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  few years ago I found myself by chance spending Christmas Eve in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Because of ground delays in London, my New York-bound flight had to stop there – the crew needed a break; rules (good ones too) – as Halifax was as far as they were prepared to fly. This detour turned out to be quite fortuitous. After a visit to the well-tended cemetery where the victims of the Titanic are buried, I wandered through the windswept Old Town and discovered a wonderful antiquarian bookstore, one of the best I’ve ever seen, and there came across an elusive volume: Duff Cooper’s TALLEYRAND.

For anyone interested in the French Revolution, in diplomacy, or wishing to bask in the vulpine cunning and license of Napoleon’s foreign minister, Cooper’s biography provides pure reading pleasure. A passage starting the third chapter especially piqued my curiosity: “On the road that runs from Leatherhead to Dorking there stands an eighteenth-century residence which, although it has undergone considerable alterations, still bears the name of Juniper Hall. Here, in the summer of 1792, was formed the nucleus of a small society of French refugees. The Constitutionals – those members of the aristocracy who if they had not welcomed the Revolution had at least tried to make the best of it, and who, only after the fall of the monarchy and under the shadow of the Terror, abandoned their country in order to save their lives, found at Juniper Hall a brief haven of refuge.”

Another little teaser in the same chapter, concerning Fanny Burney and her sister Susanna Phillips’s visits there, perfectly encapsulates the collision of English manners with French savoir faire: “Prim little creatures, they had wandered out of the sedate drawing rooms of Sense and Sensibility and were in danger of losing themselves in the elegantly disordered alcoves of Les Liasions Dangereuses.”

Well, with that invitation to the minuet, I just had to find the place, no easy task as it turned out. It took months of research. None of my friends had heard of the place and what references I could find in Pevsner’s Surrey guide (architect: Couse, Kenton; student of Robert Adam; some work at High Wycombe) were rather dry and unilluminating. An historian acquaintance who lives in Kensington Square, next to a house bearing a National Heritage blue plaque with Talleyrand’s name on it, had heard of it and put me on to the Field Studies Council (a semi-autonomous governmental body that specialises in the preservation of flora and fauna); they had an open weekend and in the company of a rambling friend, I was off.

Juniper Hall itself, a slightly derelict Hanoverian pile tucked away at the bottom of Boxhill, would be easy to miss if you were hurrying along; England is, after all, dotted with far statelier homes. That would be unfortunate, for Juniper Hall is not simply a house with a history, it is a house with a past. Among those who lit up its drawing room (which is still kept in a style that somewhat approximates the period, the fixtures and details relatively unchanged) are the Comte de Jaucourt, a distinguished former deputy and constitutionalist; his lover, the Comtesse de la Ch‚tre, who was not a lady “whose austerity was oppressive”; Lally Tollendal, “large, fat, with a great head, small nose, immense cheeks,” wrote Susanna Phillips, “un trťs honnÍte garÁon,” as Talleyrand said of him, “et rien de plus”; his lover, the Princesse d’Hťnin, a former lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, and the doyenne of Parisian society; General Alexandre d’Arblay, Lafayette’s chief of staff, a “true militaire, franc et loyal,” as Mrs. Phillips described him; Louis de Narbonne, a grand seigneur, handsome, witty, rakish, rumoured to be Louis XV’s bastard (he probably was); and, finally, the lodestars of the constellation, Baronne de StaŽl-Holstein (nťe Necker), the first woman of European letters, a feminist avant la lettre, and the Bishop d’Autun, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Pťrigord, the courtier’s courtier, a diplomatist and intriguer without equal.

A stellar gathering by any standards, of whose charm, intelligence, and lineage there could be, as the genteel English phrase goes, no question. They easily bowled the local bien pensants like the Locks of Norbury Park and the Burneys for a duck. “There can be nothing imagined more charming, more fascinating than this colony”; “a society of incontestable superiority”; “these people of a thousand”; “they are a marvellous set for excess of agreeability”; “English has nothing to do with elegance such as theirs.”

