Monday, 9 May 2011
Book Review: Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution by Michelle Moran
Domestic carnage, now filled the whole year
With feast-days, old men from the chimney-nook,
The maiden from the bosom of her love,
The mother from the cradle of her babe,
The warrior from the field - all perished, all -
Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks,
Head after head, and never heads enough
For those that bade them fall...
- William Wordsworth
And so begins Robespierre's frightening Reign of Terror...
In brief, the affair of the diamond necklace sealed Marie Antoinette's already failing reputation and although the Queen had played no part in the fraud, the already disillusioned public, starving from lack of bread, sought someone to blame for the bankrupt state of France; already famously known for her extravagance and frivolous nature the Queen and monarchy were the easiest targets to blame. The revolution was opposed by the French nobility and the Roman Catholic Church; it involved an internal struggle for power and to establish France as a republic; the French government establishing a committee known as the committee of Public Safety dominated by Robespierre which sought to counter the internal counter-revolutionaries. Through the Revolutionary Tribunal, the revolutionary leaders used their dictatorial powers which led to mass executions and political turmoil, the period became more famously known as the Great Terror which was ultimately bought to its end in July 1794, which saw many of it's leaders, including Robespierre executed.
I have always had a great affinity with 18th Century France, the clothing, the jewellery, the language, the furniture and as such, collect 18th Century jewellery and miniatures, both period and historic as well as the endless non fictional and fictional books written about the period. In Michelle Moran's Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution through the narration of Marie Grosholz, more famously known today as Madame Tussaud for her famous wax sculptures, we are bought face to face with the atrocities of the French Revolution.
Marie Grosholz introduces us into her world of wax sculpting, an art she learnt from a very young age growing up in her uncle's home and workshop, a wax sculptor himself, Curtius passes on his knowledge and encourages Marie who is like a daughter to him. Journalists, public speakers and artists alike all helped to fuel the public's perception of France and the monarchy. The Salon de Cire was no exception, after Marie completed her Royal tableaux her wish for the Salon to be noticed by the King and Queen of France was answered, the Royals visiting and giving their nod of approval which saw the Salon's fame soar. Renown for her lifelike sculptures and sparing no expense, ensuring that her models lived up to the public's expectations of finery which included the latest fashion worn by the Royals, the public although barely able to sustain their families, still scraped together the sous required for entry into the Salon to view the works of art. Little did Marie realise at the time, that with greatness comes sacrifice and with an already restless public, she almost meets an untimely end by the guillotine. With the reputation of the Salon widespread throughout France it is here that the great revolutionaries visit to dine with Curtius and his family to discuss France and politics; it is Curtius who Robespierre enlists as a National Guard, and it is Marie, whom the revolutionaries turn to in order to immortalise themselves in wax and more notably, their victims.
Torn between the monarchy and the people, Marie finds herself in a precarious position, since her uncle entertains the revolutionaries, she never knows what to say, setting all morals aside, she must present the salon to the people as patriotism sweeps through France, the Royal tableaux's removed and replaced by the great revolutionaries who changed France in order to keep the business afloat as well as appease those who expect fellow patriots to usurp the royals in support of the revolutionaries.
Michelle Moran manages to weave a vivid recounting of the French Revolution, developing a story around one of the most fascinating women in history. Through the varied classes of France; from the Royals, the commoners, the great revolutionaries and Marie's small circle of friends, we are introduced into a world where morals are set aside, where tyranny prevails and the lives of the people of France hang in the balance, ruled by men who supposably believe in liberty, equality and fraternity. The politics of the Third Estate and the plight of the commoners are presented well in the novel, as is the tangible air of fear the reign of terror bought to France. The courage Marie showed, during a period where ones life hung in the balance was inspiring, Marie immortalises herself in history, a living testament that no matter how dire a situation may be, life goes on and in order to keep her head on her shoulders she cast death masks of the people she knew deemed enemies of the republic.
Although the novel didn't delve into huge detail the events that lead up to and ultimately sealed the fate of the monarchy, I was more than satisfied reading about Marie's life which included many illustrious friends and associates. Marie's world was portrayed through excellent storytelling and the author had me ensnared from the first page until the very last. I also enjoyed the historical facts after the story ended which included events after Marie's arrival in England and has only piqued my interest further into the Life and Time of Marie Tussaud, so much so, that I jumped online and ordered a copy of Kate Berridge's Madame Tussaud: A Life in Wax recommended in Moran's acknowledgements. I thought this was an absolutely brilliant novel, thoughtfully written and quite shocking in it's raw historical detail of French Revolutionary events, this novel will remain one of my all time favourites and I have no doubt it will haunt my dreams for awhile yet...