The com­pelling tale of how a pen­ni­less Swiss or­phan came to found a wax­works mu­seum – Madame Tus­sauds

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Aida Ede­mariam

At one point in Ed­ward Carey’s rich, en­gross­ing novel, a young French princess hires an art teacher. It is 1778 and the teacher, who works at a pop­u­lar new wax mu­seum in Paris, has never seen any­thing like Ver­sailles, with its vast rooms “filled with ex­pen­sive, dis­tin­guished, fu­ri­ous ob­jects”; the princess, now 14, has clearly never been prop­erly taught. At their first les­son she throws open a room fes­tooned with bad drawings. “They’re mine!” she ex­claims. “I drew them.” The teacher, nick­named Lit­tle be­cause she is so small, real name Marie Grosholtz, even­tu­ally Madame Tus­saud, weighs up her op­tions. Then she says, “You do not … look , re­ally, do you?”

So they set about look­ing. And the princess learns that the act of look­ing well, at bod­ies in par­tic­u­lar, has power – some­thing Marie and her own men­tor Doc­tor Cur­tius, work­ing all hours to keep up with de­mand for wax­work repli­cas of the good cit­i­zens of Paris, have al­ready dis­cov­ered. To look well, for Carey, an il­lus­tra­tor as well as a nov­el­ist, is to see how emo­tion and mean­ing in­here in all ob­jects, giv­ing them in­de­pen­dent life. From his first adult novel, 2000’s Ob­ser­va­tory Man­sions, in which a man builds a se­cret mu­seum of stolen items for which the only cri­te­ria for in­clu­sion is that they are loved, to his Ire­mon­ger tril­ogy for chil­dren, which be­gins in a house sur­rounded by heaps of ob­jects, Carey builds worlds where things take on sup­pos­edly hu­man char­ac­ter­is­tics and hu­mans are por­trayed as an­i­mated things. To ac­tu­ally see, he seems to ar­gue, is an act of love, a mo­ral act, an act of em­pa­thy, a kind of faith.

The germ of Lit­tle was present in Ob­ser­va­tory Man­sions in other ways, too. That novel’s col­lec­tor of loved ob­jects, Fran­cis Orme, worked for a while at a wax­works mu­seum. Lit­tle is Carey’s retelling of how a pen­ni­less Swiss or­phan founded a Lon­don mu­seum full of ef­fi­gies that still wel­comes 2.5 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year. Early on, Cur­tius, whose job in Berne is to ren­der dis­eased body parts in wax and tout them around the city as graphic pub­lic health warn­ings, asks his re­cently de­ceased house­keeper’s child Marie to help him to cast a head. The sub­ject is Cur­tius’s boss, a well-known sur­geon. But Marie notes how, af­ter two straws have been placed up the man’s nose so that he can breathe; af­ter his face has been smoothed by Ed­ward Carey, Aard­vark Bu­reau, £10.99 with oil, then with plas­ter, to make a cast, and af­ter the cast is taken away, un­der­neath there is only an­other hu­man face, “hum­bled and vul­ner­a­ble” – and equal. The sur­geon un­der­stands this; when he sees the suc­cess Cur­tius’s heads are achiev­ing, he can­cels his wages, forc­ing Cur­tius and Marie to flee to Paris.

Pre­sent­ing ev­ery­one as equal doesn’t sell, as the in­creas­ingly force­ful French widow to whom Cur­tius al­lies him­self in­sists: “We do the fine peo­ple, the beau­ti­ful and the bril­liant.” And so Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, Robe­spierre and Louis XVI are added to the col­lec­tion. Cur­tius him­self is more in­ter­ested in the peo­ple who are not fine – the mur­der­ers and cast­aways, the crim­i­nals and mis­fits – though, as the Rev­o­lu­tion takes hold, it be­comes in­creas­ingly un­clear who’s who. Cur­tius and Marie cast them all.

Lit­tle is full of grief, but also full of love. Marie is not afraid to feel strong emo­tions, how­ever in­con­ve­nient or even grotesque they might be, and to act on them. To name, here, to speak up, is as im­por­tant as to see, for this is a fem­i­nist novel told in Lit­tle’s own voice. It is her life from cra­dle to old age “writ­ten by her­self” and “drawn by her­self”: Marie’s sketches of peo­ple and parts of peo­ple and the oc­ca­sional loved ob­ject ap­pear through­out. Art is a com­pul­sion, she finds, a self-state­ment, a claim on the world.

But it can also be self­be­trayal. While at Ver­sailles, she makes, in se­cret, wax heads of the royal fam­ily. She looks at her like­ness of Marie-An­toinette, and is amazed. “There’s the queen, but not only she: there’s Marie Grosholtz, too, both alive in that head. The mo­ment I un­der­stood this, I couldn’t stop. It was all I wanted to do.” It’s an in­sight that un­der­mines Marie and Cur­tius’s in­sis­tence that their wax­works are only mir­rors, “news­pa­pers” ob­jec­tively re­port­ing on the state of the world. “Wax never lies”, says Marie.

Per­haps not, phys­i­cally, but there are other sorts of lies, and an in­creas­ingly leery Parisian pub­lic knows it. This is the dilemma of the war pho­tog­ra­pher: a record only, or a kind of pruri­ence? Can look­ing ever be neu­tral?

Oc­ca­sion­ally, Carey loses faith in the ex­tra­or­di­nary po­tency of his ma­te­rial, mak­ing in­sights that arise of their own ac­cord (the equal­is­ing na­ture of wax­works, for in­stance) too ex­plicit. Some char­ac­ters are less com­plex than they could be. But at its best this is a vis­ceral, vivid and mov­ing novel about find­ing and hon­our­ing one’s ta­lent; about search­ing out where one be­longs and who one loves, how­ever strange and po­lit­i­cally fraught the re­sult might be.

For Carey, an il­lus­tra­tor as well as a nov­el­ist, to look well is to see how emo­tion and mean­ing in­here in all ob­jects, giv­ing them in­de­pen­dent life

Aida Ede­mariam’s bi­og­ra­phy The Wife’s Tale is pub­lished by 4th Es­tate. To buy Lit­tle for £9.67 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

Lit­tle

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