Thursday, January 18, 2007

2 February: Boreham on Charles Talleyrand

A Tangled Web
No patriotic Frenchman allows the second of February to pass without reflecting that was on that day, that Charles Maurice Talleyrand was born. No name in history. excites, at one and the same time, as much admiration and as much execration as does his. No praise is sufficiently high, no strictures sufficiently severe, with which to characterise the diverse aspects of his contradictory behaviour. On the broad proscenium of public affairs, no person ever played such an amazing number of fiercely conspicuous and highly incongruous parts.

Talleyrand possessed qualities which, wisely trained and worthily applied, would have made him the most shrewd, farseeing and powerful statesman of all time. He and William Pitt were contemporaries. The two men met at Rheims in 1783, Talleyrand being then 29, and Pitt 25. He would have been a bold person who, seeing the two together, would have predicted for Pitt a more illustrious career than for his companion. As a diplomatist he has never been surpassed: he was a master of every move in the game. Indeed, he seemed gifted with every talent and every grace that a man could need in order to attain to a position of the most commanding power and the most ample prerogative. During that volcanic spasm of French history that began with the world-convulsing Revolution and that ended with the overthrow and exile of Napoleon, France produced an incomparable galaxy of imposing, forceful, and picturesque personalities. In that age of Homeric individualities, no figure, with the possible exception of Napoleon himself, is more familiar to us than the figure of that brilliant but baffling potentate whose fame we recall today.

Magnetism And Appeal Of A Strong Personality
Happily for us, he is easily visualised. His handsome and courtly presence casts its spell over some of the most eminent painters of his time. Through the stately canvases of Maclise, Gerard, Scheffer, Isabey, and others, the proud features that, in his lifetime, were so well known thoughout the world, have been embalmed and immortalized. Moreover, the dramatist has helped the artist to keep the illustrious Frenchman vividly in our gaze. In popular plays like Wills and Callingham's "Royal Divorce," we have seen Talleyrand strutting before our very eyes, and have been charmed by the flexible and mellifluous accents of his rich, persuasive voice. Assisted in this way by painter and playwright, we seem to have gazed for ourselves into that petit but perfectly-chiselled face, with its pale and delicate cast, its retrousse but not unshapely nose, its bright and piercing eyes, its thin firm lips, and its slightly protruding chin; the whole surmounted by a luxurious wealth of beautiful white hair. Immaculately attired in his velvet coat and knee-breeches, with silk stockings and silver buckles, Talleyrand looked every inch a prince.

In the arts and crafts of sophistry, chicanery, and duplicity, the specious Machiavelli could have taught Talleyrand nothing. Intrigue, with him, was not an expedient, but a passion. He revelled in it. To him it was a highly-staked game of skill, a duel with flashing blades, a battle of wits, a test of cunning. He loved it as champions love draughts or chess. He was a pastmaster in the gentle art of ingratiating himself in the confidence and affection of those over whose minds it was essential to his purpose that he should acquire an ascendancy.

The Supreme Exponent Of Facing Both Ways
Talleyrand was the most astounding quick-change artist of all time. With the most impressive and convincing plausibility, he could deny today what yesterday he had affirmed and could, without any apparent inconsistency, destroy today what he had but yesterday constructed. He could change his coat so quickly, so unostentatiously, and so naturally, that, as you looked upon the garment he now wore, you completely forgot that you had ever seen him in any other. He was an ardent royalist, but, with the agility of a dancing master, he stepped aside when the throne crashed, and suffered no share in its disaster. He became a fervent revolutionist; but when, like some mythological monster, the revolution began to devour its own children, he cleverly evaded its dripping fangs and talons. He did more than anyone else to create Napoleon, but when storm and darkness gathered about the path of the conqueror, the wily counsellor detached his fortunes from those of his master. It is part of the tremendous pathos and tragedy of history that, in the day of doom, when the magnificent fabric that Napoleon had erected was tottering, when he stood in desperate need of a staunch and dependable adviser, he found himself in the pitiless clutches of the most crafty, the most subtle and the most unprincipled counsellor of whom we have any record.

Talleyrand's only excuse lies in the fact that he was the eldest son of a wealthy aristocrat who, following the barbarous custom of the period, boarded out his children in a poverty-stricken home to save the parents the trouble of rearing them personally. Clambering on a wardrobe one day, young Talleyrand fell and broke his leg. It was nobody's business to set the fractured bones, and the boy was lamed for life. The father refused to recognise a cripple as his heir and the boy was left to make his own way as best he could. The experience soured him. He limped into life nursing an implacable resentment. To the end of his days he cursed his clumsy limb and cherished a bitterness which jaundiced his entire outlook and distorted the whole of his subsequent behaviour. The twig was bent by parental cruelty and the distortion disfigured all the years. It is intriguing to speculate as to what might have been had his boyhood been a happier one.

F W Boreham

Image: Charles Maurice Talleyrand

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