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SAINTE-Beuve, after an attempt that one cannot describe as successful, declared that “it is hardly possible to write the life of M. de Talleyrand.” Frédéric Masson noticed the figure of the great diplomatist as he passed with a disdainful “ce Sphinx." Carlyle forgot his dogmatism for a moment, and pronounced Talleyrand “one of the strangest things ever seen or like to be seen, an enigma for future ages.” Even a woman of penetration, Mme. de Staël, who had known him well, assures us that he was “the most impenetrable and most inexplicable of men.”
There were a few who thought that the long-sealed “Memoirs” of the Prince, which were published only a few
years ago, would reveal every secret. They forgot that these were the work of the man who held (improving on Voltaire) that “speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts"—the man who conducted his exit from the world with all the art he had used at the Congress of Vienna. Yet, if the “Memoirs have thrown no light, or only a deceptive light, on some of the obscurer passages in Talleyrand's career, they have at least filled in our picture of his personality, so that the tradition of its inscrutability must be surrendered. There has been a prolonged and microscopic research into the age or ages of Talleyrand,—the Old Regime, the Revolution, the Consulate, the Restoration, and the second Revolution. The memoirs of nearly all his contemporaries have seen the light, and official records everywhere have been examined. I have made a careful use of all this research up to date, and find it possible to present a consistent and intelligible personality.
Lady Blennerhassett included the material of the “ Memoirs” in the biography of Talleyrand that she wrote ten years ago.
But a good deal of light has since been thrown on the earlier part of his career, and in this regard I gratefully avail myself of the investigations of M. de Lacombe. Moreover, Lady Blennerhassett is chiefly occupied with the Prince's diplomatic action. His personality does not stand
out very clearly from her very crowded canvas. That is an inherent disadvantage in writing the life of a great diplomatist. However, in spite of the alluring character of the stretch of history across which the thread of Talleyrand's life passes, I have tried to keep it in its place as a background, and to bring out into the fullest light the elusive figure of the man who made and unmade a dozen oaths of loyalty.
LONDON, June, 1906.