Talleyrand: Napoleon's Master by David Lawday

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Throughout his ecclesiastical and diplomatic career, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord pursued the opposite of what would nowadays be considered an ethical foreign policy. For one thing, he managed without the slightest compunction to serve as a bishop in the Church under the Ancien Régime, then, liberated from priestly vows that never seem to have meant much to him, he gave his allegiance to the State through successive regimes: revolution (until it became too hot), directory, Napoleonic consulate and empire, the Bourbon restoration and the rival Orléanist monarchy of Louis-Philippe - surely a record number of reconversions (though it must be said that French history has provided more opportunities in the field than were available to the Vicar of Bray).

Still less ethically, Talleyrand expected to be paid well for his services and let everyone, not only his own government, but those of the foreign powers with whom he conducted negotiations, know that he expected what was called a douceur for taking account of their interests. Even David Lawday, who is largely sympathetic to his aristocratic subject, is embarrassed by the way he removed a trunkful of Napoleon's letters from the archives of the Foreign Ministry after the Battle of Waterloo, then offered them for sale first to Prussia and afterwards to England. Most of the letters were addressed to Talleyrand himself, as foreign minister, but Lawday has to admit that this (failed) attempt to dispose of state papers to France's recent enemies was "one of Talleyrand's shabbier enterprises". Here, too, he set new standards.

Napoleon famously described him as "shit in a silk stocking", though Talleyrand's previous English biographer, Duff Cooper, reverses the order of good and bad qualities: "wisdom coated with vice". In most circumstances, Talleyrand would hardly attempt to conceal the evidence of vice. He had open disregard for his vows of celibacy even before he was defrocked, for example, and an undisguised greed for money. On the other hand, he was a shameless master of flattery and all those who dealt with him suspected that he was totally insincere. This was unfair. He would not, on principle, display exactly what he felt, but his thoughts were not always deeply buried, for example in his repeated attempts to discourage Napoleon from military adventures. After Napoleon's victory at Jena, he wrote: "Our love and gratitude are inexhaustible... our deepest wishes are to see an end to dangers which Your Majesty's faithful servants find all the more alarming in that Your Majesty himself treats them as nothing." Much the same after Friedland, one of "those famous victories whose memory will live forever in history... I wish to see it as the last Your Majesty is forced to win."

Here you have the essence of Lawday's defence of this engagingly appalling man. Talleyrand was the supreme pragmatist and what he wanted to achieve above all was stability in Europe. He hated uncertainty and was a master of inertia, preferring no move to a rash one. It is one of the ironies of history that his name is most closely linked to that of a ruler who revelled in action and conquest, and one of its tragedies that he was unable to restrain him from his bloodier follies. It was Talleyrand's lack of enthusiasm for the Peninsular War that inspired the remark about shit in a silk stocking, and the foreign minister let it be known how futile he considered the emperor's endless pursuit of la gloire. He later summed up his efforts at the foreign ministry under Napoleon as being "based on two considerations: to establish for France the monarchic institutions that guaranteed the authority of the sovereign, holding it within just limits, and to treat with Europe in such a way as to have France pardoned for her successes and her glory". The second of these aims, in particular, is pure Talleyrand.

Yet, at the same time, his association with Napoleon was based on genuine respect and when the exiled emperor died in 1821, Talleyrand was surely sincere in his tribute to the emperor's "inconceivable" genius: "There was nothing to match his energy, his imagination, his capacity for hard work, his will to create... He had a sense of the great, but not of the beautiful. He had the most astonishing career of anyone in a thousand years." Perhaps there is something in this of an admiration for opposites: Talleyrand, with his club foot, his susceptibility to colds, his preference for the salon over the battlefield and his habit of not getting up before eleven, was awed by Napoleon's vitality and vision.

Lawday is too sensible to bother with retrospective psychoanalysis. He gives a lucid and readable account of Talleyrand's career, from priest to bishop, refugee in England, exile in America and statesman, down to his final appointment, in his seventies, as Louis-Philippe's ambassador to London. Few historical personalities could provide a better vantage point from which to consider the politics of Europe in that extraordinary period of change, and few have more commonsense messages for our own time. "I attest that any system which aims at taking freedom by open force to other peoples," Talleyrand wrote, "will only make that freedom hated and prevent its triumph." Not much doubt, then, what he would have thought about Iraq. "There is something inexplicable," he warned, in a chat with the recently restored Louis XVIII, "that brings misfortune on governments that neglect me." Needless to say, he got the foreign ministry again.