Talleyrand was 76 when he took up the post of French ambassador in London in 1830. Linda Kelly deals only with the last phase of Talleyrand’s long and tumultuous career, but this short book brings him marvellously to life.
He was not an impressive figure. Little over 5’3” in height, he walked with a limp —one leg was in an iron brace. ‘Always dress slowly when you are in a hurry,’ was one of his maxims, and each morning during his lengthy toilette his valet coiffed his long, straggly white locks with curling tongs. One wag described him as ‘a big packet of flannel enveloped in a blue coat and surmounted by a death’s head covered in parchment’. His morals were notoriously ancien regime, and his life was littered with ex-mistresses, many of whom remained his intimate friends. His chief rival for the job of London ambassador was his tiresome illegitimate son, the Comte de Flahaut.
Talleyrand had last visited London in 1792 when he was fleeing the French Revolution, and the British government expelled him for his links with extremists. An aristocrat who began life as a bishop, he rose to become foreign minister to Napoleon. Nimbly changing sides, he engineered the restoration of the Bourbons, and his skilful diplomacy saved France from a punitive peace at the Vienna Congress. His aim in coming to London in 1830 after 15 years’ retirement was to make the new liberal government of Louis Philippe respectable.
Talleyrand brought with him as ambassadress in London his niece, the Duchess of Dino. Thirty-nine years younger than him, she was his companion and rumoured also to be his mistress. Beautiful, clever and socially ambitious, she had many other lovers, but ‘old Talley’ wasn’t jealous, and he and Dino formed a formidable power
Having accumulated a vast fortune by very dubious means, Talleyrand poured money into making the French embassy in Portland Place London’s premier salon. He spent an hour each morning in consultation with his chef, and the embassy dinners formed ‘an epoch in the gastronomic history of London’. Talleyrand sat up until the early hours playing whist and gambling at the Travellers Club, where a handrail (which survives today) was added to the bannister to help the old cripple climb the stairs.
But Talleyrand was not a purely social figure, far from it. As Kelly shows, he achieved his greatest diplomatic success during his London posting. So important did he consider the four years he spent in London that he devoted two-and-a-half of his five volumes of memoirs to that time.
The issue was Belgium. In 1814 the Belgians were joined with the Dutch to form the United Netherlands under the King of Holland. This had been intended as a bloc to contain a resurgent France, but the arrangement broke down when the Belgians rebelled, and the French demanded the annexation of Belgium. A conference of ambassadors was called in London to settle the matter. Talleyrand took the lead. ‘I am not here as the representative of France,’ he said. ‘French diplomacy has no role here.’ Claiming to act as a man of experience intent on getting the best solution, Talleyrand called for the creation of an independent and neutral Belgium. This was a masterstroke. It disarmed the great powers, showing that France under Louis Philippe was no longer a restless, expansionist state. France was linked with Britain as a liberal constitutional monarchy, in contrast with the autocracies of the north. France was no longer isolated, and Louis-Philippe’s monarchy was firmly established.
Talleyrand was able to pull off this diplomatic coup partly because of his contacts. He was in constant communication with Louise Philippe and he had a hotline to the king’s sister Madame Adelaide. He had excellent connections, too, in London. He was friendly with Grey, the prime minister, and one of his greatest cronies was the Francophile Lord Holland, a government minister who cheerfully leaked Talleyrand the cabinet secrets.
Talleyrand is usually portrayed as a cynical old fox, but he emerges from Linda Kelly’s delightful book as warm and human. This book should be required reading for Theresa May and her Brexit team. Lecturing and table-banging were not Talleyrand’s style. He got his way by charm and guile — by persuading his adversaries that what was best for France was actually in their interests too. We could do with another Talleyrand right now.