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Talleyrand was the greatest statesman of his age, and his age was one of the most dangerously eventful in Europe's history. Such was his renown as the archetypally cunning diplomat that when his death was reported in 1838, the reaction of Metternich, his Austrian counterpart, was: ‘I wonder what he meant by that?’
The story is probably apocryphal, but it's revealing. No one knew how to read Talleyrand, and history's verdict on the great man is still not in. Above all, he was a survivor: almost the only person to make it through France's numerous state shake-ups in one piece, from the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, through the days of the Directorate and then the Consulate, the Napoleonic takeover and the proclamation of Empire, the Restoration of the Bourbons, and finally the July Monarchy in the 1830s. None of these regimes was known for its leniency towards predecessors, and yet Talleyrand didn't just survive every coup and revolution (he was behind several of them), he actually maintained a steady rise in power and influence.
So people cannot decide what to make of him. Either he was a brilliantly adaptable politician whose skills and experience made him impossible to ignore, even by those who would have liked to exclude him from power; or, he was the worst kind of opportunist – ‘a byword for tergiversation’, in Duff Cooper's wonderful phrase – who ditched his principles time and again in order to save his own skin.
This biography is broadly sympathetic – indeed when you read it, it's impossible not to like the man. No fan of hard work, Talleyrand looked down on younger, more zealous colleagues, and took the view that a diplomat's main job was to develop a refined sort of laziness and to excel in conversation. He was a product of that extraordinary French eighteenth century, when ‘such conversation as was then audible in Paris had never, perhaps, been heard since certain voices in Athens fell silent two thousand years before’. Talleyrand was always the wittiest and most intelligent man in any room. One contemporary describes him as
lounging nonchalantly on a sofa…his face unchanging and impenetrable, his hair powdered, talking little, sometimes putting in one subtle and mordant phrase, lighting up the conversation with a sparkling flash and then sinking back into his attitude of distinguished weariness and indifference.
He emerges from this book as a sort of aristocratic French Blackadder – witty, brilliant, dissolute, and quite prepared to be unprincipled if necessary. But this is unfair. Talleyrand may not have been willing to die for his principles – ‘nor even suffer serious inconvenience on their account’, as Cooper says – but he did have them. Cooper argues convincingly that there was a set of core beliefs to which he held throughout his whole career, beliefs which often made him unpopular with those in power. Prime among them were a desire for peace rather than conquest, and a commitment to constitutional monarchy. The former explains why he abandoned Napoleon. The latter is even more interesting, because it provides – if you're so minded – a justification for his other changes of allegiance: he supported the Revolution because the monarchy was not constitutional, and he supported the Restoration because the revolutionary government had shown that it did not have the ‘legitimacy’ of monarchy. (Hence his lifelong admiration for Britain, where he thought the perfect balance had been struck: a legitimate king whose power was held in check by a healthy parliament.)
All of this meant that he often acted for the interests of a peaceful Europe even when this ran counter to the wishes of the French government that he was currently serving. Sent by Napoleon to negotiate with Alexander I of Russia in 1806, Talleyrand simply told the tsar to refuse all of Napoleon's demands: ‘Sire, it is in your power to save Europe […] The French people are civilised, their sovereign is not. The sovereign of Russia is civilised and his people are not: the sovereign of Russia should therefore be the ally of the French people.’
Talleyrand was first published in 1932 and doubtless modern historians have moved the scholarship forward somewhat; nevertheless, it's very difficult to imagine this being done any better. Cooper writes beautifully, with a flair for efficient throwaway remarks of the kind modern historians shy away from now: he credits his readers with the intelligence to understand when he is speaking in generalisations for the sake of advancing an argument. He has a great turn of phrase, too. When Fanny Burney and her friends get to know Talleyrand during his exile in London, Cooper summarises the experience like this:
Prim little figures, they had wondered out of the sedate drawing-rooms of Sense and Sensibility and were in danger of losing themselves in the elegantly disordered alcoves of Les Liaisons dangereuses.
The idea cannot be captured more perfectly or economically. So I liked Talleyrand very much, and I liked Talleyrand very much too. He was the man still standing when the smoke cleared, the man not guided by stern morals but by practical genius and a love of the joys of civilisation that only peace can provide. ‘To the gospel of common sense he remained true.’ And although the few principles he did stick to were not always popular, they've become crucial to the Europe of today. Talleyrand may have played the long game, and enjoyed himself along the way, but in the final analysis he got it right.