‘This woman would be able to close the gates of hell‘ – William Pitt on Thérésia Cabarrus Tallien.
The ultimate society girl of the late eighteenth century and leader of the dashing and morbidly attired Merveilleuses with their thin muslin gowns, red ribbon chokers and tousled clipped short hair, Juana María Ignazia Teresa de Cabarrús y Galabert (known as Thérésia) was born in a palace in Madrid on the 31st July 1773. She was one of those huge flamboyant, scandalous, intellectual yet tender hearted women that the eighteenth century excelled at producing – a true product of her time in every way.
Heiress to the enormous fortune of her father, a Spanish finance minister, aristocrat and friend of Goya, Thérésia, had no difficulty in attracting suitors and was to marry the Marquis de Fontenay on the 21st of February 1788. Fontenay was an unattractive little man and probably couldn’t believe his luck as he took the enchantingly lovely fourteen year old Thérésia, who had a dowry of over half a million Livres, as his wife. Rich, popular and pretty, the new Marquise de Fontenay was presented to Marie Antoinette at Versailles and placed herself at the heart of fashionable Parisian life on the eve of the Revolution.
Her marriage was a miserable affair though and Thérésia rid herself of her husband, who had dissipated her fortune and then emigrated in order to escape both the fury of the mob, his totally fed up wife and also his creditors. They were divorced in 1791 and Thérésia threw herself with gusto into the liberal political scene of the early 1790s, hosting a salon and having affairs with several prominent men. When the Terror reached its height and even liberal aristocrats who had supported the Revolution found themselves in danger, she escaped to Bordeaux, only to be promptly imprisoned despite her reputation there as a much loved benefactress to the poor of the area. She would have very likely have been guillotined, had she not caught the eye of handsome young Jacobin Tallien who had travelled there as a representative of the Convention and negotiated her release at some risk to himself as he was immediately recalled to Paris to explain himself to the Committee of Public Safety.
The couple returned together to Paris, where Thérésia’s aristocratic pedigree and attempts, via her lover, to secure the release of several state prisoners drew the attention of the Committee of Public Safety who had her re-arrested. Thérésia was firstly imprisoned in the vile La Force and then in the far more salubrious Carmes, where she was to meet Rose de Beauharnais and form a friendship that would last for the rest of their lives. Both women lived in daily fear of execution, especially when Rose’s husband, Alexandre was guillotined.
It is not known for certain how involved Thérésia was in the events of Thermidor. She herself was to tell people that she had had a letter smuggled out to Tallien, telling him that she was due to be brought before the Tribunal the following day and calling him a coward for doing so little to save her life. And lo, she would say, the very next day, he brought about the fall of Robespierre and saved not just her but everyone else then awaiting trial. Their correspondance no longer exists so it is impossible to say if this is the truth, but it makes a good story and Thérésia herself certainly seems to have believed that the Terror was ended for her sake as she gratefully married Tallien on Boxing Day 1794, shortly before giving birth to a daughter who was fancifully christened Thermidor Tallien.
Once the Terror was over, the city of Paris gave itself over to an orgy of fashion, fun and decadence, reminiscent of the lavish joy evidenced by the City of London during the Restoration of Charles II, a century earlier. Beautiful Thérésia, rich, hailed by a grateful populace as Notre Dame des Thermidor who had saved them all from Robespierre was naturally to become the leader of fashionable society and was to be seen out and about every night, dressed in her skimpy muslin gowns, covered in diamonds and, scandalously without any underwear. After watching her arrive at the Opera in a thin white muslin gown with sapphires and rubies flashing on every gold painted finger and toe, Talleyrand is said to have dryly observed: ‘It is not possible to exhibit oneself more sumptuously!’
There was more to Thérésia than these lavish displays though – now that Robespierre had been overthrown and the Terror was at an end, Tallien placed her in charge of the urgent operation to empty the full to bursting Parisian prisons and so she secured the release of countless prisoners as well as securing the penalty free return of many emigrés.
Her marriage to Tallien was to be short lived and finally came to an end in 1795 (although they didn’t formally divorce until the 8th of April 1802) when his callous and underhand treatment of the Royalist Chouan prisoners at Quiberon (he released the women and children as promised but had around 950 soldiers, including the Marquis de Sombreuil shot) turned her against him forever. ‘He has too much blood on his hands,’ Thérésia commented with revulsion.
One of Thérésia’s most ardent admirers at this time was the awkward young Corsican General Bonaparte, but it is said that after gently rebuffing his advances, she introduced him to her best friend Rose de Beauharnais, who was to become his beloved Joséphine. Sadly, Napoleon did not remain grateful for the good turn that she had done him and would later ban Joséphine from seeing her, forbid her to come to his court and rudely pass comment on her morals: ‘She has had two or three husbands and children with all the world’.
After a series of spectacular and high profile affairs with such men as Talleyrand, Paul Barras and Gabriel Ouvrad, she finally married again to the Comte de Caraman, who was later to become Prince de Chimay. It was almost as though Thérésia had gone full circle as she went from aristocratic beauty, who had been presented to Marie Antoinette at Versailles in early 1789 to heroine of the Terror, to leader of one of the most scandalous and louche societies in history to Princesse de Chimay and chatelaine of a château in the country.
Many, many years ago I was taken to the seat of the Chimay family in Belgium, and I remember standing for a long time before the portraits of the Princesse de Chimay who had been a lady in waiting to Marie Antoinette and then of Thérésia. Such a contrast between the two women and yet, they shared the same glamour and spirit that carried so many women of that time through the dark days.
I love this painting by Marguerite Gérard, that is said to depict Madame Tallien and another one of her best friends, Madame Récamier sitting together. I love to imagine Thérésia, Joséphine, Juliette Récamier and Madame de Staël, all great friends despite the tumult of the times and the vagaries of their menfolk, sitting together in their autumn years and reminiscing about the lost days of Marie Antoinette’s court, the excitement of the Revolution and the wild lives that they had all lived.