Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud

Not surprisingly given the title, Madame Tussaud is about Marie Tussaud, maker of every tourist and sightseer’s dream in London–reasonably lifelike waxworks. Or rather, correctly, Marie Grosholtz throughout the majority of the time period this book covers; she didn’t marry Francois Tussaud until nearly the end of the novel.

For those who’ve not paid attention in history class: the novel is set in the decidedly tumultuous period in France comprising the Revolution and the Reign of Terror–December 1788 through July 17941–and begins as the coldest winter in living memory, coming close on the heels of a failed harvest throughout France. As the book begins, Marie Grosholtz is working for her uncle2, Philippe Curtius. Curtius, a Swiss surgeon, had learned the art of wax sculpture to aid in his lectures on anatomy and later set up a “salon”, a precursor of sorts to what became Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks in London some forty-odd years later. When Marie showed a gift for this, he taught her the art of waxworks, and she helped him with the Paris salon. In an era long prior to broadcast entertainment media, and when few people were literate enough to read for pleasure even if they had the money for books, a salon such as this, costing only a small amount and with changing tableaux, proved a popular entertainment.

After the uprisings of the French Revolution broke about them, the revolutionaries called upon Grosholtz to make replicas of those they’d just run through the guillotine, in order to better brandish the “heads” of the executed nobility and royalty and whomever they felt to be an enemy of the new regime. Marie is, at least in this version, more than slightly revolted by the process of taking a death mask from what I’ll tactfully call a recently deceased person of this type, given she’s only presented with the essential body part. Grosholtz is herself imprisoned and awaiting execution when the Reign of Terror ends as she was (with some accuracy in Moran’s version) known to be a Royalist Sympathizer.

Hopefully, I can describe the book in a way that comes across as complimentary; the book is indeed worth reading. It’s a quick read, surprisingly given it’s 432 pages long, and an enjoyable one, surprisingly for a book set in the midst of the French Revolution. Moran doesn’t go into much detail about the political background of the time period, though she suggests a great deal; as the book’s written as a first person narrative from the perspective of Marie Grosholtz, this is a reasonable tack to take. Moran doesn’t assume that Grosholtz was at the center of events, despite being the art teacher of one of the royal family. As a result of this balancing act, I’m going to guess that Madame Tussaud would be best enjoyed by people who know a fair bit about the time period, but haven’t made an advanced study of it, or at least those people who aren’t fussy about accuracy of historical fiction but rather enjoy imagining what it might have been to live during a given historical event.

1with a prologue and epilogue set a few years later
2the book is slightly misleading here; Marie’s mother was Curtius’ housekeeper


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