Saturday, September 14, 2013

Madame Tussaud, by Michelle Moran

To me, some of the most interesting bits of history are the coincidences and the randomness that can occur.  When I was reading the biography of Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser, I was intrigued to hear the Madame Tussaud, she of the famous wax museums, was tasked with creating a wax model of the recently executed Marie Antoinette.  It seemed like such a random little curiosity-fact; it sat in the back of my head for years, so when I noted the historical-fiction Madame Tussaud, by Michelle Moran, I was intrigued and wanted to know more.

In the late 1780s, Paris was a seething collection of the extremely poor and the extremely rich; the poor were over-taxed, under-fed, and had no voice in the direction of the nation (which, don’t get your knickers in a knot, was kind of the standard of the era, though it was pretty bad in France).  The result was the growth of a movement for change; inspired by the recent American Revolution, Parisians rose up against the monarchy to demand equality as humans and in their rights.  It did not end well; the king and queen lost their heads, the people turned against each other, and the provisional government (and I call them that because I personally see them as usurpers without any real authority other than torches and pitchforks) began executing people en mass for a wide variety of suspicions and malicious intent, without a lot of cause (this is know as The Terror in French history).

Moran’s work tells the story of Marie Grosholtz, beginning in Paris the early days of the French Revolution.  Marie has apprenticed with her adoptive father for years to learn how to model wax figures, and how to make a business out of it.  Their Palais de Cire is a popular place for the leaders of the French revolution to meet and discuss the issues before the Revolution begins and in its early days, and so Marie is exposed to all the pertinent movers and shakers of the day.  As the Revolution proceeds, her family and friends are caught up in the horror of it all; Marie is forced to do what she can to survive, while watching those around her engage with the new realities of 1790s Paris.  Marie’s family’s philosophy is to appear as Patriots and Royalists as the situation requires, but to be Survivalists at the end of the day – it’s a course of action that stands them in good stead.

While Moran’s work is set on the back-drop of the French Revolution, she does an amazing job of creating personalities and character traits for the historical figures that make up the bulk of her story.  Her characters are engaging and dynamic, and completely believable; from Robespierre to the Princesse Royale, Moran tackles each of the main players of the French Revolution, and takes them out of the history books and imbues them with a sense of living humanity.

While this period of history isn’t my fort√©, I know enough about it to recognize that this book is well-researched and respects the era it is representing.  Peppered throughout the work are quotes from contemporary journals and treaties, the philosophy of the French Revolution runs throughout the actions of the main characters, and the feel of the uncertainty and terror of the age is palpable.  In some works of historical fiction, it’s easy to spot where an author had a specific historical source they wanted to incorporate into their story; often times, this type of thing is introduced ham-fistedly and ruins the flow of the work.  But Moran never has this problem; all her sources and research flows effortlessly into a fictionalized account of a well-known historical event.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  If you’re uninformed about the French Revolution, it’s an incredibly well-written story set against a lot of factual evidence.  If you are familiar with this period of history, it’s an interesting and novel view of the period, as it doesn’t really take sides, other than to come down on the side of humanity.  Moran has written several other works about other women in history, and I’ll be looking to pick them up in the future, and what better recommendation can I give than that?

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