Survival narratives come in various forms and the particular endurance tests involved are not always of a kind that entails living off boiled bootstraps in an open boat, hiding in sewers or wrestling with grizzly bears. It is hard to imagine someone as urbane and sophisticated as Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord doing any of these things, yet after his fashion he was a consummate survivor. In an age when so many of those around him were losing their heads, whether actually or metaphorically, the various fates he avoided were as notable as the roles he contrived to fill. Intended by his family for the priesthood, he was briefly bishop of Autun before the French Revolution saw him become a constitutionalist opponent of Church privileges. Escaping the Reign of Terror with the help of a passport signed by Danton, he settled in England amid an émigré community hostile to his liberal politics and determined to humiliate him in every way possible. He found consolation in his own imperturbable serenity of character, reflected in the famous advice he later gave to a young diplomat, ‘not too much zeal’.
Although nervous government agents soon saw fit to move him on, Talleyrand had not quite done with England. As France’s foreign minister under the Directory and the First Empire, he established a whole network of international contacts. These proved invaluable in reasserting his defeated country’s pre-eminence at the