Memoirs of Vidocq as a Convict Spy and Agent of the French Police
“The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow.”
-“Araby” (D 29)
In 1829 a writer for The Westminster Review described the popularity of Vidocq’s memoirs and the reasons for its wide appeal:
The manner in which these Memoirs have been received all over Europe, indicates that they possess a variety of attractions : the fact is, they are as amusing as a romance, and have the credit of being true. They have for us another sort of value. We pretend not to be Howards; yet we visit prisons (in the way of amateurs be it understood); and this book has an interest cognate with that of a prison visit.” (“Memoires de Vidocq” 162)
If we accept Joyce’s sense of the “special odor of corruption” and “the soul of hemiplegia or paralysis” in Dubliners, the plight of Joyce’s characters might be observed by the reader with similar results. The Memoirs of Vidocq as a Convict Spy and Agent of the French Police purports to be the true story of career criminal and master of disguise who became a police informant and later the leader of a plainclothes police brigade that used covert tactics to fight crime. After retiring from the police force and giving up a life of petty crime, Vidocq used his considerable wealth to open a paper factory and a private detective agency, both of which employed ex-convicts. During this time he also prepared his memoirs, probably with the help of a ghostwriter.
The English translation of the work published by the London firm of I.J. Chidley contains engravings by English illustrator Thomas Onwhyn (1814–1886). Onwhyn is best known for his illustrations to Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, which were signed with the pseudonym Samuel Weller. He illustrates the figure of Vidocq in a lighthearted manner, and the protagonist often appears in the liminal spaces of doorways, passages, alleys, and stairwells. The narrator of “Araby” inhabits similar “blind” spaces throughout the story.
Joyce was not the only writer drawn to this picaresque tale. Vidocq appears in various forms in the works of Balzac, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, and Charles Dickens. The memoir, which gives the reader both the salacious details of criminal activity and the assurance that the criminals will be brought to justice, figures as one of the many “romances of disorder” that Joyce includes within the early stories of Dubliners.