On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to hear author Edward Carey talk about his latest novel, Little. This fabulous tale tells the fictionalised life story of a young woman named Anne Marie Grosholtz who would one day become known as Madame Tussaud. Edward had travelled all the way from America to promote the UK release and, having read the book, I had been happy to discover that one of the stops on his tour was the always delightful Mr B’s Emporium, less than an hour’s drive from my home.
As I sipped on a well chilled glass of wine prior to the event I got into conversation with another attendee. She told me that she went to university with Edward, who she had known as John, and that she was expecting a number of their former student friends to join her for the evening. She hadn’t yet read the book which I was happy to recommend.
We were soon ushered upstairs to the bibliotherapy room, taking our seats in the intimate space to listen to Edward in discussion with a member of staff on how he came to write this particular story.
Edward told us that the book took around fifteen years to create. A number of years ago he worked in Madame Tussauds in London where his job was to ensure that the noble wax figures were protected from a disrespectful public. He was intrigued by the original models on display, especially that of an elderly Marie Tussaud which she had made.
Research for the novel included temporarily living in Paris and getting a feel for the city and its history. There were so many famous characters to learn about whose wax models Marie created. Eventually Edward stepped back from the research to write the story. He realised that this was a tale of survival, that Marie was a witness to an incredible period of history – the years leading up to and including the French Revolution.
Although a rather dry memoir was written in Victorian times, by three different men, Marie’s life remained largely undocumented. What she left behind were her wax models of the famous. Edward aimed to present a story that joined them together. There were many to incorporate. Despite being an orphan and penniless servant, Marie became part of these people’s history. She met them in life or death. She enabled those who came after to attain a feel for them as individuals.
There were details that Edward wished to share, such as that King Louis never wished to be king and was fairly hopeless in the role making many poor decisions. Louis would have preferred to be a locksmith – the Palace of Versaille still contains locks he fitted. It is known that he would go out onto the roof of the palace and shoot at the feral cats his father had introduced – in the story Marie meets him here, unaware of who he is. Whether or not Marie lived in a cupboard in the palace cannot be known but Edward was writing fiction so felt free to embellish.
Edward spoke of Marie’s encounters with Benjamin Franklin (through his hair) and Voltaire (after he died). He wished to find a new way to tell these people’s stories. To create a wax model a cast needed to be created, a process that required the subject to sit silent and still. Edward liked to imagine the tiny Marie being in charge, for a short time at least, of the likes of Napolean.
Doctor Curtius, Marie’s mentor, was a talented wax anatomist. It was he who instilled in Marie the fascination and obsession with physiology. When, as a lowly servant, she was denied access to the wax models, she would draw instead. The book’s wonderful illustrations are the author’s way of presenting how Marie dealt with the challenges and triumphs of her life. Shut away from other people these are her means of connecting with the noise and activity of the tumultuous events that surrounded her.
Edward read the passage from the book where Marie first meets Curtius. He brought the doctor to life.
All writers find ways of not writing. Edward draws, a process that enables him to physically understand his characters. He also sculpted Curtius in wax to better understand the modelling process, that he could write on the subject with some sort of authority.
Marie understands people from their notable features. Her nose and chin, from her mother and father, were her inheritance – proof that she was once loved.
Her greatest mistake was to marry Tussaud – a useless man – but she was strong and survived. She packed up the French Revolution in crates and took her figures to London, telling Tussaud she would return. In this way she gained autonomy at a time when such freedom were made difficult for any woman to achieve.
Edward has visited Times Square where an enormous gold hand holds a sign for the Madame Tussauds there. He believes this would have pleased Marie, although she would not have been so happy that her family sold the business.
Curtius and Marie were not the first to display wax models for public entertainment but they became the most famous. They recognised that people wished to see royalty, celebrities and murderers.
The French royal family would allow observers into their palace once a week to watch them eat. Marie drew this scene and wax models were made of the spectacle which the public could then touch for a fee. This removed social barriers – the whiff of somewhat scandalous behaviour generating publicity.
Over time Marie became a savvy businesswoman. By casting the famous in wax, those who believed they too were famous wished to be included and came to her.
Edward spoke with passion and vivacity, answering questions and sharing his enthusiasm for his determined little protagonist. When he moved into the adjacent room to sign books a queue quickly formed. It was good to see that he was happy to chat to each purchaser as they proffered their books.
It is always a pleasure to visit Mr B’s. This truly special bookshop is currently crowdfunding to enable them to expand. You may check out the rewards available to supporters here.
Little is published in the UK by Gallic Books. You may read my review here.