Beautiful, dimwit, survivor, princess… Catherine Talleyrand

In researching the background to a follow up to my novel Bitter Glory, I have become interested in some of the female characters who populated Napoleonic high society. I think several will end up as the subjects of posts here but I have chosen Catherine, the wife of Napoleon’s Foreign Minister, the arch schemer Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.

Catherine Noele Worlée was born in India in 1762, in the hot and sultry southern region of Tamil Nadu, the daughter of a French colonial administrator. It is undoubtedly fanciful but I can’t help but think of that region of crazy heat, sultry humidity, exotic spices and full of contrasts as some kind of metaphor for the lady’s character.

For Catherine was just 15 when she became mistress of George Francis Grand, an English civil servant, shortly after her family relocated to Chandannagar. They were married the following year, 1778. Yet within a year of their marriage an outraged George Grand had caught his wife in flagrante with Sir Philip Francis, a member of the supreme council of Bengal.

For the next three and a half years Catherine lived with Philip Francis… and his wife in an apparently amicable arrangement. But in 1782, for reasons that are unclear Catherine left India and set sail for France. In Paris over the next ten years she moved through a series of lovers each either wealthier or better connected than the last; bankers, politicians, aristocrats. When Vigee Le Brun painted her portrait here she was one of the most famous courtesans in Paris.


But in 1792, with the horrors of the Terror just around the corner, she fled Paris for London and the patronage of more influential lovers.

She remained in London for three years, returning to Paris in 1795 after the fall of Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety and the establishment of the more moderate Directory. A year later she had been introduced to Talleyrand and by 1797 they were lovers, Talleyrand having set her up in her own house at Montmorency.

They were certainly an odd couple. Perhaps it was the attraction of opposites. Talleyrand was urbane, aristocratic, fiercely intelligent, ruthlessly calculating and Catherine was, frankly, none of these things. She was of relatively low birth and had little formal education and she is mocked in various memoirs as being a dimwit; her social faux pas became the stuff of legend in polite society. The story of her mistaking the French traveller, writer, and artist Vivant Denon for Robinson Crusoe and insisting over dinner on talking about how he met Friday may be apocryphal but it gives an idea of the stories about her that were doing the rounds. But, perhaps Talleyrand had had his fill of the imperious Germaine de Stael and her ilk.

And let’s face it, Catherine had other attributes; her beauty was incontestable. With blue eyes, luxurious masses of blonde hair, perfect skin and incomparable grace, she was acknowledged as one of the reigning beauties of the time.

Through Talleyrand’s influence Catherine finally secured a divorce and in 1798 she had moved into his Paris residence where the celebrity couple of the age embarked upon a glittering round of social engagements. Invitation to the Hotel Gallifet became the most sought after ticket in Paris.

In 1802 the couple married at the urging of Napoleon Bonaparte who did not appreciate his chief minister living openly with his mistress, but after their marriage the couple began to drift apart, her husband ultimately giving her enough money to live luxuriously in London.

The Princesse de Benevente, for she kept her husband’s title, moved back to Paris to live out the last few years of her life and she died there in 1834.

Standard opinion of Catherine is that she was stupid but I’m not so sure. In an age where women were most distinctly second class citizens she rose from obscurity to fame and fortune using whatever talents and attributes she had. She ended up a princess, fabulously wealthy and had married the man who, after Napoleon, was the most powerful in France. Not bad for a provincial nobody.