Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was a noble grandee who lived through the troubled era of the French Revolution. Yet unlike most of his fellow-grandees, for whom the end of the ancien régime was typically accompanied by broken careers, financial ruin and exile (not to mention the threatening hiss of the guillotine), Talleyrand came through and prospered. It all began when, as the freshly appointed Bishop of Autun, he attended the Estates General in 1789 as a representative of his diocese. Realising that the nobility and the clergy were spent forces, he switched sides to the bourgeois Third Estate, a timely move which soon propelled him to the presidency of the National Assembly in 1790. This knack for sensing the prevailing direction of the political winds rarely deserted him thereafter. Whenever and wherever power moved, Talleyrand moved with it as, from the mid 1790s, governments came and went and France successively experienced revolutionary, consular, imperial, provisional, Bourbon and Orleanist rule. The unsinkable Talleyrand served all these regimes, offering his singular combination of zeal, intelligence, egotism, and ironic detachment (‘this is my thirteenth oath, sire’, he laconically informed the bemused Louis XVIII as he was sworn in as his Foreign Minister).
There was clearly something prodigious about the resilience of ‘Old Talley’, and David Lawday’s biography helps to explain how and why this scion of the Perigordian aristocracy was able to make himself indispensable to France’s post-revolutionary