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.

Public unfamiliarity seems to make it reasonable to set out briefly the main facts about Dr Butler’s chosen subject. Choiseul did not inherit his ducal title. In these pages he is the Count de Stainville. He was born in 1719, the son of the Marquis de Stainville (about whom Dr Butler has as much to say in this volume as about the son). He was a Lorrainer, who, after entering the service of the French King, first as an army officer (he rose to be a general) and then as ambassador at Rome and Vienna, eventually went back to Versailles to become Minister for Foreign Affairs. During the 1760s he held other portfolios, engineered the Family Compact of the Bourbon courts, which was intended to offset some of the disastrous consequences of the Austrian alliance he had helped to cement, negotiated the Treaty of Paris and finally lost power to his rivals in 1770. The interest of one royal mistress, Madame Du Barry, was involved in his fall, as that of another, the Pompadour, had been instrumental in his rise. He died in 1785.

His reputation did not thrive thereafter. The enemy of the Jesuits and the man who encouraged the publication of the Encyclopédie was an obvious target for the lunatic, plot-obsessed, anti-Philosophe school of writers. Religious feeling at court had already played a big part in his fall from power. Patriotic and anti-clerical Frenchmen, looking back with different regrets, saw the Peace of Paris as inglorious and did not associate the Family Compact with Choiseul’s posthumous victory (the defeat of England in the American War), as they should have done. That war, in any case, was appallingly expensive. After the Revolution, things did not improve: the Family Compact looked like counter-revolution. Only diplomatic historians, getting to work as the archives opened, occasionally spoke up for Choiseul. It might not have greatly bothered him that this was so. He seems to have been more interested in reputation as a road to success than in a name for its own sake. And now he is overlooked except by professional and family historians.

Their concerns provide a good start to thinking about this book: emphatically, it tells a family story, as almost any biography of a member of the upper classes of the Ancien Régime must do. Through direct authority, training in its assumptions, economic and legal constraints and, finally, its power to awake loyalty and self-discipline, a noble family was then a major and possibly the decisive determinant of its members’ behaviour. The family of the future Choiseul had one characteristic, by no means unusual in his age, which was important for his career: its ramifications and connections spanned frontiers and jurisdictions. If the term were not anachronistic, it could be described as international in its orientation and connection. The house of Choiseul, Dr Butler tells us, can be traced back without difficulty to Medieval Champagne; it made distinguished contributions to the history of France (28 members of the family are said to have died for Louis XIV). On his father’s side, though, the service had lately been done to the dukes of Lorraine and, latterly, the Habsburgs. The ramifications and complications were enormous, and in trying to understand them the reader confronts the first unqualified defect of this book: there are no genealogical tables.

The weight Dr Butler attaches to the family influence is demonstrated by the attention – sometimes a little over-lengthy – given to Choiseul’s father. But the whole volume, large as it is, is merely an approach-march: it runs from Choiseul’s birth at Nancy to 1754, when, newly appointed French ambassador to Rome, he left Paris to take up his post. This was less than half of the life of the Count de Stainville (as he then was) and none of the things for which the Duc de Choiseul was to be remembered had taken place. No wonder the father looms large, much of the time anxiously trying to arrange his son’s successful entrée into the French King’s service. So leisurely a progress, though, suggests that it may be some time before the next volume or two can deal with the crucial periods when Choiseul was a minister.

It is reasonable, then, to attempt to discern the merits of this book as it stands, a fragment of the torso. Clearly, it will have to be judged in due course by the contribution it makes to the understanding of the Choiseul who swayed the fate of France. Meanwhile, Dr Butler has cleverly used his theme to bring forward particular points which have broader applications. There is a great deal of general 18th-century history to be learnt from this book. But the public and the private lives which it describes are revealing in their detail, too. The young de Stainville’s calculating promotion of his own interests, independently of the great monarchies with which he was affiliated, lights up, indirectly, the special position of the Lorrainer, subject of a duchy linked in a tangle of complex and nicely distinguished ways to its neighbours. Sovereigns its dukes might be, but they had something like fifty villages which were enclaves in German territories or shared under arrangements with the Archbishop of Trier. That prelate had most of Lorraine within his ecclesiastical province, too, though three French enclaves – Metz, Toul and Verdun – also had bishops who exercised spiritual jurisdiction over the Lorrainers. The duchy had 16 legal codes, and its dukes did homage to the kings of France for a part of the Duchy of Bar (where appellate jurisdiction belonged to the Parliament of Paris). And all this was overtaken in 1736 by an agreement between the French King and Stanislas Leszcynski (to become duke the following year) that the revenues of the entire duchy were to go to France.

This rich legal and diplomatic confusion was the reality of 18th-century diplomacy. It bore much more closely on individuals than the concepts drawn from later individualist and nationalist ages which historians have sometimes applied anachronistically to this period. The accession of Stanislas, for example, meant that the Count de Stainville would become the vassal of the King of France and gave him, like all other Lorrainers, the right to hold offices and privileges under the French crown, without having to take out letters of nationalisation. So the career of the future Duc de Choiseul became possible.

