Stoddard Martin enjoys Linda Kelly’s latest offering
TALLEYRAND IN LONDON: The Master Diplomat’s Last Mission, by Linda Kelly, I. B. Tauris, £25
Linda Kelly is a pioneer in the genre of what one might call the non-fiction novella. This is no slighting phrase, nor meant to devalue her quality as a historian. If her ten books were to be taken as one, she would be seen as the author of a vast, engaging epic on English and French cultures and their interaction during seventy years of massive change, 1770-1840. In arts and letters, this period is called Romantic, and Kelly has been adept at detailing elements of that phenomenon in theatre, poetry and to a degree music – thus her portraits of Sheridan, Kemble and Sarah Siddons; her evocations of the myth of Chatterton, the life of Tom Moore and the movement of French writers of the Orléanist decade; her miniature of the Burney household during the year of the Gordon Riots. In all of these tableaux the politics of tumultuous times form a backdrop. The dramatis personae are players reacting to dislocation at the top, those Byron labelled ‘My friends the Whigs’.
Two terms that England adopted from France, salon and liaison, describe Kelly’s milieux. No one is better at portraying them. The genre she has developed indeed grows out of theatre. Most of her books could be scenarios for a well-made play. There is always deft description of place – a recent title, Holland House, was devoted to it – but place is never other than a setting for conversation, interchange of personality and reflection, as in a novel of Henry James. That said, Kelly is by nature light, her touch free of the ponderousness the James analogy implies. Her drawing-rooms are filled with Voltairean wit more than Rousseauesque meditation. They may exist in a romantic era, but their architecture is classical. Byron comes to mind again, because that aficionado of Pope, if never a main character, is the disciple or friend or model of many here – Sheridan, Moore, Hugo respectively – and the chaotic radicalism of his fellow Shelley would be out of place. Politically speaking Napoleon dominated the era; Kelly, however, never writes about him directly either. Émigrés from the ancien régime are the subject of one of her books, Juniper Hall; and when it comes to politics direct, it is apt that her first full-on portrait should be about that survivor of successive regimes, Charles-Maurice Talleyrand.
The other classical unity of the well-made play is time, and Kelly is exact about it in a book subtitled: The Master Diplomat’s Last Mission – i.e., Talleyrand’s period in London as Louis-Philippe’s ambassador to the court of William IV. The Frenchman had been in London earlier in his career, in flight from the excesses of the Terror, though his supporting role in the first French revolution made him, Kelly points out, as suspect to Bourbon aristocrats as to the post-Danton Committee of Public Safety. He went on to America, returned to France under Bonaparte, became Foreign Minister and survived into the Restoration to preserve France from utter humiliation at the Congress of Vienna.
Not part of the ultramontane tendency around Charles X, he was happy to help in the events of 1830 which brought a ‘citizen king’ of the cadet Bourbon line to the throne, not as absolutist ‘King of France’ but as democratic ‘King of the French’. This supposedly ‘constitutional’ formulation appeared or could be promoted as similar to what the English had achieved on deposing the Jacobite Stuarts in favour of (eventually) the Hanoverians. When arguing for the ‘legitimacy’ of his monarch, Talleyrand was fond of alluding, if with characteristic subtlety, to this precedent.
His mission was firstly to persuade England and Europe that ‘the July monarchy’ was a good thing and France a stable nation devoted to peaceful continuance of the post-Napoleonic settlement. Successive upheavals in Paris and other French regions, notably the events of 1832, novelized by Hugo in Les Misérables, made this task chancy. On one occasion Foreign Secretary Palmerston left Talleyrand waiting in his anteroom for so long that Prime Minister Lord Grey felt obliged to come and sit with the old man to reassure him of England’s affections.
But Talleyrand cultivated the right people in the English establishment and, helped by his great age (he was now nearly 80), cut a signally unthreatening, civilized figure. In this he was assisted by his neice-by-marriage, rumoured mistress, the Duchesse de Dino, a lively woman many decades his junior, who was well able to manage his household and cauterize wounds. The role-behind-the-scenes of this woman and others – Louis-Philippe’s sister, the Russian ambassador’s wife, various English hostesses – is sketched in admirably.
Grey and Lord Holland, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, were Talleyrand’s great allies among the Whigs; Wellington his mentor among Tories. His role as eminence grise behind many of Napoleon’s tergiversations was, twenty years after, conveniently overlooked, consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds, especially for survivors. What mattered now, and appears in Kelly’s telling to have been Talleyrand’s lifelong object, was entente between the western liberal powers – England and France principally – not least vis-à-vis the soi-disant Holy Alliance of the three autocratic powers: Russia, Prussia and Austria. Prime locus for potential conflict was Belgium, a territory that had been Hapsburg before the Revolution, French throughout the Napoleonic period and Dutch by award of the Congress of Vienna. The Belgians wanted neither their current Dutch domination nor a return to earlier arrangements; the French wanted Belgium back, but no other European power would accept that; it was Talleyrand’s job to square the circle. The heart of Kelly’s narrative has to do with how he managed this. The soul has to do with how he later brought himself to relinquish his by then universally-acknowledged position as ‘master of ceremonies of his age’.
Talleyrand is a much-written-about figure, and Kelly is complete mistress of the materials that have accumulated about him, including that other great Whig Duff Cooper’s biography. She goes back to sources, wishing as she always does to get the mot juste in contemporary voice. Of Talleyrand’s retirement following a mission that she dubs ‘his swansong’, she quotes Greville’s diary: ‘It was fine to see after his stormy youth and middle age, after a lifetime spent in the very tempest and whirlwind of political agitation, how tranquilly and honourably his declining years ebbed away…’ It is equally fine to see, after a career spent in capturing lives in the whirlwind of a tempestuous era, how deftly and honourably Linda Kelly continues to add to her epic oeuvre. Before she is finished – indeed, already – we will be able to discern an achievement which, far from being minimal, brings to mind, say, the Tintoretto ceilings of the Doge’s palace in Venice or those of Buonarotti in a holier place. Bravissima to the lady. And onwards con brio.
STODDARD MARTIN is an author and publisher. His latest book is Monstrous Century: Essays in the Age of the Feuilleton, Starhaven, 2016