~ Talleyrand by Duff Cooper ~

Duff Cooper, who wrote this book in the 1930s, delivers the story of Charles Maurice, Prince de Talleyrand’s life in the sort of buttery prose that could make a 400-page biography of a bachelor librarian a pleasure to read. The materials of Talleyrand’s life, however, are several cuts above standard. Eldest son of a noble family who was crippled in childhood and superseded by his younger brother, Talleyrand was a famous libertine and gambler, an archbishop who never wanted to be a priest, and arguably the greatest statesman of his generation. He somehow managed to serve France in high positions under the revolving regimes of the Revolution of 1789, the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire of Napoleon, and two successive restorations of the Bourbons – all the while amassing ill-gotten wealth, being excommunicated by the Pope, marrying, gambling, siring illegitimate children, carrying on indecent love affairs, making himself indispensable to kings and emperors, and impressing everyone he met with his urbanity, wit, conversation, and sage counsel in diplomatic affairs. Cooper’s argument is that despite accusations of Machiavellianism and his undoubted personal ambition, Talleyrand was in fact a man of consistent public (if not private) principles, who strove in all his appointments for the greater peace of Europe and the better relations of France with her neighbors. The story, like the man, is consistent and complex, and the conclusion of it all (the chapter titled ‘The Last Treaty’ about Talleyrand’s final reconciliation with the Church) I found surprisingly moving.