He represented the clergy when the Estates-General were reconvened for the first time in years, and arranged the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that did so much to divide France and—along with his marriage—did much to alienate Talleyrand from his Church. As the Revolution was happening he was part of the French diplomatic mission to England, then was expelled and left for the United States, now a man without a home. In retirement, he was the wise old man of French diplomacy, all-seeing, all-knowing, dropping witty apothegms hither and thither. Moments before his death, he re-established ties with the Church, apologizing for the folly of his youth during the Revolution. How else do you explain his ability to please so many diverse masters?
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So people cannot decide what to make of him. Talleyrand was always the wittiest and most intelligent man in any room. One contemporary describes him aslounging 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. 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. 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. The sovereign of Russia is civilised and his people are not: the sovereign of Russia should therefore be the ally of the French people. 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. Talleyrand may have played the long game, and enjoyed himself along the way, but in the final analysis he got it right.
His name, where it is still known, is likely to call up images of what some thought to be his spirit animal, the snake, or perhaps just the snake charmer. He is best known as the remarkable survivor of five straight French regimes, and not the relatively kind ones where you got to rusticate in the country when you fell out of favor.
By reputation, he was considered a man without honor by many, the untrustworthy minister who was nonetheless recalled and recalled again to serve the French government, whomever might be at its head. His most famous and unambiguously triumphant episode: the astonishingly favorable outcome of the Treaty of Paris, followed by the Congress of Vienna, at which, despite the return of Napoleon and the slight….
This allowed the completely exhausted and occupied country to maintain her borders and visited punishment largely only on the conqueror, rather than on the people who had supported him again, incredibly, even after the Hundred Days!
Later on, through his time at the London Embassy, he was also a large player in ensuring that the question of Belgium, one of the major mistakes of the Congress, was peacefully fixed and resolved, and helped ensure that war did not break out once more. And yet, despite these amazing feats, his negative reputation remains.
The clever Talleyrand, certainly. But more importantly, the man who stood for nothing- who changed his opinions and advice to suit his masters, who was just as happy serving the good king as the ambitious conqueror.
The man who who was only out for himself and his own survival- oh, remarkably good at it, one must give him that, but still, not one that anyone, in fact, from any faction would trust farther than they could throw him.
But why? Surely whatever faults he may have had, his accomplishments and many years of government service and remember this is centralized France we speak of must outweigh them. You would think this would especially be the case as passions faded and the practical results of his work became more evident, especially as his memoirs were released and the Second Empire came to a close, that it would be time for the revisionist biography.
But, as of , that had not occurred. At one point in this biography, Cooper reminds us of the politics of historians in France. At least into the early 20th century, they tended to fall into one of three camps- Republican, Royalist and Bonapartist. Thus, Cooper dedicates his history of Talleyrand to refuting, or at the least complicating the negative reputation that generally attaches to Talleyrand.
His major means of doing this is through defending him from the biggest charge made against him: that he was a man of inconsistent or non-existent principles who cared only for his own survival and acted accordingly. He does this by stating, consistently, that he argued, from to the s for a policy that was marked by moderation, conciliation and the desire for domestic and foreign peace.
He believed in constitutional monarchy and freedom of the press and in reconciling the old guard and the new revolutionary spirit, and said so on many occasions. Cooper admits that Talleyrand would not die for these principles. He was willing to state them, argue them, make the best case possible for them.
But he would not fall on his sword if they were not obeyed. An example is an episode where he is rather prophetic about the fates of both Prussia and Austria which were to eventually follow later in the century, in part due to their crushing treatment at the hands of Napoleon. To-day, crushed and humiliated, she [Austria] needs that her conqueror should extend a generous hand to her and should, by making her an ally, restore her to confidence in herself, of which so many defeats and disasters might deprive her forever… To-day more than ever I date to consider it the best and wisest policy.
Thus it is no surprise to find that Talleyrand is endowed with all the virtues that that audience could be counted upon to appreciate, and many opinions that were likely to endear him to that particular crowd. For instance, one argument that returns again and again is that Talleyrand was an Anglophile. Indeed, beyond that that he always believed that France and England were natural allies.
He further more reports the favorable impression that he made on various famous English of the time, men and women his audience would have recognized-Aberdeen, Lord Grey, Lord Holland and Wellington himself.
Finally, he makes frequent off-hand asides that his audience is meant to understand with a small smirk and a knowing nod of the head. He expects his audience to have the same base that he is working from. Indeed, to that end, it was interesting to me how much of his defense ultimately rested on the fact that Talleyrand was, after all, incredibly good at his job.
Reading this from modern-day, it sounds as if Talleyrand would have made an incredibly successful consultant of the Booz Allen type. Another major way that Cooper defends him is to state over and over again that Talleyrand gave the best advice to whoever asked it of him, whether royalist conspirator or Napoleon himself, whether to members of the Directory or to the restored Bourbons. This was an ingenious explanation of his conduct, but it is permissible to believe that in giving it he was doing himself, as not infrequently, less than justice.
He may have doubted whether his advice would be followed, he certainly wished no good to the Napoleonic regime, but when required to deliver an opinion on a question of policy, he probably preferred to give the opinion which he really held, and which also was the wisest counsel in the circumstances.
All through the previous year whenever Napoleon had asked for his opinion he had given it honestly, advising the Emperor to make the best peace he could, although with little expectation and less desire that such advice would be followed.
