Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Introduction
To attempt an analysis of the Memoirs now laid before the public would be utterly impossible, so romantic are the narratives, so thrilling the horrors, so powerful the descriptions, so continuous the thread of its history. As a piece of Autobiography, it has many and singular characteristics, which stamp it at once as one of the most interesting and peculiar narratives ever penned, replete with astonishing incident and instructive moral. In these days, when the hand of improvement, so called, (God save the mark!) macadamizes the hoary relics of antiquity to smoothen the path along which civilization progresses; when the age of chivalry is gone; and daring deeds and adventurous exploits are superseded by mere common-places and matter-of-fact details; it is a thing of marvel to read the incidents of a life so full of romance, so teeming with the wild and wonderful. To the light reader, who but skims over the surface of a book, and enjoys the tale merely as one of passing amusement, forgotten soon as read, these Memoirs offer all that the most fastidious can desire of the piquant and attractive: to the reflective reader, who, not content with the mere detail of events, inquires into causes, searches out motives, and philosophizes, en passant, on the wit or weakness, power or puerility, of the human mind, herein will be found ample scope and verge enough for his most meditative musings.
As a work of fiction, it would be said, and with apparent justice, that the Author had drawn too largely on his inventive powers, that he had exceeded the bounds of possibility, and set no limits to the excursions of his fancy; but "le vrai n'est pas toujours le vraisemblable;" and independently of the assertions of Vidocq himself as to the veracity of his Memoirs, we have other powerful inducements to credit his statements. Many of the persons whom he has handled with severity, and spoken of in no very measured terms, are still living, and would doubtless be too happy to refute the chargers alleged, did not truth forbid denial. Of his wonderful and multiplied escapes from "durance vile," we are equally assured, as no man in his senses would give fictitious descriptions of what could be readily disproved if false; and a similar argument may be applied to other seemingly overwrought narrations; but so many of them tell against our hero, that their truth cannot be impugned. Perhaps no man in his time ever assumed so many parts in life's drama, and so frequently on the very shortest possible notice, as Eugène François Vidocq. But too early initiated in deception, he soon became an adept in dissimulation, and expert in disguising his person or his intentions. Endued with a mind powerful but perverted, a temper careless but impetuous, and feelings kindly but irritable, he, by the early association with depraved companions, rendered himself, by one false step, induced by a too ready compliance, an outcast, excluded from the pale of orderly society, and condemned to herd with the very refuse of mankind. Much may be urged in his defence, who, suffering under the penalty of a sentence, the result of perjured evidence, sought to escape the contamination which beset him in the recesses of his prison only to establish himself respectably; who, having lost caste amongst his fellow citizens, sought eagerly the means of re-instatement. But no sooner were respectable connexions formed, credit established, affections nourished, or hopes entertained, than some fortuitous and evil occurrence dashed the cup of anticipated happiness and security from his lips, leaving but the bitterness of the dregs to swallow, and thus again was he
————Like ocean weed uptorn,
And loose along the world of waters borne;
Thus cast companionless from wave to wave
On life's rough sea.
With a mind not naturally vicious, he was again and again condemned to mate with the most abandoned; with feelings not callous, he was compelled to harbour with the most hardened; with a yearning after a life of honest labour, he was coupled with villains whose conduct was one tissue of impious blasphemy, atrocious rascality, and unutterable bestiality. To escape this there was but one only course open to him, and that he adopted. He offered his services to the police, who, aware of his talent, acuteness, activity, and courage, accepted his preferred aid. This did not result from a fear of danger or a spirit of treachery; the urgent motives that led Vidocq to this measure, were the desire of avoiding the perpetual contact with the vile scum with with whom his lot was cast, and the knowledge that he could benefit his country, and thus pay recompense for past misconduct. Above all he could then enjoy liberty and have before him the encouraging prospect of a re-instatement in society, which, lost to him by one early and precipitous step, was to be recovered by years of suffering and daring, open obloquy and secret approval. Much was ventured, for much was to be. achieved.
We shall give a brief narrative of our hero, and leave our readers to form their own decision on his eventful life.
Eugène François Vidocq was a native of Arras, where his father was a baker: and from early associations he fell into courses of excess which led to the necessity of his flying from the paternal roof. After various, rapid, and unexampled events in the romance of real life, in which he was everything by turns and nothing long, he was liberated from prison, and became the principal and most active agent of police. He was made Chief of the Police de Sureté under Messrs Delavau and Franchet, and continued in that capacity from the year 1810 till 1827, during which period he extirpated the most formidable of those ruffians and villains to whom the excesses of the revolution and subsequent events had given full scope for the perpetration of the most daring robberies and iniquitous excesses. Removed from employment in which he had accumulated a handsome independence, he could not determine on leading a life of ease, for which his career of perpetual vigilance and adventure had unfitted him, and he built a paper-manufactory at St Mandé, about two leagues from Paris, where he employs from forty to fifty persons,—principally, it is asserted, liberated convicts, who having passed through the term of their sentence, are cast upon society without home, shelter, or character, and would be compelled to resort to dishonest practices did not this asylum offer them its protection and afford them opportunity of earning an honest living by industrious labour.
One additional point of interest in the present volumes is, that the author is still living. The criticism on autobiography falls harmless when the hand that penned it is mouldering with its kindred dust; and in the present instance the shafts of severe comment will be blunted on the shield of candid and contrite avowal.