Born before Napoleon’s fall and raised in Paris, Maurice Étienne de Valois, career officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had the opportunity to witness the constant turmoil that was the nineteenth-century France. His point of view happened to be a privileged one: his first full-time job was as personal secretary, for eight whole years, to no less a statesman than Prince Talleyrand. Naturally, the perception that he was to form thereafter of all things politic would have to be a very partial one, but with the passing of time, his private considerations and reminiscences became a true reflection of France; intriguing, charming, rational, contradictory, captivating, gifted, sometimes ugly, and always painfully fragmented. His heart was with the Ancien Régime, his name was the name of an old dynasty, but he knew that the Monarchy’s claim to legitimacy was lost; had slipped away long before the actual overthrow. He was fascinated by Napoleon but mistrusted him; and he definitely hated the Bonapartists. The hopes that he had put in the Restoration were all betrayed, one after another, with each one of the many restorations that had to follow each one of the French Revolutions. And as for the Second and Third Republic, he always felt uncomfortable with their absurdities, inherent disabilities and poor perspectives. Yet not only it was the Republic that kept coming back, in the end, it would be the Republic that would make the last comeback.
Now, in the last quarter of a century renowned for hitherto unprecedented cruelty and inhumanity, he reviews what he came to consider as the pivotal facts of the Revolution. To his surprise, he did not find his material in the storming of palaces, at places of public executions, or during the course of violent demonstrations; they were neither famous battles nor dramatic speeches that shaped the France of his times. Instead, his tales revisit curious spots at the fringes of History, mostly awkward instances and strange coincidences. And they are about the endeavors of princes, heroes, visionaries and prodigies, but they are also the dark accomplishments of usurpers, adventurers, mercenaries and thieves: unfortunate people whose shortcomings and ill-timed decisions would change the lives of millions. In his eyes, accidents, frauds, misunderstandings, betrayals, sudden losses, misplaced affections and, very frequently, premonitions seem to defy reason and probability and will keep returning to demand the fulfillment of an incomprehensible fate. He is uncertain, he is mystified; and who was not, who saw the France of those last decades? And what is worse, as his luck would have it, he is not even a true Child of the Revolution. Brought up in the spirit of the Siècle des Lumières, he is consumed by the burning need of a logical explanation for what happened to his family, to France and to Humanity, to a world robust and sparkling which came suddenly to a predictable, and maybe deserved, but definitely premature end. He cannot understand but he will not let go either; he is firmly convinced that there was, there always had to be, a clearly defined cause for everything. And even when causes eventually turn out to have their own roots someplace else, there should still have to be a first, single and fundamental origin to all this. Whether he found such a beginning for the strangeness of his times, remains unclear, but the recollections from his journey were not compiled in vain.