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Square bracketed content was added at the time of public discussion of the Liverpool Care Pathway.


Author: Philip Ziegler


Ageism has been a bane of the last decade and perhaps longer.

Possibly no modern historical figure's life provides a better demonstration of the unwisdom of ageism than that of Talleyrand.

A biography about the Duchess of Dino cannot fail to be also about Talleyrand. Philip Ziegler makes no bones about his, first published in 1962, being 'a means of writing about Talleyrand without appearing to have done so'.

In advanced economies, average age is rising. This is often referred to in unflattering terms such as 'a demographic timebomb' rather than what it could be, an opportunity to extend the base for economic growth if employment structures are changed.

In some of the same of economies, we live in societies and in a period where financial capitalism and monopoly capitalism are dominant. These two forms of capitalism were the cause of many of the problems in the Great Depression.

These have displaced individual capitalism and business capitalism, a duo that has worked in the past and could be re-worked.

For the residents of advanced economies, the largest companies - say those with over $5 billion of annual turnover - will be unable, in aggregate, to expand employment.

They will be able to increase productivity but not conventional employment. This is because they have both the incentive and ability to export some of their manufacturing to lower cost countries, like China, and some of their service provision to other lower cost countries, like India.

Therefore, it will be left to the 'small guys' to expand employment and this cannot be easily done without rethinking what constitutes employment. Should that be done, the ageing population would be freed up to enter the productive arena to a much greater degree.

Talleyrand was crippled at an early age and suffered, as many old people do, from lameness or restricted autonomous mobility. Material progress means that, in principle, a lame person today can have the same degree of personal material comfort as a grand seigneur of the nineteenth century. In some things more so, in some things less so.

No one doubted that there was nothing wrong with Talleyrand's mind till the day he died. Turning to the book:

By the end of 1832 the Belgian question had been effectively closed. Talleyrand was tired . He was seventy-eight years old (and two years away from retiring voluntarily as ambassador) ....

A good reception for the young duke in England could do much to fortify the Orleanist regime. The prince was determined that the visit should succeed.

Dorothea was mainly responsible for seeing that it did. Her uncle was too old and too frail to undertake the innumerable demarches which were necessary if London society was to be cajoled or bullied into greeting the duke with the requisite enthusiasm. No one else in the embassy had the necessary social contacts or could hope to shift the English aristocracy from the attitude of cautious dislike which they would probably have adopted if left to themselves. Even for Dorothea it demanded infinite patience, finesse and skill in negotiation....

In the end it all went brilliantly well....

Though eighteen years older than the young duke, her beauty was scarcely if at all diminished and her power of fascination unimpaired. In this brief visit were laid the foundations of what was to become a close and lasting friendship.

In 1814, Talleyrand had taken his 21-year old niece by marriage, Dorothea, to the Congress of Vienna to be his official hostess. By the end of the stay, he trusted her assessments implicitly.

Now in 1832, Dorothea de Dino is effectively an ambassadress. Both sojourns challenge ageism and the over tight and over legalistic concepts of employment we have in the twenty-first century.

Her life is an illustration of something I think possibly true - if you take responsibilities that are clearly in the domain of adults in early teenage years, say during the period eleven to fourteen years old, and you make all the right calls, then decisions requiring judgement come easily ever after.

Certainly, she did not doubt hers:

She found that the young duke (of Orléans, heir to the throne) possessed every virtue except that of judgement and flattered herself that this at least she was well qualified to supply.

Few had a childhood like hers.

Born a princess of Courland, the last of a line, she was at first brought up by a brutal, 'half-crazed English governess' who afforded her no proper education.

Later, acquiring better educators, she made astonishing strides so that she 'was far advanced in algebra by the age of ten and spent many evenings in the observatory at Berlin with Bode, the Astronomer Royal.'

Peter von Biren, Duke of Courland, having died when she was seven, her mother was 'too well aware' that the palace in which they lived in Berlin belonged to the little girl so, at the age of twelve, Dorothea set up her own salon attended by an artistic elite.

As Ziegler puts it:

They came to her drawing-room the first time because of her family....but they went on coming because they enjoyed it, because it was a pleasure to these sophisticated and clever people to consort with an intelligence uninhibited by fashion, a judgement uncorrupted by prejudice.

When she was thirteen a harsher reality intruded. At Jena and Auerstadt, Napoleon's armies had won sudden and overwhelming victories against the Prussians.

