Napoleon Bonaparte and his chief diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, are usually seen as the oddest of history’s odd couples. One personified boldness, ambition and overblown operatic passion; the other, subtlety, irony and world-weary cynicism. One displayed such restless physical energy that contemporaries repeatedly reached for that newly hatched adjective ‘electric’ to describe him; the other was sickly, pallid and had a club foot. Politically, one wanted to conquer the world, while the other thought France would do very well within its ‘natural boundaries’, and even conspired with the country’s enemies to put it back there. The two most familiar images of the men express the contrast eloquently. First, there is David’s brilliant portrait of Napoleon on his rearing charger in the Alps, seemingly master of the wind, rocks and sky; second, Chateaubriand’s acid description of Talleyrand hobbling into the presence of Louis XVIII with the help of Napoleon’s sinister police chief: ‘A door suddenly opened. Silently, there entered vice, leaning on the arm of crime, M. de Talleyrand walking with the support of M. Fouché.’
In fact, the two men had far more in common than is usually recognised. Both had an astonishing intelligence and capacity for work (‘what a pity the man wasn’t lazy,’ Talleyrand remarked of Napoleon). Both were extraordinarily ambitious, the aristocratic former priest no less than the former junior artillery officer. The story of how Napoleon’s ingenuity drove the British out of Toulon and won him promotion to general at the age of 24 is well known. But Talleyrand, in his late twenties, managed the equally impressive feat of becoming the ‘agent-general’ of the entire French clergy and defending its interests so well that his colleagues voted him the enormous gift of 100,000 French pounds. Both had oversize cravings, although Napoleon sought power and Talleyrand lusted especially after money (both also had a considerable appetite for women). Despite their political differences, both instinctively resisted fanaticism, and throughout most of their careers worked to heal the scars of the French Revolution – with equal lack of success.
Both were also extraordinary performers, each carefully crafting the persona he showed to the world (this is probably what made them both so exceptionally quotable). From the days of his first Italian campaign in 1796-97, Napoleon consciously promoted himself as the great Romantic hero, influencing his portrayal in newspapers, engravings, paintings and the theatre. But Talleyrand’s world-weary aristocrat, so carefully groomed and powdered, with languorous speech and exquisite manners, was no less of a pose. David Lawday, in his new biography, tells one of the great stories about Talleyrand, which, although perhaps apocryphal, expresses precisely the effect the man intended to have. A Jacobin radical bursts into his study during the Terror and Talleyrand gives him a glass of cognac, which he immediately starts to guzzle. Talleyrand stops him:
‘No, no, no, that is not the way to drink cognac. One does it like this. One takes the glass in the hollow of the hand, one warms it, one shakes it with a circular motion to liberate the scent, then one raises it to one’s nostrils, one breathes it in.’
‘And then?’ sighs his panicked visitor.
‘And then, Sir, one puts one’s glass down and one discusses it!’
While Talleyrand cannot compete with Napoleon in terms of sheer volume of biographical material, his life has nonetheless attracted more than its share of talented chroniclers, including Crane Brinton, André Castelot, Jean Orieux and the French politician Michel Poniatowski (not to mention the prolific historian Louis Madelin, to whose 1944 effort an American publisher appended the subtitle ‘A Vivid Biography of the Amoral, Unscrupulous and Fascinating French Statesman’). For authority and learning, it will be a long time before Emmanuel de Waresquiel’s recent 800-page volume is improved on. And as far as sheer literary art goes, the British diplomat Duff Cooper’s 1932 study remains unsurpassed. True, the debates about Talleyrand are usually fairly superficial. Until Waresquiel, most French scholars had an understandably difficult time getting beyond Talleyrand’s plotting with Metternich and Alexander I against France during wartime, and his engineering of the hapless Bourbons’ return to the throne in 1814. The 20th-century Sorbonne potentate Georges Lefebvre famously called Talleyrand one of the ‘most despicable characters in the history of France’. British and American writers have been more understanding, perhaps because they find Talleyrand so perfectly expressive of all their most beloved clichés of Frenchness. As Lawday puts it: ‘To grasp Talleyrand is better to grasp that elusive race, the French.’
