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Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution    by Michelle Moran order for
Madame Tussaud
by Michelle Moran
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Michelle Moran, author of previous outstanding historical novels - Nefertiti, The Heretic Queen and Cleopatra's Daughter - now moves to Europe and an entirely different period of history in Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution. The fictional account is preceded by a time line of events, a map of 1789 Paris, and a list of main characters.

My understanding of the events that led to the storming of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror being highly colored by Sabatini's Scaramouche and Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel (whose characters spend their time with either aristocrats or lower classes in France) I enjoyed Moran's entirely new perspective on the French Revolution (as well as the whole wax museum back story). In Madame Tussaud, the author gives a feel for what it might have been like for a middle class family trying to balance on a tightrope, maintaining relationships with both royals and revolutionaries.

After a Prologue introduces the Tussaud wax museum in 1812 London, the story opens in December 1788 with widespread food shortages and 'the coldest winter in living memory'. We meet Mademoiselle Marie Grosholtz, as she seeks out the Queen's dressmaker, Rose Bertin. Marie asks Rose to commend her uncle's wax show - where she herself has modeled busts of the royals as well as notables like Voltaire, Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin - to Marie Antoinette. This results in a visit by the royal family, who come across as decent people, though oblivious to the state of the country, insulated as they are by greedy courtiers. Exaggerated rumors about royal abuses fly constantly, and the weak willed king avoids action.

Marie's three brothers are all members of the king's elite Swiss Guard. Her uncle's salon is attended by soon-to-be major players in the Revolution - paranoid Robespierre, idealistic Camille Desmoulins, the ambitious Duc d'Orléans and feral Jean-Paul Marat - as well as the scientist brothers from next door, Henri and Jacques Charles. Though Henri is obviously attracted to Marie, she enjoys her artistic career and her independence too much to give them up for marriage and children. She avoids politics. When she's asked to tutor the king's sister, Madame Elisabeth, in the art of wax modeling, she spends her time between Versailles and her uncle's home, taking in events from almost opposite perspectives.

As the situation steadily worsens - and the popularity of their show grows - Marie works frantically to 'keep up with the times' and capture key individuals in wax. Though 'Everyone is hoping for great things from the Estates-General', mob rule builds and eventually turns its violence on the Church as well as the aristocracy. Marie is repeatedly asked to make wax models from severed heads - and, despite her horror, doesn't dare refuse, even when they are people she knew. Henri asks her to go with him to England, but she remains with her family. Then the royals are arrested and the rest is history. When Marie asks her uncle what they are, royalists or revolutionaries, he replies, 'Survivalists'.

It's a remarkable story, that addresses an important question - when what you see happening around you is evil, at what point do you stand up for what's right, rather than remaining a bystander and survivalist? Marie answers that question and lives with the consequences. The book ends on the author's summary of what happened to her characters After the Revolution, along with a Historical Note on the 'turbulent and bloody' years that her novel covers. I highly recommend Madame Tussaud to you, as well as Moran's excellent Egyptian historicals.

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