written by Paul Witcover
In the opening pages of The Eight, we first encounter Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord described only by his title: the Bishop of Autun. There, two nuns from Paris, Alexandrine de Forbin and Marie-Charlotte de Corday (herself a significant player in the novel—and in history), speak of him as a “man of great evil” who “has cast his eye upon Montglane Abbey,” seeking the fabled treasure of Charlemagne, the bejeweled chess pieces and board that together constitute the Montglane Service. The year is 1790, and the French Revolution, from its flashpoint in Paris, is spreading across the country, a social and political wildfire. Soon the flames will engulf all of Europe.
In 1791, the novices and cousins Mireille and Valentine are ordered to Paris by their aged abbess to avail themselves of the hospitality and protection of Valentine’s godfather, the famous painter Jacques-Louis David. There the two young women are to serve secretly as a gathering point for the scattered pieces of the Montglane Service and those who bear them. At David’s studio, the cousins meet Talleyrand in the flesh . . . only to find, instead of “the Devil incarnate” they had been warned against, a witty, sympathetic friend and charming guide to a Paris whose glittering lights are far from extinguished despite the rising red tide of the Terror. “They are dancing at the edge of the abyss,” says Talleyrand of the jaded Parisians. But in The Eight, the thirty-seven-year-old Talleyrand finds his own cynical armor pierced by the two innocent young women, and avuncular fondness blossoms into something more, leading to a passionate involvement with Mireille and the birth of a son, Charlot.
In The Fire—which opens thirty years later—we find Talleyrand, in his late 60s, enjoying a comfortable, well-deserved retirement at his palatial Château de Valençay in the Loire Valley. The year is 1823, and in the intervening years, as we learn, through his deployment of brilliant statesmanship and the cunning instinctive survival tactics for which he was famous—he has kept not only his own vast fortune intact—but he has managed to ensure the survival of France herself, despite her repeated military defeats, as a major world class power. Despite these triumphs, in The Fire, he soon discovers that the fateful chess game he had thought successfully concluded at the end of The Eight is far from over, and it proves that the consummate diplomat has yet another part to play in helping his now-grown son, Charlot, solve a mystery concerning a vital piece of the Montglane Service: the Black Queen.
Katherine Neville’s multifaceted portrait of Talleyrand as a man at the center of deadly intrigues, a peerless political strategist and tactician who himself exerted a gravitational pull on many beautiful and intelligent women, is amply borne out by the historical record. Indeed, Talleyrand’s life was an affair of such drama, adventure, and romance that it seems as if only a novel could do it justice.
Charles-Maurice was born on February 2, 1754, into a Parisian family of impeccable aristocratic pedigree. As the eldest son, he stood heir not only to his father’s ancestral title of comte de Talleyrand-Périgord but to the lands and income that went with it. But as a result of a malformed foot, a physical flaw that his family regarded as incompatible with its long tradition of military service, the youngster was legally stripped of his rights of inheritance and instead pressed into a career in the Catholic Church under the watchful eye of his uncle, the Archbishop of Rheims.
Talleyrand always attributed his deformity to a childhood fall in which he was dropped by a clumsy governess, but though he retained a lifelong terror of falling (as an adult, he placed protective barriers around his bed so he could sleep without fear), today most historians believe that his club foot—memorably described by a mistress as “a horse’s hoof made of flesh ending in a claw”—was in fact a congenital birth defect, much like that of another famous aristocrat who is dramatically brought to life in the pages of The Fire: George Gordon, Lord Byron. But whether Talleyrand’s club foot, and the drastic extent to which it altered his circumstances, was the product of nature or (a lack of) nurture, it undoubtedly left a psychological as well as a physical mark on his subsequent career.
The Church proved a hospitable environment for a well-connected young man who was both clever and ambitious. In addition to his ecclesiastical studies, Talleyrand became acquainted with, and sympathetic to, the liberal political ideas of the Philosophes, a group of progressive-minded intellectuals, who were critical of what they viewed as the Church’s collusion with the absolute monarchy that had long ruled the secular State by “Divine Right.” These Philosophe freethinkers included such Enlightenment luminaries as Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire. Nor did Talleyrand neglect more secular pursuits of his own—taking his first mistress while still a student at the seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. But such philosophical (and physical) departures from the straight and narrow did not prevent Talleyrand from taking holy orders in 1779, after which—thanks again to his uncle’s influence—in 1781 he was appointed Agent General of the Clergy, a position in which he acted as the representative of the French clergy in its dealings with the government. In this role, despite a personal lack of religious conviction, Talleyrand won a reputation as a zealous defender of Church privileges in everything from property rights to tax exemption. This success led to his creation as the Bishop of Autun in 1788. At the age of thirty-four, Talleyrand’s future seemed assured: a comfortable life of privilege and power that would afford ample scope for the satisfaction of his considerable intellectual and voluptuary appetites.
