Saturday, November 12, 2011

247 (2011 #52). Madame Tussaud

by Michelle Moran

This is historical fiction about the woman behind the famous wax museums in London and throughout the world.  I did not remember that she had been around during the French Revolution, and made wax models of many of the important people from before and during that time.

The heroine doesn't become Madame Tussaud until nearly the end of the book.  She was born Anna Maria Grosholtz to a Swiss mother, but was called Marie in France.  She's 27 when the book begins in 1788 in Paris, assisting her "uncle" (her mother's lover, according to this book), the Swiss doctor and wax modeler Philippe Curtius, in creating and exhibiting wax figures of famous people of the time.  

In many respects, the book is more about its subtitle, "A Novel of the French Revolution," than about Tussaud.  There's really not a lot of primary source material available about the latter:  "Tussaud's 1838 autobiography" (PW Annex Reviews, August 21, 2006), and "a handful of legal documents, a few letters circa 1802–1804, contemporary publicity material and newspaper clippings" (Kathleen Byrne in Globe and Mail, November 18, 2006, page D9), according to reviews of Kate Berridge's Madame Tussaud: A Life in Wax (which I plan to read), one of Michelle Moran's sources for her novel.  Pamela Pilbeam, author of Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxwork (another book I'd like to read), said Tussaud's "ghosted 'memoirs' claimed that she spent eighteen years at the royal court in Versailles before 1789 and also that in 1794 she was in the same prison as Josephine, Napoleon's future wife. There is not a shred of evidence for either claim" (History Today, September 2006, page 63).

Moran clearly shows Marie's business bent, so I would question any claims the show-woman makes in her own autobiography.  Nevertheless, those claims make a great story and a wonderful basis for this novel.  I appreciated the map of 1789 Paris and the list of the cast of characters at the beginning of the book,as well as the glossary of French terms at the end. The "After the Revolution" section at the end tells what happened to many of the characters. However, some - such as Marie's love interest, Henri Charles, supposed brother of the scientist and balloonist Jacques Charles - are fictional, and it would have been nice if Moran's historical notes at the end had made that clear.

I enjoyed seeing the French Revolution from yet another viewpoint, having read Sena Jeter Naslund's fictionalized biography of Marie Antoinette, Abundance, and Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey (on which Naslund’s book is based).  Moran certainly brings out all the grisly details of the Reign of Terror.

The style of this book, with chapters headed by a date (or dates), reminded me of one of my favorite books, Désirée, by Annemarie Selinko (which begins in France at the same time this book ends, following Napoleon's rise and fall from power).  It was an easy read, and I look forward to reading Moran's historical fiction set in ancient Egypt:  Nefertiti, The Heretic Queen, and Cleopatra's Daughter.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

1 comment:

  1. Actually, Henri Charles is not a fictional character, according to Kate Berridge's biography of Madame Tussaud. Although she has taken liberties with what appears to be a tenuous connection, he probably was not the love of Marie's life.