In scholarly terms, Lawday’s work does little to deepen our understanding of Talleyrand. For research, he has relied principally on Waresquiel and earlier biographers, and on printed correspondence. In terms of argument, he mostly takes up the familiar Anglophone pro-Talleyrand position, pushing particularly the idea of Talleyrand as peacemaker and oracle of European unity. It is not an unreasonable idea, but others have formulated it before him, and it requires an uncomfortable reliance on Talleyrand’s letters and self-serving memoirs. Lawday also has a shaky grasp of non-Talleyrandian French history. Louis XV did not ‘rule the country according to the unbudging feudal concepts of his Bourbon forefathers’. Louis XVI was his predecessor’s grandson, not his son, was not stopped by the ‘police’ at Varennes, and was not executed on 23 January. Napoleon was not promoted to ‘major’ after Toulon. The early 19th-century Duc de Richelieu was not (rather obviously) a ‘direct descendant’ of Cardinal Richelieu. Minor errors, for the most part, but they do undermine one’s confidence.
More significantly, Lawday falls into the familiar biographer’s trap of consistently exaggerating his subject’s importance. From reading this book, one would think that Talleyrand had a major role in bringing about the revolution of 1789 (he didn’t), and almost single-handedly devised the subsequent, disastrous reform of the French Church (he belonged to a large herd of politicians all stumbling in the same direction). Talleyrand had innovative ideas on primary education, but that hardly makes him the father of the modern French education system. He took part in plotting the events of the 18th Brumaire, and welcomed Napoleon’s rise to power, but was not the instigator of the coup (that dubious honour belongs to Emmanuel Sieyès). Was he ‘the most renowned world statesman of the age’? What about Metternich? And then there is the unfortunate title of Lawday’s book. Talleyrand was successively Napoleon’s patron, ally, counsellor, betrayer and enemy, but never his ‘master’. Lawday quotes an exchange between Talleyrand and the restored Louis XVIII in 1814, in which the king asks: ‘How did you bring down the Directory, and now the colossal power of Bonaparte?’ ‘My God, Sire, I really did nothing like that!’ Talleyrand replies. For once, he was telling nothing but the truth, and Lawday should have listened. (Talleyrand added, with characteristic wit: ‘There is just something inexplicable about me that brings misfortune on governments that neglect me.’)
Still, this is a brisk, enjoyable book, which, if it lacks Duff Cooper’s flair, also avoids his occasional ponderousness. Starting in medias res with Napoleon’s decisive break with Talleyrand in 1809, during which he threatened Talleyrand with execution and called him ‘a shit in a silk stocking’, Lawday then moves in a straightforward manner through Talleyrand’s 84-year life. Over three-quarters of the book deals with the period of the French Revolution and Napoleon, but this is entirely appropriate. As Chateaubriand once wrote: ‘this quarter-century equalled many centuries.’
Talleyrand himself famously remarked that only those who had lived during the old regime truly knew the ‘sweetness of life’ (douceur de vivre, which Lawday oddly renders as ‘joy of life’). Yet this was itself, in part, a post-revolutionary pose, for Talleyrand’s own early years under the Ancien Régime had more than their share of bitterness. He was the oldest son of an ancient noble family, but his club foot kept him from the military vocation of his class, and led his parents to treat him with even more indifference than French aristocrats ordinarily showed their children. In his memoirs, he recounted that an uncle was shocked to find him, alone and in rags, chasing sparrows, and took him to an elegant house where they saw a man and a woman receiving guests. ‘Go on, my lord and nephew,’ the uncle told him. ‘Kiss this lady, she is your mother.’
With the army ruled out, Talleyrand instead headed into the Church. At the seminary of Saint-Sulpice he paid little attention to his studies, preferring to major in seditious literature and minor in actresses, but these choices proved little impediment to a clerical career (he showed excellent taste in women in establishing a short liaison and long friendship with Germaine Necker, the future Madame de Staël). After finishing his training, he moved rapidly through the Church hierarchy, doing particularly well as agent-general. At just 34 he was consecrated Bishop of Autun. Had the French Revolution not occurred, he would most likely have ended up a cardinal.
