A lot of revolutions start with the noblest of intentions. The French Revolution was no different. “After all, the Americans had done it, hadn’t they?” Robespierre asked (not from the book). As Lafayette and countless others would learn before the bloody Reign of Terror would finally end with Robespierre’s arrest and death, maniacal egos that are allowed to run unchecked by character, virtue, and deliberate contemplation can, and did in France’s case, result in just another form of tyranny substituted in place of its predecessor. Stalin, Mao, and Saddam Hussein are illustrative. France would not escape this fate.
Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud tells the story of the French Revolution from a wax modeler’s viewpoint. Like newspapers, television, and the internet for today’s audiences, Salon de Cire provided its customers with information on events, people, and politics of the day. Marie, the owner’s niece has a special talent, one that is cultivated by first her uncle for the shop, then King Louie’s sister for the modeling of Catholic saints, and finally for Robespierre for death masks of both traitors and patriots. Marie finds that to refuse Robespierre is to be branded a traitor, an enemy of the republic, and like many others, refusal meant branding her family for death, even as she complains that the wax figures in the salon’s tableaus were based on living people. Marie condescends to create the death mask, often by applying the clay or plaster to a head, often minutes or hours after the victim’s death. The arrest of the king’s sister, who Marie had served and come to love like a dear friend, forces Marie to make a life-changing decision. Ultimately, Robespierre is arrested and the madness comes to an end.
Napoleon Bonaparte eventually comes to power, after all the struggle for liberty and equality. He becomes First Consul for life and later is named emperor. Waiting in the wings is France’s next king, Louis XVIII.
This the stuff of dystopian novels where either protagonist(s) battle against an injust world in which savagery and scarcity in the extreme abounds. Amber Garr‘s Waterproof features a world where water is hoarded by those in power. Hmmm. During pre-revolution France as well as during the revolution, bread and other food stuffs were scarce. The element of savagery through dictatorial control, like that in the French Revolution, is featured in Joel Ohman’s Meritropolis, Eliza Green’s Becoming Human, Susan Kaye Quinn’s Open Minds and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale.
Madame Tussaud is not only about injustice, liberty, equality and revolution. It is also a novel about the power of art. In a previous post, I wrote about the transformative and creative power of the arts. Often to perceive is to suspend disbelief. For a short time, all of the troubles of life are put on a back burner. You are transported to another world. That is the creative and transformative power of a piece of literature, a painting, a play, or a concert. The arts, music and writing included, also function as keepers of memories, not always for the good as Marie in Madame Tussaud found out when after Lafaytte had fallen from power in France and was in exile. In Madame Tussaud, the salon is an information provider. The arts provide this service, enabling their patrons not only a perspective on current events but also to learn. That is how society evolves. That is why we are here.