English novelist Edward Carey re-imagines the life of Madame Tussaud.
Written as an autobiography, but reading like a novel, Edward Carey's Little is narrated by Marie Grosholtz, later known to the world as Madame Tussaud. Born in 1761, little Marie finds herself moved to Bern, in Switzerland, at the age of six. Fatherless, she soon loses her mother also. Marie works as a housekeeper for Doctor Curtius, an eccentric man who makes wax replicas of body organs used as public health warnings. On her first night at Doctor Curtius', she sleeps in an eerie room full of lifelike wax lungs, livers and other gruesome body parts. Marie finds an interest in this peculiar art form, learns how to cast wax figures and takes an energetic interest in drawing from life (the novel features illustrations by Carey.)
When Curtius later moves to Paris, little Marie follows. They move in with the cruel Widow Picot, wife of a tailor (she keeps a tailor's dummy with her deceased husband's exact proportions prominently in the house, as a macabre memorial) and her sensitive, weakling son, Edmond. Little Marie and Curtius start up a cabinet of wax figures, featuring the famous and the infamous (murderers and criminals, which thrills the population's ghoulish imagination.) Marie's skill at creating wax heads captures the eye of the brother of the king, and she is invited to live at Versailles. This ten year sojourn ends unhappily when it is discovered that Marie has made wax likenesses – none too flattering, mind you – of the royal family.
Marie returns to civilian life and continues to cast famous wax heads until the Revolution comes, followed by the terror. Life is enormously precarious post Revolution France, but Marie manages to survive. The novel ends with her moving to France, aged forty-two.
There is much to enjoy in this absorbing, historical-fantasy. Ghoulish and Gothic, Little reads for the most part like Dickens, in style and substance (think Little Dorrit.) That's not to say it's a Dickens pastiche, but the influence reverberates pleasantly. The chief charm of the book is how Carey balances fact and fiction. For example the middle section, where Marie lives at Versailles, is spoken of in Madame Tussaud's actual memoirs, although there is no contemporary evidence for this. Carey runs with it, creating a delightfully extravagant narrative of supercilious and eccentric royalty, living in an isolated bubble, a bubble that will later burst quite violently.
A steady stream of historical figures throng Little, from royalty and revolutionaries, to thinkers and radicals. It's the sort of book that will have you reaching for Wikipedia and wanting to read further about the French Revolution. It's hard to say thematically what Little is about. Carey clearly enjoys the subject matter – a young woman making wax heads in revolutionary France – and perhaps finds solace in dolls and replicas, preferring them to humans. Marie confesses herself to be somewhat of an oddball. When she miscarries her first child, she feels it typical of someone like her, not able to bring forth a living child, only one that is lifelike. But if she is an oddball and freak, calmly making wax casts of gruesomely decapitated heads, she is also triumphant, coming to accept herself and her peculiar talent. A final chapter, an afterward of three pages, is written by Madame Tussaud at age eighty-nine, telling the reader that she will never go away.
An odd book about an outsider whose knack for creating lifelike wax figures is perfectly at home in our own image obsessed society.
Little, by Edward Carey. Published by Gallic Books. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books