Today we know her as Madame Tussaud, but for much of her life she was plain Marie Grosholtz – “Little”. This wonderfully imaginative novel gives a backstory to the diminutive girl who grew up to become the hugely successful businesswoman whose name is now familiar the world over. Her start in life was far from auspicious: orphaned at a tragically young age, she found herself in the care of the eccentric – and although not unkind, far from warm – medical model-maker Dr. Curtius. It marked the start of an extremely bizarre childhood, learning how to make lifelike wax models of internal organs and other parts of the human body in all their biologically accurate detail. Then one day Dr. Curtius gets a strange request: to cast the head of a medical colleague in wax. From that moment on, Marie’s life will never be the same again. The great and the good all want their likeness cast in wax, a new kind of status symbol, and Dr. Curtius has found his niche in business. The peculiar but touching partnership of Marie and the doctor, however, is not to last; circumstances drive the pair to Paris, where they lodge in the home of widowed Mme Picot and her son Edmond. The widow seems to have one aim from the offset, namely to exploit Dr. Curtius’s commercial success for her own gain and to drive a wedge between him and the little girl who’s worked so faithfully alongside him. Marie endures years of cruelty, neglect, exploitation and violence at the hands of this most horrendous of characters, until fate intervenes once again and she experiences a reversal of fortune that no-one from a poverty-stricken background such as hers could ever have imagined was possible.
In the decades that follow, Marie bears witness to some of the most famous events in French history, from royal machinations at the Palace of Versailles to the grim horrors of the French Revolution and its aftermath. During this volatile and dangerous era, it is wax that saves her again and again, her talent being both a release from fear and loneliness, and a literal life-saver in the darkest throes of The Terror. You can well imagine, then, how this pairing of the brutal time period and the naturally unsettling nature of wax heads that look like they’re about to spring to life, combines to create a novel that doesn’t just flirt with the macabre so much as jump into bed with it. The casting of wax heads is an uncomfortable business at the best of times, but one that turns into a truly gruesome practice when used on the freshly severed heads brought to the doctor and his apprentice by revolutionaries in the heat of their bloodlust. Yet even years before the anarchy in the French capital explodes in its bloody climax, the entire world is troubled by a sense of unease, whether it’s the wax replicas of notorious murderers in the exhibition hallway, the ghosts that Marie is sure she can hear stalking the Paris house or the chilling feeling that society itself is about to fall over a precipice from which there can be no return.
Little is also a deeply sad novel. Over the course of her life Marie experiences loss after devastating loss, the ones she suffers in later years proving to be the most soul-destroying of them all. She is not alone; many, if not most, of the people with whom she crosses paths are carrying the weight of their own grief, suffering and what we would today call post-traumatic stress with them as well. This is a world where people disappear, taken either by fate or by others intent on causing pain and hurt. Yet Marie somehow carries on, bearing her burdens with a resolute steadfastness and strength of character that never feels contrived or unrealistic, but rather keeps you rooting for her right to the end. The story is told in her voice, and I loved the way the tone gradually shifted from a childlike view of the world around her to the more mature outlook of a grown woman. Even as an adult, however, Marie never loses the sense of imagination and wonder that has been with her since the beginning; there is a hint of something magical, undefinable and unknowable in the air even in those times when the grim earthliness of events cannot be ignored.
I enjoyed Little from beginning to end, and Marie Grosholtz is one of the most beautifully drawn lead characters I can remember reading about for some time. Her life is strange, unconventional and pervaded by the sinister, and all the more memorable for it. If like me you love novels reimagining the lives of real figures from history then you’ll be a fan of this for sure; if you’ve read it already, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thank you for reading x