On the rise

J.M. Roberts

  • Choiseul. Vol. 1: Father and Son 1719-1754 by Rohan Butler
    Oxford, 1133 pp, £48.00, January 1981, ISBN 0 19 822509 1

A man of whom Horace Walpole remarked that ‘gallantry without delicacy was his constant pursuit,’ who brought about the overthrow of the Jesuits, who ran French foreign policy throughout the disastrous Seven Years War, and who overspent his (wife’s) means on a scale spectacular even among the French nobility of his age, would seem hard to forget. Yet the name of Etienne François, Duc de Choiseul, does not now awaken much recognition even among educated men and women. Nor, of course, do such names as Von Arneth, de Broglie, Droysen, Lodge, Sorel (or those of any of the other great masters of the diplomatic history of the 18th century): there lies a large part of the story. Choiseul is embedded at the centre of a subject-matter which is out of fashion. The tides of ideology, social concern, intellectual adventurousness, as well as simple fads, have washed over the 18th century until the splendid old landmarks – the Diplomatic Revolution, Family Compact, Secret du Roi, Kutchuk-Kainardji and all the rest of them – have virtually disappeared in some modern accounts. We shall have to come back to them, of course, if only because 18th-century men themselves attached such importance to them, but while the old diplomatic history is as unjustly discredited as it is at present, it is unlikely that an author as well-informed as Dr Butler can be under any illusion that a large public waits eagerly to find out more about Choiseul. That is a pity. He was an important and interesting man. But such public as does exist for a biography can hardly be enlarged by having to pay £48 for this first instalment.

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