Marie Grosholtz was born in 1761, a Swiss orphan raised in France. Almost nobody would recognize her name, let alone know her life story. But after marriage, she took a different name, one she would use to start a business in London. It’s that name that would become internationally renowned, the name associated with a massive worldwide entertainment empire that persists to this day: Madame Tussaud.
English novelist Edward Carey (who currently resides in Texas) spent 15 years writing Little, a novel that follows the, well, little Marie Grosholtz from her sad childhood through her chilling involvement in the French Revolution, and the many famous faces she meets and casts in plaster along the way. Carey spoke with EW about Grosholtz, his own childhood, and working in her museum.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You said you took 15 years to finish this book. What were you doing for that time?
EDWARD CAREY: I’ve written other books before, but they’ve all been set in imaginary places, and Paris, apparently, exists, and the French Revolution apparently happened. And so I had to do a lot of research, but also it took me a long time to get Marie’s voice. That took me the longest time, because sometimes she came across as uncanny and I didn’t think that was right, and it was hard getting the spirit of her correct. That took me a long time. And also, I couldn’t put everything in, or else it would be twice the size of Simon Schama’s really enormous book on the French Revolution, so I had to choose what mattered. I think after a while it was about stepping away from the research and relaxing with it, and remembering my time working in Madame Tussauds when I was much younger — remembering how it felt to be beside all those waxworks.
Oh my God, what was your job at Madame Tussauds?
I was in my very early 20s and I was there for I think about six months, and I was employed to stop people from touching the waxworks. I was there to protect the waxworks, and you feel very protective of the waxworks after a while because you spend time with them alone, and then suddenly the public is let in and they rush up to them and try and hold them, and they treat them with no dignity whatsoever. It’s appalling.
And it was there that I began to really understand Marie Tussaud’s history and just how absolutely astounding her history [is] — that this small orphan girl from Switzerland should rise to be the proprietress of one of the most successful attractions ever. Just standing beside the waxworks that she made herself, it was amazing. It was like standing next to history, as if you were as close to the French Revolution as you ever could be. Her waxwork of Marat is wonderfully terrifying and very different; it feels so much more authentic than the very famous painting by Jacques Louis-David, which is a piece of propaganda, fake news if ever there was an example of it. He turned Marat into a Christ-like figure, and he was a terrifying monster.
So it was just spending time with those characters — with Voltaire that she cast, with Napoleon that she cast from life, with the royal family, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, both whole and in fractions — and just thinking, my God, this is the most incredible testament to history and a survivor’s tale, because she was locked up and she probably would have been guillotined if Robespierre hadn’t been overthrown. Her life is amazing. She just touched all of these people, and then when France was obsessed with Napoleon — it wasn’t very good business for waxworks, just having one person that people are interested in — coming over to England with all of those figures. Just imagine what it must have been like for a Londoner to go, “Oh my God, it’s as if they’re here!” She brought them back from death.
It’s funny how people sometimes look back at historical hobbies and interests and think how quaint and silly they were, but Madame Tussauds is still so popular today.
They are! And it’s kind of crazy. I think it’s one of the strangest attractions in the world. I was just in the Madame Tussauds in New York last week, and there what struck me so much about it is, I think, each of the Tussaud’s around the world are slightly different, and sometimes very different. Like the one in Washington has all of the presidents. But the one in New York seemed to be a temple to beautiful people. Whereas the one in London, as I recall, is much more full of history, and of her history. She had all sorts of strange-looking people, and people are strange! We’re not all this model-type, we come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, and I think that’s what the museum was for. Like, “Look at humanity! Look at us! Now you can see us from a distance, because we’re wax.”
She caught all of the famous people, trapped them in wax — well, first in plaster and then in wax — but you know, the trouble is, sometimes the famous people aren’t nice, and the famous people do nasty things, so suddenly the famous objects were not the royal family, or it was the royal family but it was just their heads, without their bodies. So what became popular was severed heads.
In London, there’s an entire wax Chamber of Horrors with murderers, right?
Yes! It is so terrifying! You know, working there, having to stand beside Charles Manson for an afternoon is not pleasant. I wouldn’t recommend it. But also you have Marat murdered down there, and Burke and Hare, the Scottish body-snatchers. But it is humanity: Upstairs you have the great and good, and down below you have the monsters, the worst side of humanity. And most of us tip somewhere in between.
How historically accurate is the novel, and where did you decide to take liberties?
It is mostly historically accurate. What’s incredible about seeing her waxworks is they’re like stations of her life. She did know these people, she cast them from life. Where her own life becomes somewhat problematic is she professed that she was an art tutor to Princess Elizabeth, Louis XVI’s sister in Versailles; there’s no records at Versailles that she was ever there. And she said that she was imprisoned there at Carmes, with Josephine de Beauharnais — well, she’s not in the prison registers. But she knew how to tell an incredible tale, and it seems like she was imprisoned, and it’s possible she saw Josephine when she was in prison, so it’s not that much of a stretch. And she was there when the revolution broke out, just before the storming of the Bastille. She was absolutely sat in history. They definitely cast Voltaire; Franklin, Franklin was around and quite liked to have his face taken. So she did know all these people, but I felt I could add to that, because she did. Since she did, she almost gave me permission.
In the end, Marie Tussaud seems to me like a character from a folk tale, sort of like a Johnny Appleseed or something. She’s sort of the French Revolution’s Baba Yaga. And she died just before photography, and I think the French Revolution, going back in time, it’s then that we, as people sitting in 2018, we can’t quite touch the people then. They seem like they’re too far back in history somehow. Whereas the Victorians we can feel. I think she’s just at that border because she lived into Queen Victoria’s reign, which of course went on forever, and so it seems to me incredible that she was never photographed. That she died just, just before photography captured her. It’s a different medium; she’s wax. But she gives you history, in technicolor.
The name Madame Tussaud is so famous; why did you decide to name your novel Little?
She was quite short! She was very small, and also I think it’s a sadness that she’s known as Madame Tussaud because Tussaud himself, her husband, was a total waste of space, a non-starter who nearly drained her finances, and it seems kind of sad and wrong that that’s the name that staying. Her maiden name being Grosholtz is a much harsher sound, and Tussaud is a bit weak, almost as weak as the man. Though I love the mispronunciation of it as “two swords.” The Baker Street tube station where you get off the tube to see the museum, [the announcement] says, “Alight here for Madame Two-Swords.” That seems better.
But for me, I stood next to the waxwork of her as an old woman; she’s tiny, and it seemed to me like, wow. I’m small, but she’s much smaller. Looking at that waxwork, this little, little wizened woman with this very wise face, that she was the boss, there was no doubt about it. And I also love that she made her self-portrait and she used to walk around her self-portrait and sit next to it so she was duplicated, Madame Tussaud beside herself. I wanted it to be Little because she was short but also Little because she was pushed aside as insignificant — but more than anything else, her story is the incredibly amazing survivor’s tale of a tiny woman who overcame an incredibly male world and then an incredibly violent one to be incredibly successful.
What was the weirdest thing that happened while you were working at Madame Tussauds?
The weirdest thing that happened was there was an IRA bomb that went off when we were there. We weren’t actually in the building; there was one in the planetarium which was connected to Madame Tussaud, and one went off in the Chamber of Horrors, in Burke or Hare’s — one of the two body-snatchers — it was put in their pocket. And the stench afterwards of burnt wax was amazing. I felt like I would never get it out of my soul for the rest of my life. Nobody was hurt, mercifully, except for Burke, or Hare, whichever one it was, and some of the murderers I think were damaged, but only pretend humans were hurt.