Instead, he was swept up in a tornado of possibilities. When the revolution began in 1789, he quickly emerged as a prominent liberal reformer. On 14 July 1790, in his episcopal robes, he celebrated Mass at the triumphant Festival of the Federation in Paris. Not long afterwards, his support for the nationalisation of the Church led to his excommunication. But he could not keep up with the revolution’s rush to the left, and when the monarchy fell in August 1792, he fled the country, ending up in Philadelphia. There, desperate to revive his finances, he became deeply involved in land speculation, and even took a long trip on horseback to inspect some possible purchases in upstate New York. Lawday has a wonderful vignette of the fastidious Talleyrand and his servant spending the night in a trapper’s cabin. But unlike his fellow exile Chateaubriand, Talleyrand had no real attraction to the wilderness, and once the Terror ended, he soon returned to France.
Getting back, he found that his disenchanted and cynical mood had become a perfect match for his country’s. Mme de Staël introduced him to Paul Barras, strongman of the new Directorial regime, and within a year he had become foreign minister. According to Benjamin Constant, who went with him to thank Barras, he kept repeating ‘we shall make an immense fortune . . . an immense fortune . . . an immense fortune.’ Indeed, he soon started collecting bribes on a large scale, and his attempt to squeeze £50,000 out of three American diplomats (the ‘XYZ Affair’) brought France to the brink of war with the United States. With Talleyrand, self-interest often trumped the demands of diplomacy.
To be sure, as Lawday points out, Talleyrand developed very early on a cautious and consistent vision of international relations. It was grounded in the Enlightenment conviction that the age of war had given way to the age of commerce, making military conquest fundamentally counterproductive, even when waged for a just cause. In 1799, Talleyrand would tell the French parliament that ‘any system intended to bring liberty by open force to neighbouring nations can only make liberty hated and prevent its triumph.’ Yet these convictions did not stop him supporting the Directory’s relentless expansionism or spouting bile against the British when the political mood demanded it. Nor did they keep him from striking up an alliance with the most successfully aggressive French general of the day, Napoleon, whom he praised most unconvincingly as a reborn Cincinnatus (‘far from fearing his ambition, I believe that one day we shall perhaps beg him to return from the comforts of a studious retirement’ – oops). Talleyrand even helped devise Napoleon’s disastrous Egyptian expedition of 1798-99. In short, he was already playing a double game, preaching restraint while abetting expansion, and lining his pockets in the process.
This game continued when Napoleon seized power late in 1799, and reappointed Talleyrand as foreign minister. Perhaps sensing the traits they had in common despite their clashing public personae, the two men established a remarkably close rapport that lasted for a decade (‘he has got inside me,’ Napoleon allegedly confided to his secretary; ‘what he advises is just what I want to do’). Talleyrand served Napoleon as France launched a second invasion of Italy in 1800, and then as it negotiated a general European peace in 1802. He remained in office as this peace quickly broke down (in large part thanks to French aggression), and then as Napoleon launched his armies eastwards in 1805, eventually crushing Austria and Prussia and establishing French control over Central Europe. He literally stood by, a wry smile on his face (at least in David’s painting of the event), as Napoleon crowned himself emperor in Notre-Dame. And although resigning as foreign minister in 1807, he remained outwardly loyal as Napoleon turned his gaze south, and invaded Portugal and Spain. In return for his support he collected grandiose titles – Grand Chamberlain of the Empire, Prince of Benevento – and grew very, very rich.
Talleyrand did, admittedly, attempt to restrain Napoleon’s ambitions. He tried hard to keep the peace of 1802-3 from breaking down, and after Austria’s 1805 defeat negotiated a peace settlement more generous than Napoleon wished. By 1808, when Napoleon sent him to Erfurt to negotiate with the tsar, Talleyrand was actively plotting against Napoleon. ‘It is up to you to save Europe,’ he allegedly told Alexander, ‘and you will only succeed by standing up to Napoleon. The French people are civilised, their sovereign is not. The sovereign of Russia is civilised, his people are not. The sovereign of Russia must therefore be the ally of the French people.’ Talleyrand started sending advice and information to Metternich, and even conspired with Fouché, the priest turned radical revolutionary turned Napoleonic spymaster, to ease Napoleon off the throne in favour of his brother-in-law Joachim Murat. As Duff Cooper inimitably put it: ‘This was treachery, but it was treachery upon a magnificent scale.’
