Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

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This isn’t actually about Madame Tussaud’s (I cannot make myself omit the apostrophe), the tourist attraction: it’s a very interesting and original angle on the French Revolution.  In terms of historical accuracy where Madame Tussaud (nee Marie Grosholtz) is concerned, it probably doesn’t score that highly: it’s based on her memoirs, which were in all likelihood wildly exaggerated, and Michelle Moran’s fictionalised them even further by giving Marie an invented love interest, a non-existent member of the Charles balloonist family.  However, the main players in the French Revolution, and the events of 1788 to 1794, are all here in all their infamy, and it’s really a very good read.   It probably works best if you forget that you know the name Madame Tussaud at all, and just think of the main character as the means through which the story’s told.

Marie Grosholtz was the apprentice of one Philippe Curtius, euphemistically described as her uncle but actually her mother’s lover.  Their wax sculptures became very well-known in Paris and, so the story goes, Curtius hosted a popular salon at which all the future big names of the Revolution were frequent guests.  Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins, Marat, Mirabeau … the whole gang.  Even Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette made appearances.  And, through the demand for her waxworks, which were often commissioned by people wanting images of themselves or their loved ones, Marie even got to meet the Marquis de Sade.

In fact, she met anyone who was anyone in 1780s Paris!  She – so she claimed – was appointed as a tutor to Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elisabeth in order to teach her how to make wax  sculptures of the saints, and consequently became very close both to Madame Elisabeth and to Marie Antoinette.

Then, come 1789 and the following years, when all hell broke loose, she was expected to make wax sculptures of prominent figures killed during the Revolution.  Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette themselves.  And Marat, when Charlotte Corday stabbed him to death in the bath.  Suspected of being a royalist sympathiser, she was imprisoned during the Terror – and, in prison, became pally with Rose de Beauharnais, the future Empress Josephine.

  1. It’s really not very likely that Marie Grosholtz, later Madame Tussaud, was really right in the middle of everything in the way that she claimed! But the story does enable the reader to see all the major figures of the Revolution, on both sides, as all the major events were going on.  And the story which the book tells is how the French Revolution went horribly wrong almost from the off, and descended into the horror and bloodshed of the Terror.

Marie Grosholtz, as portrayed in the book, is a calm and sensible person who can see what utter rubbish is being spoken by people on both sides, and how dangerous that is.  It’s the same whether it’s the ancient regime in charge or the radical revolutionaries are in charge – there’s a self-important, self-righteous political elite, based in and around the capital city, which is only interested in its own ends and couldn’t give two hoots what the ordinary people want and need.   And an awful lot of fake news is being spread.  Hmm.  Sounds familiar, somehow, doesn’t it?

The lesson is how very easily things get out of hand.  It doesn’t take much for everything to disintegrate and horrific bloodshed to result.  How many times has it happened?  And what happened during the French Revolution is still one of the best-known examples.  It’s always a story worth telling, and this is quite an original take on it.   It isn’t gratuitously gory, but it really does give a sense of just how horrendous it was.  Liberte, egalite and fraternite?  Not bloody likely!

It shouldn’t have been like that.  It kicked off with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  But it went horribly wrong.   This book really does give a very good sense of how and why that happened.

A few minor things.   All right, the book was in English, but “Citizeness” sounds clumsy in English, and I’d rather that the author had used “Citoyenne”, which is the more familiar term anyway.  The same with the months of the French Republican calendar.  But that’s just personal preference.  And I really do wish that she’d explained that Henri Charles was her own fictional creation!

If you pick up this book expecting to learn the history of the waxworks museums, then you might be disappointed.   But, if you want something a bit different about the French Revolution, give it a go.

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