A former correspondent for The Economist considers the life of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838), wise and circumspect adviser to kings, an emperor and even a few enemies of France.
There may never have been a political survivor like Talleyrand, a man with a soaring career in the Church which he surrendered when he saw greater fame, fortune, sex and power in politics. (On his deathbed, he artfully negotiated official forgiveness.) Lawday’s architecture is functional, if not artful. He begins with an explosive moment in 1809, as Napoleon raged against Talleyrand, who somehow remained placid. The author then moves backward to summarize Talleyrand’s family history (aristocratic—engendering both admiration and envy in Napoleon), chronicle his entrance both into the Church and into Parisian society and describe how he avoided the Reign of Terror. Talleyrand was able to convince Danton to give him a passport, which he promptly used to sail across the Channel to temporize until the Terror subsided. But the English expelled him, so he sailed to Philadelphia, where he befriended Alexander Hamilton (George Washington did not care for him), saw Niagara Falls and made efforts to re-establish his personal fortune. By 1876 he was back in (safer) France, and the next year he met Napoleon, who was 28 at the time (Talleyrand was 44). Talleyrand quickly established himself as a trusted adviser to Napoleon, who responded by enriching him. But as Lawday persuasively shows, Talleyrand soon soured on the aggressive Corsican, believing he was interested more in personal glory and military conquest than in achieving any balance of power in Europe—or in accepting any rational concept of “Europe” at all. And—secretly, carefully—he worked to undermine his own Emperor. The author deals swiftly with the post-Napoleon years, including some surprising returns to glory for Talleyrand, and he does not neglect the expected discussions of Talleyrand’s club foot and his sexual conquests, which, the author notes, he found less stimulating than political ones.
Swift, informed and literate—a substantial though conventional life of a legend.