Thursday, November 03, 2005

Dorothea von Lieven

Desperate Diplomatic Housewives...

Dorothea von Lieven, née Beckendorff Posted by Picasa

If the Honourable Reader is not a misogynist and believes in the power accumulated by emancipated women, John Charmley's "The Princess and the Politicians" is a small gem. The main thesis of this historian-biographer of Princess Dorothea is a serious one. Grand Ladies in their early XIX century Salons who happened to be insiders of the Society circles where political leaders had their informal get-togethers were themselves political actors. Dorothea was the wife of the Russian Ambassador to Britain, Prince von Lieven. They managed to stay in London for twenty years plus, during which many crucial events for the understanding of European Nation-States relationships took place. She begun as a classical Ambassadress, that is as an hostess and a charmer, but she quickly graduated to a husband and wife act of co-analysts of European diplomatic moves, as seen from the eyes of Castlereaghs, Cannings, Greys and Palmerstons. Apparently she went to bed with most of them, and with Prince Metternich too. She ended up being a formidable political operator, mingling without shame or reserve with British internal politics, almost, at some point, a Minister-maker. The slight chance for intelligent women to exercise influence - in those times when they had no political rights, such as to vote and to be elected to Parliament - was is to play with their charm and the trump card of their sexual availability? Let's not be petty bourgeois here and read flirtations, affaires du coeur and the occasional night out of the marital bed with our puritanical tabloid-selling glasses. These are distorting lenses indeed. But what about today? Did "sex, intrigue and diplomacy" went on until modern times? Or since women can now exert raw power without intermediaries that dimension is irrelevant? What about names that spring to mind on both sides of the debate?Eleanore Roosevelt? Golda? Margarets (Trudeau andThatcher)? The Italian Mrs. Gandhi? Angie Merkel?

For students of Imperiology Charmley's book is good reading too. Fascinating to witness those last times (from the defeat of Napoleon to the crude expansionist drive of the Tsarist armies to the East and South) when British and Russian Empires were on the same side of the geopolitical fence. But if you are serious about understanding Empires you have to read different stuff.

Not really a coincidence that a descendant of Russian and British Imperialists, and a Lieven himself, has written a really incisive book on what makes Empires these enormously fascinating political animals. I can recommend Prof. Dominic Lieven's "Empire" as a kind of serious full-bodied red wine one likes to drink after the "Princess" more frivolous black-pinot bubbly stuff has put you in the right mood.

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