Out of the pages of European history comes a story as colorful and torrid as any modern fiction—the never-been-told-before-told account of the lives of the grand duchess of Courland and her daughters Wilhelmina and Dorothea. By Influence and Desire is the story of how these independent, intelligent women helped shape the course of history in the only way open to them—in the boudoirs of Paris, Vienna, Saint Petersburg and Berlin.
Catherine the Great was in power when in 1779 the beautiful, eighteen-year-old Anna-Dorothea von Medem, daughter of one of the richest and most cosmopolitan families of Courland (now Latvia), was chosen to be the wife Courland’s Grand Duke Peter. When Anna proved more popular and politically astute than her husband, Peter took her abroad where the grand duchess’s influence, and her list of male admirers, grew.
In Paris the grand duchess, whose romantic escapades had long titillated Central European court circles, became the mistress of Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister, whom she aided in an undercover campaign to unseat Napoleon. Love affairs entangling the duchess and her daughters seemed to be the way of the Courland women. For, like their mother, the Courland daughters were liberated, bright, beautiful, and adept at handling men.
Metternich, the Austrian chancellor who shared with Talleyrand the distinction of being one of the greatest statesmen of the day, took Wilhelmina as his mistress. And while the Congress of Vienna struggled to bring order to a Europe in chaos, Talleyrand and Metternich sought solace and advice in the bedrooms of the Courland women. A few years later, Dorothea was to steal the affections of Talleyrand, who was thirty-nine years his senior, supplanting her mother as Talleyrand’s mistress and maintaining that role until his death in 1938.
Rosalynd Pflaum was inspired to write this fascinating history when she was given a volume of letters between Metternich and Wilhelmina. These letters, discovered by Dr. Maria Ullrichova behind an artificial wall in a Cistercian Abbey, proved invaluable. Drawing on this newly uncovered correspondence, on the extensive Talleyrand correspondence already available, and on numerous private archives, Pflaum has recreated these women’s extraordinary lives.