In 1809, Napoleon learned of Talleyrand’s plotting, confronted him with it in the melodramatic interview Lawday describes, and then fired him. He could not, however, bring himself to have Talleyrand shot (despite his reputation as a tyrant, he executed very few of his political opponents). By 1812, on the verge of his Russian catastrophe, he even begged Talleyrand to resume the foreign ministry. Talleyrand declined, however, and when the empire, its strength drained away in Russia and Spain, finally collapsed, Talleyrand was there to welcome the allies into Paris, arrange the return of the Bourbons to the throne and help devise a new constitution. The following autumn he represented France at the Congress of Vienna, obtaining unexpectedly favourable terms for his new Bourbon masters. He even managed to draw Austria and Britain into a secret, defensive alliance against Russia and Prussia. Napoleon’s improbable return to power in the Hundred Days wrecked these arrangements, but after Waterloo, Talleyrand floated to the surface yet again, becoming prime minister to the re-restored Louis XVIII (Louis deux fois neuf, as the Paris wits had it).
In truth, though, the days of his importance had nearly come to an end. While he advocated reconciliation with the revolutionary and Napoleonic past, the Restoration’s reactionary parliament did not, and this led to a stalemate. Talleyrand was hardly the man to rally public opinion. He never had Napoleon’s rapport with ordinary people, and his physical presence, unimpressive to start with, had only become more so as he passed his 60th birthday. Like most people his age in the early 19th century, he suffered from a host of chronic physical complaints, in his case above all from debilitating respiratory infections. Charles de Rémusat memorably described his elaborately offensive ablutions, in a passage that Lawday quotes at length:
He first appeared as an enormous bundle of flannel, muslin, twill and cottons, a whitish mass that arrived in laborious hops with scarcely a greeting for the company, then sat before the fireplace where three valets awaited him . . . They at once began removing woollen stockings and flannels from his legs, plunging the limbs into a bowl of sulphur water . . . his head covered by a sort of cotton tiara kept in place by a pastel ribbon over a tight bonnet that came down to the eyebrows to show a pale, inanimate face . . . [He consumed] via the nose a large beaker or so of warm water which he then snorted forth like an elephant from its trunk.
Not exactly Napoleon crossing the Alps. And not surprisingly, Talleyrand lasted barely two months before snuffling out of office. For the last 25 years of his life he remained largely a spectator, although he did come out of retirement to serve Louis-Philippe as ambassador to Great Britain. He died in 1838, negotiating his final surrender to God (would the former priest take the sacraments?) with something of his old flair and skill.
It’s an extraordinary story. But it’s also a story that Lawday, like most of his predecessors, has a hard time facing straight on, because it is really a story of massive failure. In the early 1790s, Talleyrand supported a moderate, liberal version of the French Revolution, and it failed. He sought to restrain Napoleon, and to end the bloody sequence of revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and he failed, time after time. He plotted to ease Napoleon out of power, and failed. He struggled to negotiate a ‘soft landing’ for France after the terrible defeat of 1814, and failed, thanks to the Hundred Days. He tried as prime minister to set France on a middle course, and failed yet again. In the end, he succeeded principally in surviving – not such a small achievement in those dangerous days, but not a great claim on posterity’s favour either.
Lawday, even more than most earlier biographers, wants to make Talleyrand a success, even something of a hero. Writing of the Treaty of Paris that ended hostilities in 1814, he quotes two typically self-aggrandising notes of Talleyrand’s: ‘I have finished my peace with the four great powers’, ‘I await the judgment of posterity with confidence.’ Lawday comments: ‘posterity did not disappoint him . . . Europe was spared a general war for all of a hundred years.’ In his conclusion he adds that Talleyrand had a ‘paternity claim’ on European union. Did he really? The peace that followed 1815 came above all in response to the immense horrors of the wars that had ripped jaggedly through Europe in the previous quarter-century, taking the lives of millions, touching every single state on the continent, and devastating most of them. Talleyrand had been in a better position than almost anyone to prevent those horrors. To his credit, he tried to, although not always very hard. But he failed. Ultimately, his life is testimony to the inability of individuals – even, in the end, Napoleon himself – to control the awesome currents of democracy, terror and total war that surged through Europe in the wake of the French Revolution.