Historical fiction author Michelle Moran tackles the story of the famous wax sculptor, Madame Tussaud, in her novel, Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution. We meet Marie Grosholtz, later to become Madame Tussaud, as a Parisian woman in her late twenties. Since childhood, she was apprenticed by her mother’s employer and romantic partner, Curtius, to learn wax sculpting. In the late 1700s (long before the advent of television and photography – obviously), the public would tour their wax figure gallery, the Salon de Cire, in order to see what the famous politicians and celebrities of their time looked like. Otherwise, people had nothing but newspaper etchings to put faces to the prominent names of their era. In this way, I was surprised to learn that the Salon, or gallery, had more of a functional media purpose, rather than being just a novelty. As such, Marie, her “uncle” Curtius, and Marie’s mother live a fairly comfortable life, due to their commercial success.
But with the advent of the French Revolution, politics take over the Salon de Cire. Marie and Curtius can no longer display likenesses of the royal family, such as Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, or notorious people of the court, like Madame du Barry, without the threat of the Revolutionaries executing them for royalist sympathies. Marie and Curtius’s job is to survive and make money, which can only be accomplished by sculpting the likenesses of whomever the people in power would like to see– in this case, the (disorganized, incompetent) patriot leaders, such as Marat, Robespierre, the Duc d’Orleans, etc. Yet, at the same time, Marie has befriended the king’s sister, Madame Elisabeth. Marie spends most of the story as a secret royalist, torn between her ambition for success, and her horror at the injustice and anarchy of the Reign of Terror brought about by the Revolutionaries. As well, a slow-moving romance between Marie and the scientist, Henri Charles, develops in the background. The two love each other, but Marie doesn’t wish to become a wife and mother. Her passion is her work.
The novel does not give the complete life story of Madame Tussaud, but focuses on the five-year period of her career during the Reign of Terror. We learn in the epilogue that the real Mme Tussaud lived for nearly a century, survived a shipwreck, went on to reap success in London, and had a very odd relationship with her future husband and sons, which would’ve been very interesting to read about in novel form. A missed opportunity? Overall, an educational and well-researched story, though it does contain some graphic, gory content. Readers interested in French history or how revolutions work will want to check this out.