Then came the Revolution.
In 1789, when King Louis XVI convened the Estates-General—a quasi-legislative body comprised of representatives from the Church (the First Estate), the Nobility (the Second Estate), and pretty much everyone else (the Third Estate)—Talleyrand was elected by his fellow clergymen as their representative. Doubtless they thought he would once again prove a fierce champion of ecclesiastical interests. In this, they were mistaken.
Instead, the aristocratic prelate worked with single-minded purpose and determination toward the nationalization of all Church properties and the abolition of the Church’s traditional privileges—the very privileges that he had defended so ably (and so recently) as Agent General. In addition, he was a chief contributor in the drafting of The Declaration of the Rights of Man—the French Bill of Rights—as well as other key documents defining the new government’s scope of powers, such as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which reorganized the Catholic Church in France into a democratic institution owing allegiance to the state rather than to the Pope in Rome. For these efforts, Talleyrand was excommunicated by Pope Pius VI. He was also vilified by members of those exclusive circles into which he had been born—the First and Second Estates—as a self-seeking turncoat. It was not the only time that such charges would be leveled against him.
Talleyrand’s co-authorship of The Declaration of the Rights of Man earned him notice from another quarter as well, an even more interesting one: in 1792, the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, (mother of Mary Shelley, the future author of Frankenstein), composed her influential work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which she dedicated to Talleyrand—not only out of admiration for his revolutionary contributions, but also to point out the shortcomings of Talleyrand’s Declaration—wherein he had advocated restricting women to a domestic education only. An uncharacteristic position for a man who had been involved in relationships with such extraordinary women as Madame de Stäel as lovers and valued friends.
In 1791, as the continental monarchies began to mobilize against the French revolutionary government, Talleyrand was dispatched to England by the French Foreign Minister, as an unofficial envoy, in order to win British neutrality. In this, he was momentarily successful. But when he returned to Paris, he found—as it is vividly portrayed in a gripping section of The Eight—that the atmosphere had turned increasingly hostile when the first blush of revolutionary ardor had begun to change into something more poisonous. In The Eight, we follow Talleyrand’s actual movements as, fearing for his own immediate safety, he flees back to London in 1792. And we are provided a close-up view—in 1794, following the execution of Louis and the French invasion of Belgium, with the state of war heating up between England and France—when Talleyrand is expelled by order of Prime Minister Pitt. In life, as in the fictional portrayal, Talleyrand was unable to return to France, where a death sentence awaited him, and as no other European country would accept him, he finally sought refuge in America. There he remained for the next two years, in relative obscurity—amassing a small fortune through New England real-estate speculation, while across the seas, the Terror continued to rage throughout France.
When at last the execution of Maximilien Robespierre signaled the beginning of the end of the Terror, Talleyrand lobbied the French National Convention and its newly formed Directory for permission to return to France. His petitions, conveyed by Madame de Staël and other sympathetic friends, were at last granted, and he arrived in Paris in 1796. By the following year, he was appointed Foreign Minister, and with that his true career began: a career which was to make the name of Talleyrand virtually synonymous with the art of diplomacy.
In this new position, Talleyrand was first to notice the potential of a certain dashing young artillery officer and to play a leading role in the coup d’etat of 1799 that placed Napoleon Bonaparte at the helm of the ship of state, initially as First Consul but really emperor in all but title. Five years later, in 1804, Napoleon added that title as well, crowning himself Emperor at Notre Dame. During those five years, and a handful beyond, Talleyrand continued to serve as Foreign Minister—as Napoleon again and again defeated the coalition armies throughout Europe that were assembled against him, as he engaged in the process of redrawing the map of Europe and throwing the established political order of the ancient regimes into chaos. Although Talleyrand came to regret his part in Napoleon’s rise to power—privately disagreeing with the emperor’s aggressive diplomatic strategies and quick recourse to war, and deeply unhappy with Napoleon’s departure from the egalitarian ideals of the Revolution and with his even more egregious rapprochement with the Catholic Church and its continuing support of the “Divine Right of Kings”—whatever were Talleyrand’s private misgivings, the public diplomat remained an adroit, effective servant.
It was during this period that Talleyrand met and, in 1802, with the encouragement of Napoleon, married Catherine Noel Worlée Grand—who is portrayed in The Eight as the White Queen and the nemesis of the book’s heroine, Mireille. In real life, the extraordinary beauty of “Madame Grand”—this scandal-plagued divorcee, who had been run out of both India and France at different times—is captured in two paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The first, by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, depicts a vivacious twenty-one-year-old beauty dressed in all the colorful and sumptuous finery of the ancien régime; the second, by Baron François-Pascal-Simon Gérard, shows a still striking forty-six-year-old, dressed in the simpler Neoclassical style of the Empire. If readers of The Eight are curious as to the appearance of the fictional Valentine, Mireille’s cousin, who is described as virtually indistinguishable from the White Queen, they need look no further.
