Moran’s Madame Tussaud is an unexpected revelation, the French Revolution experienced through wax artist Marie Groshaltz, a student of her uncle Philippe Curtius at the Salon de Cire. Marie creates the lifelike faces of the figures displayed in tableau in the salon in pre-Revolutionary Paris, her latest coup a visit by Louis XVI and his Austrian queen, Marie Antoinette. Customers flock to the Salon to walk where the queen has walked, to view precise replicas of a queen’s boudoir, Swiss philosopher Rousseau at his desk, the salon a temporary palliative to the hunger rumbling in their bellies. As astute in business as she is talented, Marie intuits opportunity in the changing political landscape, new scenes and personalities to frame the language of revolution.
What she cannot anticipate is her own emotional investment in the drama that will define her life and her place in history, and it is this profound journey that Moran so beautifully captures. Called to Versailles to serve as wax tutor to the king’s sister, the devout Princesse Elisabeth, Marie is plunged into the magical world of royalty, where the queen never wears the same gown twice, where candles - used or not - are replaced daily, and the monarchy remains oblivious to the growing roar of a public enraged by lack of bread and an unresponsive king.
Unexpectedly - though not unusual for an artist - Marie finds herself liking the royals she meets at court: the prayerful Elisabeth and a queen grown from foolish girl to mother, her husband’s chronic inability to make decisions infecting her as well, both of them doomed for lack of action. Traveling between the rarified world of the monarchy to the heated conversations of the devotees of revolution, Marie is aware of coming catastrophe though helpless to do anything but document it in her art. As exhibits change with unfolding events, Marie and her family are caught up in the drama, unhappy patriots Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat and Maximillian Robespierre frequent guests of the Salon. As violence escalates and reason is trampled, Henri Charles, a neighboring scientist, becomes Marie’s emotional anchor as the world spins out of control.
Caught up in chronicling rapidly changing events in Salon displays and anxiety over her family’s welfare, Marie lets Henri slip away to England, remaining to witness the turbulence of regicide, mass beheadings and the Reign of Terror post-Revolution. Patriots hammer at the door of the Salon, waving bloody heads, demanding death masks to commemorate guillotined aristocrats, the currency of revolution: “This is what I traded for love. This is what I traded for safety.” Even a sitting with a mad Marquis de Sade (“how delicious to corrupt”) cannot compare to the devastation of a country without a leader where a name scrawled on a list means certain death. Gods and monsters tumble into the cauldron of anarchy as Marie realizes “I have given away my life for a cause among the dead.”
After a misguided marriage to Francois Tussaud and two sons, Marie reinvents herself in England, bringing her memories and skills to her famous Wax Museum and the waiting affection of Henri Charles. Lifting her character from the sensationalism of a bloody era, Moran melds artist and events as men and women are faced with the incomprehensible devastation of political change, a truly harrowing tale told with compassion, embellished with the detritus of an ineffective monarchy, the dream of freedom and the hubris of patriots turned tyrants.