Likewise, the huntin’ and fishin’ and shootin’ fraternity of Surrey had never seen anything like this fine feathered bunch. They were frankly indifferent if not suspicious; wasn’t Talleyrand the devil incarnate himself? (Horace Walpole, hardly the huntin’ and fishin’ type, described him as “that viper who has cast his skin.”) Even Miss Burney was prejudiced against him at first, writing: “Monsieur de Talleyrand opened last night with infinite wit and capacity. Madame de StaŽl whispered to me: ‘How do you like him?’ ‘Not very much,’ I answered. ‘Oh, I assure you,’ cried she, ‘he is the best of men.’ I was happy not to agree.” She soon changed her tune, however, saying a few days later: “It is inconceivable what a convert M. de Talleyrand has made of me. I think him now one of the finest members and one of the most charming of this exquisite set.”

Miss Burney’s relations with the displaced chatelaine of Juniper Hall were more telling, though – the two came from entirely different worlds. On the Continent Mme. de StaŽl, who studied under Goethe and Schiller at Weimar, was an author to be reckoned with, her study of Rousseau, which appeared in 1788 when she was only 22, having established her reputation overnight; Burney, whose novels-of-manners anticipate Jane Austen, depended on a small allowance provided her as a lady in waiting to George III’s queen. Mme. de StaŽl  was an aristocrat who once said, “mankind begins at baron”; Burney came from a family old as the hills and infinitely more respectable. Although plain, if not downright ugly, Mme. de StaŽl’s dark, slightly protruded eyes revealed her true character, overflowing as they did with a brilliance and passionate nature she readily displayed in the drawing rooms of Paris, “a torrent of words,” according to Byron; in an age renowned for conversation, for esprit (best captured recently in the film Ridicule), she was exceptional, fascinating, the first among equals. Fanny Burney had also shined, and in her London days she had been the darling of Dr. Johnson and hobnobbed with Sheridan, Burke and Garrick; now she was demure, a spinster, seemingly content to gaze in wonder at these proud peacocks, all the while long noting their every word and action.

Overwhelmed to find one civilised Anglaise, Mme. de StaŽl proceeded to shower great admiration and affection on the author of EVELINA and CECELIA (her own novels were yet to come), attracted as she was to excellence in all forms; despite her grande dame airs, aristocracy of the intellect took precedence over all else, and she cultivated Fanny diligently. She begged her to spend “a large week” at Juniper Hall. Fanny welcomed the younger, maturer woman’s attentions, was indeed swept off her feet by her fellow author and bluestocking. And why not? Days passed at Juniper Hall seemed idyllic, spent in good food and conversation, charades and bridge, and readings. Mme. de StaŽl read from her work-in-progress, DE L’INFLUENCE DES PASSIONS SUR LE BONHEUR DES INDIVIDUS ET DES NATIONS (which was finished there), or Voltaire’s TANCR»DE.

There was also the occasion of Lally Tollendal’s after dinner reading of his tragedy, LA MORT DE STRAFFORD. As usual, it had been a wonderful if frugal repast but, at the end of it, M. d’Arblay had vanished. “He was sent for after coffee several times that the tragedy might be begun; and at last Madame de StaŽl impatiently proposed beginning without him: ‘Mais cela lui fera de la peine,’ said M. de Talleyrant good-naturedly, and as she persisted, he rose up and limped out of the room to fetch him; he succeeded in bringing him.”

Most odd how someone so veddy English as Fanny Burney should miss an instance of ironic courtesy, a species of humour at which Talleyrand excelled. In fact, she was blind to countless nuances all around her, connections that were right under her very nose, such as Mme. de StaŽl’s tempestuous affair with Narbonne. Her father, the teacher and historian of music Dr. Burney, was not so unaware of these soundings, writing: “Madame de StaŽl has been accused of partiality to M. de Narbonne – but perhaps all may be Jacobinical malignity.” Though shocked, Miss Burney clung to her impressions, writing back, “I do firmly believe it a gross calumny. She loves him even tenderly, but so openly, so simply, so unaffectedly, and with such utter freedom from all coquetry, that, if they were two men or two women, the affection could not, I think, be more obviously undesigning. She is very plain, he is very handsome; her intellectual endowments must be with him her sole attraction. She seems equally attached to M. de Talleyrand. Indeed I think you could not spend a day with them and not see that their commerce is that of pure but exalted and most elegant friendship. I would, nevertheless, give the world to avoid being a guest under their roof, now I have heard even the shadow of such a rumour.”

(Mme. de StaŽl had been equally attached to M. de Talleyrand, writing years later that “the three men I loved most in my youth were N[arbonne], T[alleyrand], and M[ontmorency].”)

