‘Little’ by Edward Carey is a fictionalised account of the early life of Madame Tussaud who founded the famous waxwork museum in London that bears her name. Born Anne Marie Grosholtz in 1761 and orphaned as a young child, she is employed by Swiss wax sculptor, Doctor Curtius, who makes anatomical models in his studio and names his young apprentice ‘Little’ on account of her small stature. When Curtius’ financial difficulties finally catch up with him, they move to Paris where they take rooms with widow Charlotte Picot who helps transform the business and set up popular exhibitions displaying wax replicas of the heads of noblemen and famous murderers. She banishes Marie to work in the kitchen out of jealousy but following a surprise visit by Princess Elisabeth, the youngest sister of King Louis XVI, Marie is invited to become her wax modelling tutor at the Palace of Versailles. However, with revolution on the horizon, nobody associated with the Royal Family is safe from the threat of the guillotine.
Best known as a playwright and author of YA novels, Carey used to work at the tourist attraction in London where he was first inspired to write about its founder and her fascinating life story. Focusing on Marie’s early career which is shaped by the events leading up to the French Revolution in 1789, the novel is loosely based around the few known facts about her but also largely fictionalised. The physical image of Madame Tussaud in later life with her prominent nose and chin is already well known and Carey’s imaginative interpretation of events portrays her as a skilled, brave and determined young woman.
The book itself is beautifully illustrated by Carey with dozens of sketches and the biography on his website reveals that the book took him fifteen years to finish partly because of the challenge of getting the illustrations and prose to “agree with each other.” Happily, Carey is a gifted caricaturist in both drawing and writing and the end result is that the illustrations and the prose are equally vivid in bringing Marie’s story to life. In some aspects, ‘Little’ is a faithful pastiche of the literature of the era taking a panoramic view of Marie’s change of fortunes (there is even a cameo of Charles Dickens at the very end), but I found it to be much more accessible than Golden Hill by Francis Spufford which is set in late 18th-century New York. Even though ‘Little’ is a novel which is rich in detail, I never felt that the story became overwhelmed by the weight of its well-worn setting.
‘Little’ is a little gem of historical fiction, macabre and quirky in equal measure and very likeable all round. Many thanks to Gallic Books for sending me a review copy.