With her mother away in St Petersburg, Princess Louise of Prussia drops by to urge Dorothea to follow her in fleeing. With her governess she makes a hazardous journey eastwards ahead of the advancing French.

A year later she returns and the French commander, headquartered in her home,

received her politely but made it clear that he was there as conqueror and that any facilities given to Dorothea were offered as a favour and not in acknowledgment of a right. She was lodged in little rooms on an inner court which were normally used by the upper servants.

A few years later, having spent time at Napoleon's court, newly married to Talleyrand's nephew Edmond de Périgord, she is with Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna as he seeks to determine the fate of Napoleon. Both have left their flighty spouses behind.

Given the extent of the strings she pulled in three countries and her intellectual abilities, provided she could have avoided the reputation for immorality that she acquired in her own age, in the late twentieth century she would have been well suited to be a major politician in either Germany or France or heading up an Oxford college, at home with the brightest of a nation.

The early twenty-first century might not have suited her as well. One unattractive legacy of the New Labour strand of socialism is that it allowed the coining of over-simplified, one solution fits all state orthodoxies and entrenched them with supporting bureaucracies.

One of these orthodoxies, which finds support within the NHS [and is surely ripe for repeated legal challenge in the case of the Liverpool care pathway?], is that death is best managed in hospitals or institutions. It is more efficient with resources and troubles the living less. There are also interests, though not the hospice movement, that appear to be against extending assistance to the dying in their homes. [The reality is that more people will have to go home with narcotics to self-administer to relieve pain. There are risks but it is unacceptable that reckless youngsters can buy the same narcotics on the street untroubled and run risks whilst they cannot be used for an intended purpose by people better equipped to take responsibility for themselves.]

Another orthodoxy is that people over a certain age living alone are vulnerable.

Lady Mary Warnock has written (The Guardian, 17 May 2009):

In fact, the very concept of vulnerability is suspect, if applied to the old as a class defined solely by date of birth. It should be reserved for those whose bones, or grasp of reality, have become fragile, or who have become blind, or unable to walk.

Bearing in mind the life of Talleyrand and the Duchess of Dino's role for a quarter of a century in guaranteeing the primacy of his wishes, perhaps one should not necessarily place all those listed above within the concept either.

Lady Warnock continues:

Looking after the old ought essentially to be a matter of trying to understand what they like and hate, what they have always liked and hated, and trying to protect them, not against their own supposed mental fraility and dependence, but against a life bereft of any of the pleasures they value. Our present record falls short of this by many miles.

The potential pitfalls of the orthodoxies are clear to see by extrapolating an example.

An elderly person living alone is taken to hospital. Because it is practically or even administratively inconvenient to provide support in the home after hospitalisation, the person is sent to a care home where he or she is diagnosed as suffering from dementia and being found to be a little difficult in relations with others is chemically coshed, hastening death, though not intentionally. Given recent history, this has been a plausible scenario.

If, added to this, the care home [or even a failing healthcare group] were to be financed by a new, compulsory death tax, the unappealing conflicts of interests soon become apparent.

Healthcare orthodoxies in Britain are formulated in relatively closed circles. It is time for a bigger societal input however frightening broaching some subjects might appear.

In a healthcare sector subject to competition, it is more likely that policy can be elicited by the patient.

The NHS is a near-monopoly that currently spends £105bn annually.

In a recent study of healthcare in seven industrialised countries Britain came second to last for 'long, healthy, productive lives' and last for life expectancy at age 60.

The NHS's policies are shrouded in relative obscurity.

In contrast, our planning laws allow nearly every planning application to be open to public comment and we are the better for it.

The announcement on 30 June 2010 of three new health standards, written by the National Institute for health and Clinical Excellence, for dementia, blood clots and stroke is an advance on the former system of target setting by replacing it with 'evidence based measures'.

Nonetheless, new standards should ideally go out for public consultation, albeit not long drawn out, before being finalised. (This reviewer once had responsibility for over 2000 construction standards and codes of practice and all nearing completion had to go out for public consultation).

Otherwise, clinicians who have not had a chance to comment may see the NHS and Nice combined as unreformed authors of top down orthodoxies.

