Continuing on my theme of reading historical fiction novels, I picked up one of the “new” novels by Michelle Moran. A while ago I read her fictional biography of Cleopatra’s daughter and The Heretic Queen and those both were excellent reads. I was intrigued when I found that she had also written pieces about French culture and the French Revolution, specifically from the perspective of the wax sculptress Madame Tussaud. I always believed that Madame Tussaud was a real, historical person, but never did I know that she led a life with so much intrigue and danger, especially during the French Revolution (arguably one of the most dangerous times in France’s history).
Moran describes the life of Madame Tussaud prior to her being known as Tussaud, but rather as her birth name: Marie. She came from a German family and lived her mother and uncle. Marie’s uncle was the artist in the family and taught Marie everything she knew of wax sculpting and such. She had three brothers who all served in the Swiss Guard protecting the King. Marie and her uncle were known for their exact replicas of living people in French culture, from the King and Queen, to Thomas Jefferson (US Ambassador at the time), and other pivotal cultural characters. Not only did she recreate the facial features of the individuals, but also their costumes and settings that they could be found in. For example, Marie depicted exactly what the royal family looked like, their traditional wear, and the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.
The story was a bit slow in the beginning but took a great turn about 1/4 into the book, when the royal family visits Marie’s shop. There, the Princess, King Louis’ sister, asks for Marie to join her in her house on the palace property to instruct her on how to make wax sculptures of people. From this point, Marie becomes quite close with the Princess and to some extent the royal family. She is thrown into the middle of the fray of the French Revolution for she understands the issues that plague the average French citizens, but also she knows the Royal Family and how much they have struggled to aid the French people. In fact, Marie and the Princess have many conversations discussing how Marie Antoinette can do nothing correct in the eyes of the French citizens. If she wears her jewels as is the right of a queen, she is labeled as snobby and arrogant. If she were to dress in simple gowns without jewels, the French citizens would think she is mocking them. It’s fairly funny how little has changed in politics.
Probably the most fascinating aspect of this novel was the line that Marie and her family had to not cross to be considered a traitor to the French Revolution cause, but also still be a royalist. Marie’s family was almost caught in the middle between the two factions. Specifically, this came clear when a mob came to Marie’s door carrying two dead corpses. The mob wanted Marie to take a cast of the individuals’ heads so their likeness could be remembered throughout history. Moreover, months later, Robespierre made an arrangement with Marie once the guillotine began chopping off an immense amount of people’s heads that she would go in the middle of the night to the cemetery and take casts of the traitors heads. Marie knew that moment she said no to Robespierre that he would lock her up and wait for execution as a traitor; that’s exactly what ended up happening. Marie however was never killed for her actions, but released when the revolution came to an end. The rest of the story, and how she became Madame Tussaud will have to be figured out when you read the book!
The part of the novel that I liked the least was some of the characters. Yet, I can’t fully blame Moran for if she did her homework these people really did live and were the disgusting individuals that they were. Moreover, no surprise that the Revolution would take place when bread was sparse as were candles, but the palace got new candles every day. The characters, at least the ones I could stand, were extremely strong individuals and this highly influenced Marie. Alternatively, the others all met a ghastly end.
I guess the joy in reading this book is that Madame Tussaud really did live a life filled with adventure and knew many of the individuals that she sculpted. She was a strong female character and I thoroughly enjoy reading books considering strong females. For how much I loved Marie, I hated many of her male colleagues, but in the end, they all got theirs. haha.