Sunday, October 12, 2008

Talleyrand by Robin Harris

(Book Review)

I saw this book in a Fukuoka bookstore, and thought, “Talleyrand..., Talleyrand..., that sounds like a familiar name. I've heard that before somewhere.” And that was about the extent of my knowledge before buying this book. However, looking over it, and noticing that Tallyrand’s life dealt with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars (areas of history I wanted to learn more about) I decided to buy the book and give it a try.

In case you don’t know anymore about the life of Talleyrand than I did, it turns out he had quite a long and interesting career. He started out as a clergyman, and worked his way up to become the archbishop of Autun. Then, when the Estates General was opened in 1989, Talleyrand became active in the French Revolution, helping to create the civil constitution of the clergy. Eventually Talleyrand left the church for greater ambitions, but when the French Revolution got to hot for him he fled to England. When he was declared an undesirable alien in England, he went to America. Once things calmed down in France, Talleyrand returned and became involved with the Directory phase of the Revolution. Talleyrand became foreign minister under the Directory, and organized Napoleon’s disastrous expedition into Egypt. Talleyrand then helped to organize Napoleon’s coup in 1799. After that he served as Napoleon’s foreign minister, reshaping, together with Napoleon, all of the maps of Europe. Once he became disillusioned with Napoleon, Talleyrand helped to organize his downfall and arranged for the restoration of King Louis XVIII. After the Bourbon kings were thrown out in the July Revolution, Talleyrand served as French ambassador to London under Louise-Philippe before finally dying in 1838.

As you can see, there’s a lot of ground that needs to be covered in this biography, and in fact the author opens with a quote from Talleyrand’s secretary, “I have often myself seen [Talleyrand] smile at the idea of anyone attempting his biography.

Perhaps because of the vast amount of material that needs to be covered, the author Robin Harris gives virtually no background information about any of the events he talks about. The assumption is that the reader is already well-versed in 18th and 19th Century European history, and is just seeking a better analysis of what they already know.

For a paperback history I bought in a popular bookstore, I found it a surprisingly difficult read. This might be partly because it was a written by a British author and published in London, and my impression, from talking to the Brits I’ve met here in Japan, is that they tend to be a lot better educated about European history than we Americans.

I was, however, able to make sense of this book partly by constantly referring back to the young adult biography of Napoleon that I read recently .

If I had my choice, I would have preferred to read a biography of Talleyrand that explained the background of what was happening a little bit more, but I still enjoyed this.

Talleyrand’s life as a Bishop was fascinating to read about because he was incredibly promiscuous. And the impression I got from this book was that in 18th Century France all the clergy were promiscuous, and no one really seemed to care.

This, it turns out, is one of many scandals that surround the life and career of Talleyrand. He comes through in the book like the cocky smart kid

It turns out that Talleyrand was also behind the “X,Y,Z affair” which is something I vaguely remember learning about in my high school American history class.

“Since 1796, French corsairs had been attacking American shipping, in retaliation against the Jay Treaty between the US and Britain, which was deemed by Paris to have breached the terms of American neutrality. A delegation was sent to Paris in the autumn of 1797 to recover damages for US losses and to bring an end to the dispute. But the three American negotiators, John Marshall, Charles Pickney and Elbridge Gerry, were shocked by the treatment they received. They were approached by a series of agents, whose precise status was obscure, but who were clearly working for Talleyrand and who figured in President Adam’s later report to Congress on the matter as ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’. The American envoys were told that the precondition for success was the payment of what amounted to substantial bribes. Specifically, they were asked to underwrite a loan of 32 million Dutch florins, to make a gift of 50,000 gold louis to the Directory, and to provide ‘sweeteners’ for the Foreign Minister and his intermediaries. The Americans sent back a long indignant report about these outrageous proceedings, which President Adams duly conveyed to Congress.
The scandal in the United States was immense. It then reached the French public through British press reports. Talleyrand indignantly defended his reputation. He even managed to persuade Gerry, the most Francophile of the US negotiators, to lend some support to his protestations of innocence. To the Directory, he simply denied any knowledge. His protestations can hardly have been credible, but for a time he survived in office. This was partly because Barras, his protector, was involved as well. But it was also because, despite the scandal, both the French and American governments knew that no one was better equipped to negotiate the peace between them than Talleyrand. It was in order to press these complicated negotiations forward that the Directory wanted Talleyrand to stay in Paris, rather than go to Constantinople….”

Talleyrand’s corruption and willingness to take bribes is a common theme in the book, but as the author points out, “Far from alienating foreign powers, Talleyrand’s venality pleased them. It seemed to guarantee his flexibility.”

In short, although sections of this book were a struggle for me, I enjoyed it on the whole and I think it helped a lot to broaden my understanding of this time period in history.

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