The Life of Madame Tussaud: Little by Edward Carey

There is a state between life and death: it’s called the waxworks.

Apparently the 4th was Super Thursday: 544 books were published in the UK as part of the autumn rush leading up to Christmas. I’ve read just one of those multitudinous releases so far, but what a corker it was. Little is Edward Carey’s deliciously macabre novel about Madame Tussaud, who starts life as Anne Marie Grosholtz in Switzerland in 1761 and loses both parents by the age of six. Known as Marie, she soon picks up the nickname “Little” at the studio where she helps Dr. Philip Curtius make wax anatomical models. When the indebted Curtius flees to Paris, Marie goes with him as his servant. Along with their landlady, a tailor’s widow named Charlotte Picot, and her son Edmond, they form a makeshift family and a successful business, making wax heads and then dressing them in wigs and clothes to create whole figures of (in)famous citizens to display in their new quarters, a former monkey house.

In the years to come Marie occupies an uncomfortable in-between position: she’s treated like a servant but never paid, and though she’s fond of Curtius and falls in love with Edmond she’s made to understand that she’s not their equal. However, her fortunes change when Princess Élisabeth, on an unannounced visit to the Cabinet of Dr. Curtius, is impressed with Marie’s art and anatomy skills and invites her to be her sculpture tutor at Versailles. Marie and the young royal make wax models of local peasants’ ailments so they can pray for them. By the time Marie returns to the monkey house, the Revolution is in full swing and there’s widespread hunger not just for wax heads in cabinets, but for real decapitated ones. It will take cunning and luck for Marie and her odd little family to survive the years of upheaval.

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(For a look inside the book, go to https://www.book2look.com/book/H8skBPiuJ9.)

The grimy picture of eighteenth-century Paris reminded me of Pure by Andrew Miller, and I often thought of Dickens as I was reading. Little starts off most like David Copperfield: a first-person “I am born”-style account with each chapter headed by a pithy summary. The characters have exaggerated physical features and recurring verbal tics, and there is an unmistakable message that whether a royal or a lowly servant we are all the same inside. Of course, as that pivotal July 14th approaches, the Dickensian echo is more along the lines of A Tale of Two Cities.

I think the novel would benefit from a more suggestive title and could stand to be a bit shorter, but it’s still a delightful piece of historical fiction and another hit from Gallic Books, responsible for two of my other favorite reads of the year so far, Salt Creek and The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. Part of the joy of reading it is encountering Carey’s slightly grotesque black-and-white illustrations, dozens of which appear through the text; you can see a few more of them on the postcards that accompanied my review copy.

In fact, I’ll sheepishly admit that before I read this I had Edward Carey confused for Edward Gorey, who was known for his ghoulish black-and-white drawings. Carey, an English playwright and novelist whose previous books include the Iremonger Trilogy, is married to Elizabeth McCracken and teaches at the University of Austin, Texas. After university he worked as a steward at Madame Tussaud’s in London, which is how he first came across her story. It’s an unforgettable one.

My rating:

 

With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

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12 thoughts on “The Life of Madame Tussaud: Little by Edward Carey

    1. I do too! I wondered if there should be something in the title to indicate who it’s about, in case that draws more readers in. (As it is, they have the puff from Margaret Atwood that mentions Madame Tussaud.)

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  1. Even though I had already corrected myself when I saw the title on your feed, that it was NOT Gorey, I still thought, as the page loaded later in the day, that it was Gorey. Surely we are not the only ones! The inclusion of the postcards is a lovely touch. And how fantastic that you’ve had three gems from their press this year: that certainly bodes well. I can’t think of the last time that I have “fallen for” a publisher like that, but it’s always a nice feeling, to sense that you can look to their catalogue instead of just a single offering.

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    1. I think I own about three more that came out that day. I’m hoping the rest of the 544 are mostly cookbooks and celebrity autobiographies I wouldn’t be interested in anyway! Otherwise it does all start to feel overwhelming.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I do have a particular fondness for historical fiction about women in France, I find it the perfect way to increase my knowledge of French history (since I live there) without having to resort to text books, so having read Sandra Gulland’s excellent trilogy on the life of Joesphine Bonaparte, I recognised at once “Rose Tacher’, her fellow inmate, who would go on to marry (and be renamed by) Napoleon Bonaparte and was happy to learn more about both the life of this extraordinary woman and a little of the ambiance of Paris during the revolution.
    I agree about the lacklustre title although I like that it avoids using the name Tussaud when so much of her life and experiences that were the most interesting, are while she is Anne Marie Grosholtz; I never thought of her as ‘Little’ despite the widow referring to her in that way.
    I agree, another great selection by Gallic Books, I hope this one gets widely read.

    Liked by 1 person

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