As detailed in The Eight, Talleyrand’s marriage was not a happy one. Perhaps Talleyrand grew bored with this ravishing woman whose intellect apparently fell short of her beauty. It is said of her, for example, that when asked where she was from, Catherine replied, “Je suis d’Inde,” meaning “I am from India.” Unfortunately, this phrase sounds like “Je suis dinde,” a common French expression for a stupid woman: that is, “I am a goose.” Nonetheless, Catherine accomplished what no other woman ever managed: to get Talleyrand to the altar. The marriage was childless, though Talleyrand did sire illegitimate children; exactly how many is a matter of debate. Charles Joseph, comte de Flahaut, and the famous painter Eugène Delacroix (who is presented in this light in The Eight) are among the more likely candidates, as are the so-called “Mysterious Charlotte” (who appears in both The Eight and The Fire), a young girl whom Talleyrand adopted at the age of five—as well as Pauline, thought to be the result of Talleyrand’s long involvement with the great love of his life, his young niece Dorothée, the Duchess of Dino, one of the richest women in Europe by age sixteen, and by all accounts as brilliant and witty as Madame de Stäel.
By 1807, Talleyrand’s disenchantment with Napoleon was complete—as was the emperor’s with him. In a now-famous quip, one morning, before the entire French court, Napoleon addressed Talleyrand as “ordure (crap) in a silk stocking.” Resigning as Foreign Minister, Talleyrand retired to his estates at Valençay, where he engaged in activities—around which controversy still swirls to this day—that may have wavered between self-preservation, plotting, conspiracy, or even treason, against the Imperial storm trooper that Napoleon was fast proving himself to be.
Meanwhile, during this era, Talleyrand was also pursuing a collaboration that was destined to leave nearly as great a mark upon the history of cuisine as his diplomatic efforts were to leave upon the history of European politics. In Paris, Talleyrand had made the acquaintance of a young chef at Bailly’s patisserie, who would—largely through Talleyrand’s ministrations—one day become a culinary genius who would be regarded as the father of haute cuisine: Antonin Carême. Carême, who makes a memorable appearance in The Fire, not only trained in Talleyrand’s kitchens, but the two men meticulously planned each day’s menu; with Talleyrand’s intimate involvement, Carême created a 365-day menu with completely different meals for each day. Carême’s sensational “pièces montées,” huge, extravagantly constructed sculptures of spun sugar confectionary, were the wonders of Paris, and he went on to work for such luminaries as George IV of England, the Emperor Alexander of Russia and the Rothschilds of France, becoming in effect the first celebrity chef.
After Napoleon’s forced abdication in 1814, Talleyrand played a leading role in the restoration of the Bourbon Dynasty in the person of Louis XVIII, who promptly rewarded his efforts by appointing him to his old position of Foreign Minister. At the Congress of Vienna, Talleyrand was at his most brilliant, manipulating the victorious allied powers against each other while plying them (aided by Carême, whom he’d brought along to the conference) with lavish and sumptuous banquets. Talleyrand’s negotiating style is aptly conveyed in his famous message from Vienna to the restored king, Louis XVIII, back in Paris: “We are more in need of soufflés here than of instructions.” The result of Talleyrand’s culinary diplomacy was that he attained remarkably favorable terms for defeated France, which emerged from the Congress, virtually unscathed, remaining one of the great European powers.
With the second restoration of Louis XVIII—following Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the Hundred Days of his rule and defeat—Talleyrand was pensioned off with an impressive title and large sinecure, and sent into retirement once more at Valençay. There he devoted himself to the intellectual and epicurean pursuits that so delighted him, working on his memoirs and continuing the romance with his young niece, Dorothée, that had begun at the Congress of Vienna and would continue until the end of his life. In 1830, during the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe, Talleyrand was called back into the diplomatic arena one last time, serving with distinction as ambassador to London until 1834—with his niece, Dorothée, Duchess of Dino, by his side. He died on May 17, 1838, and was buried at Valençay. On his deathbed, following his lifelong tradition of negotiating each point to its successful conclusion—Talleyrand resolved his excommunication issue, ending his long estrangement from the Church, and was officially reconciled with the Catholic faith.
Talleyrand’s own words offer a succinct summation of his career, as well as a strong refutation of the charges of perfidy and corruption sometimes leveled against him by contemporaries and historians alike. “They think that I am immoral and Machiavellian, yet I am simply impassive and disdainful. I have never given perverse advice to a government or a prince, but I do not go down with them. After shipwrecks, you need pilots to rescue the shipwrecked. I stay calm and get them to port somewhere. No matter which port, as long as it offers shelter.” In effect, he was a realist, and today, historians generally concur that his primary allegiance (with the possible exception of his own fortune) was to the preservation of his beloved country, France.