Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Master of Careful Betrayal; Talleyrand: Betrayer and Saviour of France by Robin Harris (John Murray, [Pounds Sterling]30)

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Master of Careful Betrayal; Talleyrand: Betrayer and Saviour of France by Robin Harris (John Murray, [Pounds Sterling]30)

Article excerpt

Byline: SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE

TALLEYRAND, that great symbol of betrayal in one of the most colourful (and over-covered) periods of European history, is, like his contemporaries, Catherine the Great and Napoleon, a superb subject for any historian, yet an extremely hard one to do well.

As a subject, Talleyrand has everything - politics, war, promiscuity, and extravagance - but is usually handled appallingly.

The challenges are legion. His biographer must be at home in the ancien regime, the Napoleonic Empire, the Restoration and the July Monarchy; in England and America.

He must master the characters of titans as varied as Napoleon, Alexander I and Metternich.

Finally, he faces comparison with the exquisite prose, political experience and decadent worldliness of the great Duff Cooper, whose perennial work has stood the test of time.

And all that is before the historian even faces the lies and truths, brilliance and flaws of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord himself. Yet Robin Harris has passed all these tests with flying colours.

Born into the high aristocracy, a cripple from birth, Talleyrand flourished in the ancien regime, becoming Bishop of Autun before joining the liberal wing of the French Revolution. When the Jacobins started their bloodbath, Talleyrand fled to England and America, returning during the Directory to become Foreign Minister. He backed the rising young general Bonaparte, helping arrange his coup d'etat and becoming one of the designers of Napoleon's Empire, remaining as Grand Chamberlain and Foreign Minister until he was repelled by the Emperor's megalomaniacal greed, which he believed served only Bonaparte and no longer France.

His betrayal of Napoleon to Tsar Alexander I and Metternich was deliberate but careful. In 1814 Talleyrand was the key figure in the fall of Paris and the Bourbon Restoration, though his days as effective chief minister were shortened by his notoriety. …

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