Saturday, 5 November 2011
Kim's Review: Madame Tussaud
After reading The Heretic Queen, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Michelle Moran's Madame Tussaud. However, having just visited the Madame Tussauds waxworks in London, I was also quite keen to learn more about how a woman in 18th Century France, became such a famous craftsperson whose legacy lives on today in multiple museums across the globe.
Madame Tussaud is a brilliant piece of Historical Fiction, that I really enjoyed. It could be because my knowledge of the French Revolution is sketchy, unlike Pharaonic Egypt which I have read so much about. (I felt that The Heretic Queen, was constantly contradicting what I had come to accept as facts, so it was a disconcerting read for me)
The book spans a quarter of a century beginning with Madame Tussaud in London in 1812, and promptly regressing in flashback to 1788. Here Madamoiselle Marie Grosholtz is an accomplished wax modeller under the tutelage of her uncle Philippe Curtius.
Times are tough, money is tight and food shortages are widespread throughout France. Madamoiselle Marie and her Uncle Curtius's waxworks are on display in Paris, for an entry fee. They model royalty and rogues. However, in a bid for credibility and recognition, Marie promises Queen Marie Antoinette's favourite dressmaker and confidante Rose Bertin that she will prepare a wax model of her, if she can convince the Royal family to visit their museum.
The ploy works and the visit by the Royal family induces a lot more people to visit their waxworks. An unexpected fallout of the visit though is King Louis XVI's sister Princesse Elisabeth invites Marie to her palace in Versailles to teach her, her craft.
This puts Marie in an unusual position. As a businesswoman she needs to display models that the public will enjoy and fit in with stories printed in the scandal sheets. But her work with Princesse Elisabeth shows her the truth of the Royal family. However, in a bid for profit, she continues to provide what the public clamours for, rather than the truth. This in a way outlines the media frenzy that we see in India today and the waxworks could very well be considered a precursor to todays 24 hour "news" channels.
Once the Revolution begins, Marie is forced to use her skills to make death masks of those executed by the rebels. Inspite of her revulsion, this is the only way she can keep herself, her family and her business safe from being pronounced traitors.
This ghastly duty continues until she refuses to make death masks of her friends who were executed and then she herself is thrown into prison with her mother.
The book is unusual as Marie has a unique perspective. That of a commoner, yet talented businesswoman who has a tight grip on the pulse of the mood of the moment, but who is also afforded behind the scenes insights into the Royal family and why they behave the way they do.
The way France falls apart during the Revolution is a cautionary tale for those blindly seeking freedom from "dictators" in their own countries. Often the replacements are more despotic than the original incumbents.
Madame Tussaud is a brilliantly woven tale, with a lot of attention to details. This is a book I'd definitely recommend.