Book review: Talleyrand

Book review: Talleyrand: Betrayer and Saviour of France (John Murray £30), by Robin Harris, Reviewed by Sir John Ure

The subtitle of this new life of the great French statesman and diplomat Prince Talleyrand encapsulates the ambiguity of his career: he was the archetypal survivor, but much more than that. Talleyrand had been a bishop before the French revolution; an activist for change; a refugee from the Terror; a political manipu-lator who became Napoleon’s foreign minister; an intriguer involved in Napoleon’s downfall; a spokesman (at the Congress of Vienna) for the restored Bourbon monarchy of Louis XVIII, and finally after yet another coup the ambassador to London of the ‘July monarchy’ of Louis-Philippe (the Orleans regime).

Charged with changing sides so often, Talleyrand is reported to have said: ‘I never betrayed anyone until they had betrayed themselves’, to which he added: ‘I never conspired until I had the people of France as my fellow conspirators.’ He was arguably justified in both remarks.

Robin Harris succeeds, perhaps better than anyone since Duff Cooper in 1932, in giving a balanced and highly readable picture of this intelligent, sensitive and unscrupulous figure. He gives him credit for working for peace in Europe and for a stable constitutional monarchy in France: he supported these ideas ‘whenever he could afford to do so’.

Probably, Talleyrand’s most nefarious act was encouraging Napoleon to execute the Duc d’Enghien (an exiled rival) after he had been kidnapped, with the nauseating remark: ‘The wine is drawn, now it must be drunk. ‘Mr Harris gives a full account of Talleyrand’s terminal illness and negotiations with the Catholic church to be readmitted to the faith which he had, during the Revolution, so conspicuously deserted. He quotes many of the bons mots attributed to Talleyrand, but omits one of my favourites: when, on his deathbed, the priest administering the last rites asked him to ‘renounce the devil and all his ways’, Talleyrand is reputed to have said with his dying breath: ‘This is no time to make enemies.’