With the treatment of the aged, this will cause future problems. [1 November 2012 This has now clearly proved the case. The internationally accepted definitions are that standards are mandatory and codes of practices are not. Professional people (those consulted for their knowledge) prefer the latter because they allows them to exercise professional judgement. They permit discretion. If they cannot exercise professional judgement and simply must follow rules it negates much of the point of their professional training. Poorly written construction standards (e.g. those which are impenetrable when translated from their original language) are widely disregarded by construction professionals, as evidenced by poor sales figures. Codes of practice are much less disregarded and often much loved and very well thumbed by professionals. If the NHS relies on mandatory standards too much it will slip to third rate status. A standard for ambulance response time can be mandatory. One for treating the dying cannot be.]

The classic account in English of the death of Talleyrand can be found in Duff Cooper's Talleyrand. The final chapter is wonderfully entitled 'The Last Treaty'.

The Duchess of Dino puts the anti-ageism case better.

In 1789, Talleyrand, whilst Bishop of Autun, had caused ecclesiastical property to be transfered to the state. In 1791, he resigned his bishopric but then went on to consecrate three new bishops for the Revolution. He was soon excommunicated. In 1802 he married.

Talleyrand was to die on 17th May 1838, aged 84.

By the time he was 82, Dorothea knew what her task should be:

Unpromising though her uncle's reaction might seem she was little by little preparing the frame of mind in which he would be ready to negotiate terms, if not with the Almighty, at least with his appointed representative on earth.

Behind the scenes she negotiates the terms on which the Vatican would readmit Talleyrand to the Church.

On 27th January 1838 he stumbled and fell heavily whilst dining at the British Embassy.

In twenty-first century Britain, had he been someone else, this would probably have been the point at which he would have been unable to escape the tag 'vulnerable' - and so possibly would have entered the final loop of hospital and care home.

He recovers at home.

At the beginning of March, Talleyrand made what was to be his last public appearance. He had been asked to deliver the funeral oration of Count Reinhard, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. He decided to use the occasion to deliver an apologia for his own career and an analysis of the whole science of diplomacy.


On 1st May, as Dorothea was about to leave the house to visit the archbishop, the prince casually pulled a sheet of paper from the drawer....

Talleyrand's sense of timing had not deserted him but the margin of safety was very small. On 12th May he fell seriously ill, on the 14th he was operated on for anthrax....

The morning of the fifteenth the abbe arrived with the text of Talleyrand's retraction as amended by Monsieur de Quélen, together with a draft of a letter to the Pope. Both these would need to be signed before the prince could receive the last sacraments....

The next day Talleyrand still had not signed the papers and it seemed he could not live more than a few hours....

Talleyrand repeated that he was willing, that he would sign in time, that he wished to go through the text once more with Madame de Dino. His ultimate concession was a promise that he would sign between five and six next morning.

Death was regarded as an event not to shunned. Even the King called, in the final hours, to pay his last respects.

At half past four Dupanloup was back at his vigil. Behind him came the Duke de Poix, Saint Aulaire, Barante, Molé and Royer Collard; all old friends of the prince come to watch him through his last hours and - so Dorothea prayed - to bear witness to his return to the Church. Still Talleyrand played for time, extracting every last minute as once he had squeezed every last concession out of foreign negotiators. Once more he asked Dorothea to read through the papers and once more she enunciated the terms of her uncle's retraction.

"I found the strength to read the papers slowly and with deliberation" she wrote to Dupanloup long after all was over, "because I neither wished nor had any right to reduce the merit of my uncle's action. It was essential that he should understand exactly what he was about to do. God be praised, his faculties were still too much in his possession and his attention too acute to let him be satisfied by any disturbed or gabbled reading. I had to justify his touching confidence which had made him wish that it should be I who gave this crucial reading. I could only do it by the firmness and clearness of my speech. In that way I could leave him complete freedom of choice up to the final minute and a perfect understanding of what was in question".

As Cooper puts it:

When the reading was ended he dipped his pen into the ink and firmly affixed to both documents his full signature, which he reserved for state papers of the first importance - Charles-Maurice, Prince de Talleyrand.

Or as in Ziegler's account:

Close as he was to death he must have detected the pain and fatigue behind her firm and unemotional tone....But there was to be no more prevarication. The time that he had fixed had come and with a last effort of will he dipped his pen in the ink and put his name to the two papers. Charles-Maurice, Prince Talleyrand, had made his peace with God....

At twenty-five minutes to four in the afternoon of 17th May, Talleyrand's head dropped to his chest in final token of death.