Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution

Fleur my friend.

I have always thought that two of the most interesting women from the French Revolution were Vigée Le Brun (That's one of her self portraits on the right) and Maria Tussaud. Le Brun, a professional portrait painter at fourteen became a court painter to Marie Antoinette, was made a member of the Académie and when the Revolution began and her royal patronage put her in grave danger she managed to get herself and her daughter out of France. Sounds like the bones of a good book, right? And Maria Tussaud? Madame Tussaud? No explanation required.

 Author Michelle Moran was apparently able to read my tiny mind because she has written the edifying and engaging Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution. How nice of her.

Tussaud (her married name) was born Anna Maria Grosholtz in 1761 in Strasbourg, France. She spent most of her youth in Switzerland where her widowed Mother found work as a housekeeper to a Dr. Philippe Curtius. It was from Curtius that Tussaud learned wax modeling. Like Vigée Le Brun, Tussaud eventually became a favorite at the court of Louis the XVI. She lived at Versailles for several years under the patronage of the royal family teaching art and creating wax masks and figures for the aristocracy and celebrities of the day. When the Revolution came, Tussaud was imprisoned, sentenced to death and... sorry no more life story/plot information from me.

Moran does more with this novel than merely retell the facts of a unique life. She paints a picture of the society and climate in France in the late seventeen hundreds. The enormous chasm between the rich and the rest of France is laid out for the reader to experience. Not only the separations of wealth and poverty but education and opportunity also. Moran makes the coming Revolution a dramatic experience despite the basic knowledge a historical fiction fan brings to it.

Side by side with the thrilling details of Tussaud's life and times Moran writes knowledgeably about the evolution of Tussaud's art and her business acumen. The details of creating waxworks and Tussaud's education in the process are quite fascinating. The entrepreneurial and survivor skills that Tussaud had in spades were as crucial to her lasting success as were her artistic abilities. I was delighted that these aspects of Tussaud's story were not dismissed in a paragraph in order to scoot back to possibly racier experiences.

With the entertaining Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution, Michelle Moran has taken a famous name, a brand name, a name that has come to mean an object not a person and restored it's humanity.


P.S. The cover? Is she supposed to look like a waxwork? Is it supposed to be Tussaud? The palette is striking but the artwork and layout leave me cold. I think that given the drama of the life and times of Tussaud and the artistry of her work this cover should have been much better.

And. Just wondering but how many reviews of Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution will have the waxing pun? The reviewer will either be waxing or refer to author Michelle Moran's waxing on about Madame. It is a natural.

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