Talleyrand, Part I

What he had always wanted to be, Talleyrand wrote in later life, was “the man of France”—not the representative of a party, a political system or a sovereign master. Does this ambition, asks Harold Kurtz, explain his various changes of allegiance, including his “betrayal” of Napoleon, for which many French historians cannot forgive him?

“In the purely political sphere,” Wrote Professor Pieter Geyl in 1952, “only one figure has in the view of history maintained its rank beside Napoleon: Talleyrand.”

The political qualification is appropriate and illuminating, for Talleyrand himself would not have wished to be remembered in any other context. The Abbé à la mode of the years before the Revolution, for example, or the châtelain of magnificent Valençay after 1815, were never typical incarnations, even though unwelcome circumstances forced him to play both these parts for many a long year.

What history remembers is the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Directory, the Consulate and Empire, the champion of Bourbon Legitimacy in Paris and Vienna, the Prime Minister of 1815 and finally Louis Philippe’s Ambassador in the London of William IV.

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