Little, by Edward Carey, tells the story of Anne Marie Grosholtz, born prematurely in a remote Swiss village in 1761, who would one day become known as Madame Tussaud. Marie’s father was a soldier so she was raised by her mother, moving to Berne when she was six years old. Here she learns the art of modelling with wax from their employer, Doctor Phillipe Curtius. Curtius works for the local hospital creating models from body parts that are used to instruct trainee physicians. Growing depressed by his contact with the dead he branches out, much to the ire of his boss.
Curtius comes to the attention of a French writer, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who suggests the young doctor would find greater appreciation of his skills in Paris. When Curtius is threatened with penury, an attempt to rein him in, he decides to heed this advice. Packing his tools and belongings, including Marie who is now his de facto assistant, he heads into the unknown.
Mercier helps Curtius to find lodgings, suggesting he take rooms with a widow, Charlotte Picot, and her son, Edmond. Widow Picot takes an instant dislike to Marie but accepts her as a house servant so long as she does exactly as she is told. It is the start of a difficult relationship that will enable the widow to prosper by taking full advantage of her power over Curtius. Marie has no choice but to acquiesce if she is to survive.
Picot may be grasping but she has good business sense. The wax faces and figures Curtius makes prove popular and draw a crowd. This includes the young sister of the king and her entourage. The royal visit leads to a change of circumstances for Marie who ends up serving for a time in the Palace of Versailles. When eventually she is forced to leave, it breaks her heart yet proves fortuitous, for soon there are the rumblings of revolution.
Much of note is included within the pages of this book: the medical practices of the eighteenth century; life in Paris when it was a walled and gated city containing mostly wooden buildings; the now famous people who passed through Paris at this time; a first person account of life as a servant within the French Royal Court during the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; the personal vendettas and tragedies that those trying to live quietly during a revolution suffer. Marie’s changing situation highlights the precarious life and lack of agency endured by a young woman effectively owned by her employer.
This is truly remarkable story. A fictionalised account but based around known facts. The voice created for Marie is perfectly balanced and paced for storytelling. There is a pleasing lack of hyperbole although deep emotions are evoked. It is, quite simply, a darn good read. A contender for my book of the year.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books
Click on the image above to look inside Little