From that moment on, Fanny Burney made her excuses, avoiding “our Juniperians,” especially Mme. de StaŽl. Mme. de StaŽl was confused and hurt by Miss Burney’s sudden aloofness. She was also frankly irritated by Fanny’s prudery. Calling on her one day, she was told by Susanna Phillips that Dr. Burney could not spare Fanny, to which she responded, “Is a woman a minor for ever in your country? It seems to me your sister is like a girl of fourteen.”

Fanny Burney had another consideration in mind when she dropped Mme. de StaŽl, Talleyrand and Co. – she and d’Arblay had fallen in love. Not only was he a single man not in possession of a good fortune, but with the Jacobin Terror threatening to spill across the borders and perhaps the Channel, all French aliens were suspected of being fifth columnists. Moreover, she had her position to consider, the pension she received from the Royal Family. She had to steer clear of them and it was only after the most delicate negotiations with her father and Royal intermediaries that she and d’Arblay were able to marry in the little Norman church of Mickleham.

Still, her behaviour is in cold contrast to Mme. de StaŽl’s, who constantly, and often recklessly, risked her life attempting to save friends from the tumbrels. But then she, like Talleyrand, thrilled to intrigue. When Napoleon asked him whether Mme. de StaŽl was a good friend, he replied, “She is such a good friend that she would throw all her acquaintances into the water for the pleasure of fishing them out again.”

Then suddenly, almost as soon as it had started, it all ended, with the cŰterie dispersed. Talleyrand, expelled for subversion, bought a passage on the William Penn to America with Mme. de StaŽl’s money (in transit he met Benedict Arnold!). A true Machiavel, he was never at a loss, never missed the main chance, going from strength to strength, stealthily engineering Napoleon’s rise to the head of the Directory and later, after his fall from grace with the jumped-up Corsican, outmaneuvering Castlereagh, Metternich and the allies at the Congress of Vienna, in the end having obtained what he’d always wanted for France, a constitutional monarchy. He eventually wound up as Louis-Philippe’s Ambassador to the Court of St James, and lived long and well enough to witness another uprising, in 1830, observing that “those who did not live before the Revolution can never know how sweet life could be.” Upon hearing of Talleyrand’s death, a diplomat was reported to have said, “What did he mean by that?”

With a new swain in tow, Mme. de StaŽl managed to return to her native Geneva, rejoining her dull Swedish husband, Baron de StaŽl; her ardour for Narbonne had cooled (Narbonne, who became Napoleon’s aide de campe, was killed at the Siege of Torgau in Saxony). Talleyrand proved not to be a good friend, undercutting her with Napoleon. For much of the rest of her “miserable gypsy life” she was on the move, from Russia, to Sweden, to London, finally returning to France after Waterloo (her greatest novel, CORINNE, and the seminal work, DE L’ALLEMAGNE [1813], which was greatly responsible for introducing German literature and philosophy to the French intelligentsia, much the way Voltaire’s LETTRES PHILOSOPHIQUES had done for England, appeared in exile). The satisfaction of outfoxing Napoleon’s policemen and prosecutors was short-lived – the hounding, the itinerant way of life had broken her health and she died much too young at 50. “She is a woman by herself,” said Byron, “and she has done more than all the rest of them together, intellectually – she ought to have been a man.”

Fanny Burney, newly married at 41, would live happily ever after. While she never saw Mme. de StaŽl again, she looked back on those Juniper Hall days with fondness, writing, “Ah what days were those of conversational perfection, of wit, gaiety, repartee, information, badinage and eloquence.” More in character was her tidy little comment on finding a cache of Mme. de StaŽl’s letters to Narbonne which her husband had kept for his old comrade: “Lettres brŻlantes ŗ brŻler – a fine moral lesson too.”

Though Jonathan Miller has said that “the English would wade through a lake of pus to get to a country house,” few bother to make the pilgrimage to Juniper Hall today. Talleyrand and Mme. de StaŽl are barely remembered now or, rather, their significance is underplayed; Fanny Burney, naturally, has a devoted following, and half the roads and lanes in the area seem to be named after her and her relatives. Cooper’s book is sadly out of print, and to those who might recollect his name or subject matter, France means hols in Dordogne, the Revolution New Labour. It’s somehow fitting that the only hint of Juniper Hall’s past is a plain brown, hard to read plaque on the gateway which was donated by the European Union’s cultural commission in 1992.

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