the darling of French aristocratic society. As Lucy Moore says in her book Liberty: The Life and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France:
Theresia’s dark loveliness and foreign dark looks made her a celebrity. Raven-haired, with flashing eyes, she was much in the mode of Germaine de Stael, but ‘extremely en beau.’
Even after Bastille Day, Theresia had no problem finding her niche in the newly changed social scene, and she took full advantage of the new rights and freedoms allowed to women under the new government. She and her husband divorced in 1791. However, as time passed, it became apparent that aristocrats who had embraced the values of the Revolution were not even safe from being suspect, and Theresia moved to Bordeaux and became a mainstay in the city’s social scene and was active in assisting the poor. The city of Bordeaux was very much opposed to the radical politics of the new regime. The revolutonary government young Jean-Lambert Tallien to bring the city under control. He and Theresia met in 1791, and they promptly became romantically involved. Theresia began to use her influence over Tallien to secure the release of those who had been imprisoned and were in danger of losing their heads to the guillotine. The Committee of Public Safety immediately called Tallien back to Paris so they could get to the bottom of the situation. While he was gone, Theresia was arrested and imprisoned. She was held in Fort du Hâ “just long enough to receive lasting scars on her feet and legs from the rats who nibbled at prisoners foolish enough to fall asleep.” Tallien raced back to Bordeaux and had Theresia released.
By the end of 1792, Tallien and Theresia began to appear in public in Bordeaux as a couple, and Theresia began to become involved in local politics. She still was aiding those who were imprisoned or in danger of being imprisoned. Word of this got to Robespierre, and he was determined to stop her. When Theresia arrived in Paris to join Tallien in spring, she was arrested and taken to La Force prison. It was infamous for its horrible conditons; Moore states that “[Theresia's] clammy stone-walled cell contained a straw pallet instead of a bed. For twenty-five days she was held there alone, not allowed to see the sky, not allowed to wash or to change her clothes. When Robespierre was informed about how dreadful the condition were in which the celebrated beauty was being held, he is said to have said, ‘Let her look in a mirror once a day.’”
Tallien was distraught when he heard of Theresia’s capture, and right away his mother rented a room close to La Force for him so he could be close to Theresia. Robespierre’s agents tried everything they could to make Theresia denounce Tallien, but she remained tight-lipped and did not give in to them. She was eventually placed in the common cells.
There are two stories concerning the role that Theresia played in the downfall of Robespierre. In the first one, she wrote a letter to Tallien when she discovered that she was to go before the revolutionary tribunal the next day, and she had dreamed that, “Robespierre did not exist and the prison doors had been opened. ‘But, thanks to your great cowardice, there is no longer anyone capable of making my dream a reality.’” In the second version, Theresia had the letter wrapped around a dagger and sent to Tallien. “I will go to my death despairing that I belonged to a coward like you,” she seethed.
On 9 Thermidor, a day after Robespierre had made a speech about “enemies of the revolution” hiding among the members of the National Convention, Tallien stood up to denounce Robespierre for it. Brandishing the very dagger that Therese may have sent him, he denounced Robespierre as a tyrant and declared, “I armed myself with a dagger to pierce his breast if the National Convention should not have the courage to accuse him.” Soon after this, Robespierre was arrested and brought in front of the revolutionary tribunal, and he went to the guillotine soon after.
Theresia was released from La Force a few days after Robespierre was arrested. She called 9 Thermidor “the most beautiful day of my life, since it was in part by my little hand that the guillotine was overturned.” The crowds christened her “Notre Dame de Thermidor (Our Lady of Thermidor).” She and Tallien became Paris’s premiere couple. On December 26, 1793, after she discovered she was pregnant, Theresia and Tallien were married in their home in Paris. Theresia—who was no fool, however much she loved Tallien—had a prenuptial agreement drawn up, stipulating that they would own their property separately and that Theresia would be the only one who made any decisions when it came to her money.
Theresia became one of the lead salonnieres in Paris, and she set the standard for the style of fashion at the time, and she became known as a merveilleuse, a marvelous woman. Along with Rose de Beauharnais, Germaine de Stael, Juliette Recamier, and Fortunee Hamelin, she was one of the most famous women in Paris. They embodied the sense of the optimism and exhilaration at the fall of Robespierre and the formation of a new government, the Directory.
However bright things may have looked, though, Theresia’s and Tallien’s marriage began to sour. He was jealous of how much the crowds adored her, and he became conscious of how being married to such a wealthy woman weakened his political standing. Theresia knew that her marriage was falling apart, and when Tallien failed to intercede on behalf of the royalist prisoners at Quiberon, despite her pleas for him to do do, Theresia knew that her marriage was over. She and Tallien separated in 1795, because, Theresia said, “Too much blood [stained] the hands of that man….I was always repelled by him.”
Even though Tallien’s politcal career was on the decline after their separation, Theresia still remained in the public spotlight. She wasted no time in moving on, and started a love affair with Paul Barras, another member of the Directory. When a young, ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte sought her affections, she set him up with her friend Rose, later to be renamed Josephine by Bonaparte. Even though their marriage had been brought about with Theresia’s help, Napoleon forbade Rose from seeing her after he rose in power, and she was even ostracized from his court. Theresia’s way of life was unseemly to him, and any association with her would, in his eyes, taint his reputation.
Theresia’s divorce from Tallien was finalized in 1802. She spent years as a sort of serial monogamist, and in 1805 she married one of her lovers, who would later become the Prince de Chimay. She spent the final years of her life in tranquility among her children, grandchildren, and friends, and concentrated on her music and her painting. She died in 1835. Throughout the rest of her life, though, she was renowned for her part in bringing about the fall of Robespierre. To the crowds of Paris, she would always be Madame Tallien, Notre Dame de Thermidor.
Moore, Lucy. Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France. New York: Harper Collins, 2007. Print.