Although his conscience troubled him little, there exists such a thing as professional pride, and it must have afforded him some consolation to feel that the advice which he had given was always sound and that those who refused to follow it were the architects of their own misfortunes.
How many of them do you think can maybe recognize some part of that scenario? In the end, then, it is a fairly able defense. However, I should point out a few flaws: For those looking for a particularly scholarly biography, you will not find it here. Also, while his citations of primary sources are frequent and impressive, they are embedded like anecdotes in the narrative and there are no footnotes or endnotes to be found where we might go look up a quotation for ourselves.
Sometimes amusing, but I think lengthened the book unnecessarily for what seemed to be the purposes of providing character witnesses for Talleyrand. The tone is nearly the same. There is no suggestion that he might not know something, not a hint of qualification or ambiguity. Where he is willing to condemn him, he says so straight out and wastes no more than a few sentences on it. And his writing- I really cannot emphasize enough how excellent his writing is.
Aside from that wonderful tone I mentioned above which just makes me smile every time, he is really a master of character sketches. The Baron had already fought for the cause, but this was his first introduction into the world of high politics and he has left us in his memoirs the impression that it produced on him.
He was naturally alarmed at the prospect of negotiating with statesmen whose names were already famous throughout Europe, but the more he saw of them the less he thought of them, and it appeared to him that both Talleyrand and Fouche were rather lacking in intelligence as neither of them seemed to have a clear idea of exactly what he wanted.
Politics are indeed a simple science to honest souls like the Baron de Vitrolles, who believe that all solutions of the problem save their own are wrong and who are prepared to die for their cause. Come on! Get way harsh about it. Put WWI center brain. People could still be snotty about Churchill in and were. Cooper also takes periodic time out to express his own views on various subjects, usually, again, in a pleasing and interesting fashion. Never perhaps have thirty-six years effected so complete a change in the outward aspect and inner mind of a whole nation.
It is hardly too much to say that the complete process of alteration from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century had taken place in that period. When he was last there Pitt and Fox had been at the height of their powers; now the young Disraeli was already older than Pitt had been when he became Prime Minister and the young Gladstone was coming of age.
He had left the London of knee-breeches and powdered hair and he returned to the London of frock-coats and top-hats. The famous bow window had been built over the steps in the interval and had already seen its greatest days, for the brief reign of Brummel was over and the dandies of the Regency were no more. Boswell had been alive when he was last in London.
The whole life-work of Keats, Shelley and Byron had taken place during his absence and this, the year of his return, the first publication of Tennyson saw the light. Those who were alive at his first visit could remember the reign of Queen Anne, those who were alive at his second could live into the reign of George V. On this basis, I have no flaws to find or criticism to offer.
Eighty years later, still a job very well done indeed. Duff Cooper, an English aristocrat and diplomat in the s, first published Talleyrand in He was also a rogue, a club-foot, a connoisseur of wealth and women, and a great wit. Cooper does him justice, telling his story with verve and imagination. If you have a feeling for European history, or a taste for lost classics, pick this up. Grove Press did us a great favor by giving Talleyrand a second life.
Royalist, Bonapartist, Republican — most French writers belong to one of these categories. Talleyrand belonged to none of them and has therefore never found his defender in France. Yet it is not for the French to decry him, for every change of allegiance that he made was made by France. Not without reason did he claim that he never conspired except when the majority of his countrymen were involved in the conspiracy.
Like France he responded to the ideals of and believed in the necessity of the Revolution; like France he abominated the Terror, made the best of the Directory, and welcomed Napoleon as the restorer of order and the harbinger of peace: like France he resented tyranny and grew tired of endless war and so reconciled himself to the return of the Bourbons…Constitutional monarchy, the maintenance of order and liberty at home, peace in Europe, and the alliance with England, to these principles he was never false — and he believed that they were of greater importance than the Kings and Emperors, Directors and Demagogues, Peoples and Parliaments that he served.
January 1, Karen Wellsbury I read this as much for the author and the age it was written as for the subject matter, and I was not disappointed. Talleyrand was brilliant, creative, sarcastic, adaptable, lazy and politically flexible.
Cooper paints a sympathetic picture of a politician whose career spanned five regimes at a very brutal time in french politics. Fascinating January 1, Noah Goats Talleyrand was a fascinating character. He was a highborn aristocrat but also one of the key players in the French Revolution until he had to run for his life at any rate.
So people cannot decide what to make of him. Talleyrand was always the wittiest and most intelligent man in any room. One contemporary describes him aslounging 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. 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.
Alfred Duff Cooper, 1. Viscount Norwich
She had already eloped with two husbands, the first of whom she deserted and the second of whom died, before marrying Cooper in Duff Cooper had three older sisters. He attended two prep schools, including Wixenford School. He cultivated a reputation for eloquence and fast living and although he had established a reputation as a poet, he earned an even stronger reputation for gambling, womanising, and drinking in his studied emulation of the life of the 18th and 19th century Whig statesman Charles James Fox. He narrowly missed a first in Modern History. To his surprise most of his fellow officer cadets were working class and lower-middle-class men, almost all of whom had already served in the ranks Old Men Forget, p He suffered a minor wound in the advance to the Albert Canal in August , and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order DSO for conspicuous gallantry, a rare decoration for a junior officer.