Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran
5th Sep 2011
With Madame Tussaud, Moran sets her sights on revolutionary France at the turn of the 19th century, retelling events from the viewpoint of Marie Grosholtz, the Swiss-born artist who found fame in Paris sculpting wax models of the great and the good. She would later establish the wax museum in London, and Madame Tussaud’s is still a major tourist attraction with branches worldwide.
The story begins in 1788, when Marie becomes a tutor to the King Louis XVI’s pious sister, Elisabeth. At a time when ordinary people faced chronic food shortages, the grand lifestyle favoured by the King and his wife, Marie Antoinette, was the subject of bitter resentment.
However, Moran suggests that the opulence of Versailles was an artful illusion. On her arrival at the palace, Marie is surprised to find courtiers in rags, and a putrid stench. Back at Marie’s salon, her likeness of the beleaguered Queen is clad in a negligee, exploiting the public appetite for scandal.
Perhaps inevitably, the infamous Marie Antoinette casts a shadow over the novel, though she appears but rarely. Marie’s encounters with the Queen reveal her desperate isolation, as she is deemed the perfect scapegoat for a corrupt elite.
Over the coming years, Marie and her family strike a tenuous balance between loyalty to the old order and the necessity to placate the new, radical regime. As the palace falls, Marie creates ‘death masks’ of beheaded tyrants.
The triumph of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ soon turned sour. Everyday life was still perilously uncertain, and as the radical government became increasingly paranoid, the invention of the guillotine ushered in a ‘Reign of Terror.’
In an afterword, Moran notes that as many as 40,000 people may have died in the years following the French Revolution, a period sometimes described as ‘the first modern genocide.’
The leading lights of the revolution – Maximillien Robespierre, George Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat – are all depicted, though with rather less subtlety than the Queen and her entourage.
Marie’s close friendship with Desmoulins’ lover, Lucille Duplessis, and a moving scene where Danton begs Marie to preserve his wife’s dead body add some depth, but at times it seems that Marie is merely a conduit for the retelling of events too complex for no one person to wholly convey.
While Marie Grosholtz may have been a commoner, she was a successful, independent woman. A love affair with the scientist, Henri Charles, came second to ambition and, ultimately, her will to survive in dangerous times.
Some of the most effective moments in the novel are provided by Marie’s encounters with peripheral figures, like the sinister Marquis de Sade, and later Charlotte Corday, the young woman who murders Marat.
Marie’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment in Les Carmes put her in direct contact with some of France’s most celebrated women – among them Rose de Beauharnais, the future Empress Josephine. Marie will also meet her husband, Françoise Tussaud, during her incarceration.
With Madame Tussaud, Michelle Moran revisits a turbulent era and brings new insight into the life and art of the woman behind one of our best-known museums. Moran’s style is easy to read though occasionally swamped by events.
While Moran doesn’t fully evoke the world beyond Marie’s window, the view is still compelling. First published in March, Madame Tussaud is now available in paperback for £7.19, or for £6.39 on Kindle.
Recommended for: Readers of historical fiction with a romantic twist.
Other recommended reading: If you liked this, try these other novels of revolutionary France: A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel; The Gods Are Thirsty by Tanith Lee; Marge Piercy’s City of Darkness, City of Light.