In untangling the niceties of such matters, and in the lengthy discussion of the diplomatic activities of de Stainville’s father, Dr Butler has had the great advantage of being able to draw on the pioneer work of the now so often neglected virtuosi of 18th-century diplomatic history. But his own archival research has been prolonged and thorough, and he adds richly to the detail of the traditional accounts. He also has an eye for the easily overlooked aspects of his story. The details of the French occupation of Prague under the Marshal de Belle-Isle in 1742, for example, should dispel any illusions about the moderate and gentlemanly regulation of 18th-century warfare. This should not be surprising (it was an age, after all, in which gibbets, floggings, breakings on the wheel were familiar or at least public spectacles), but may well be to some of Dr Butler’s readers. More startling is the French attempt to anticipate social warfare a half-century before the Revolution, by promising peasants who rose against the Austrians an end to their serfdom. It is interesting, too, to see how far religious issues could still be thought to influence policy in the 1740s, when the Pope was (presumably) relieved to hear that France would make sure Silesia did not stay in heretical hands. The general point about the long survival of religion as a political factor was made long ago by Ranke, who said that the singing of hymns by Frederick’s armies, as they went into battle, was its last expression as a force in warfare, but this specific instance is a good one to ponder.

The substantive additions to the history of policy which are made by Dr Butler are more difficult to weigh. Many of his discoveries arise in connection with the father, the Marquis de Stainville, who was a good diplomatic reporter, but they are not often likely to change accepted views except in their detailed effect on chronology or the interpretation of motive. That, though, is what much diplomatic history is about. At a more interesting level come prefigurings of later major steps in policy: the Diplomatic Revolution, for example. French misgivings over the Prussian alliance show under Fleury. We have it now suggested that the influence of the Pompadour may be presumed as early as 1745 and that this may show the roots of the abandonment of Prussia for Austria – a policy whose execution is closely associated with the young Count de Stainville, whose career owed so much to the favour of the royal favourite. However this may be (and Dr Butler is very cautious), the relationship with the Marquise de Pompadour was of major personal and professional importance in Choiseul’s rise. Her association with him was complicated: the hard judgment is likely still to be that he sought to use her and her affection and did so successfully, but it may not be a fair judgment (he said it was not). He was a great womaniser and far from discreet: he blabbed in (mock?) indignation when the Duchess de Chaulnes managed to give him, her husband and various other men gonorrhoea at about the same time.

Choiseul was complex and self-centred, and it is a strong, rather than a clear, impression of the man which appears in these pages. His soldiering shows him physically brave, his entrance to the diplomatic profession and his marriage demonstrate clarity of mind, a good judgment of priorities and a rational bent. Smallpox (caught in 1738 in Vienna as a young soldier) cannot have improved chubby, unprepossessing features, but it seems likely that animation and conversational address overcame this. Evidently, he was a charmer.

More deeply it is not easy to go. Symptomatically, Dr Butler suspends judgment over the question whether he was a freemason, and membership of the Craft was in the 18th-century a by no means bad indicator of certain sensibilities. That de Stainville was sceptical – or indifferent – appears from his own Memoires Inédits, and his harsh judgments on Louis XV and the Dauphin show a relentless realism (as well, perhaps, as an affectionate backward look at Mme de Pompadour). More moderately, but at some cost to dependents, a firm eye to self-interest and unsentimentality appear in the considerable attention given in this book to the management of his estate. He was a man for amateur theatricals, a patron of the professional theatre and an enthusiast for Rameau: much of this is new. He was also a collector of pictures. But it is again hard to be sure just how far enthusiasm goes, and Dr Butler’s description is very careful: ‘one of the most artistically implicated men to hold high political office in any age’.

At the end, then, the carefully composed layers of the Choiseul persona have not been prised away. We cannot be sure we have met the real man. Yet we have learnt much we did not know before as we leave the Count and his wife driving south from Paris in September 1754 to Lyon, Turin and, eventually, Rome. Here lies the justification of biography on this scale: if done properly, it expresses an age as well as a man. Some harsh judgments have been passed on Dr Butler, to the effect that his subject does not justify so grand a treatment. That can hardly be taken as proven until we have (if we ever have) the full biography. It is true that Choiseul has an evident fascination for Dr Butler. It has led him not only to a most generous scale of discussion, but to a relaxed, individual mode of exposition which is sometimes mannered. He likes to pick up Irish references, relevant or not (and we must suppose it is Irishism, not solecism, which permits him the tiresome form ‘the Reverend Thompson’, since it is from Irish that this crept into English speech). Occasional jarrings, though, hardly affect the central question of the book’s value. As a repository of scholarship on many themes, not all of it conveniently or easily digested, it must have unique value as it stands.