Edward Carey’s Little is a brilliantly-written historical novel that tells the story of Anne Marie Grosholtz, the young woman who grew up to become the famous wax sculptor Madame Tussaud. Born in Alsace in 1761, Marie was nicknamed “Little” because of her diminutive size. After being orphaned at an early age, she becomes an assistant to Dr. Curtius, a physician from Berne, Switzerland, who makes wax models of body parts for anatomical study. To avoid imprisonment for debt, Curtius is forced to flee to Paris, and takes Marie with him. The two of them lodge with a tailor’s widow and her quiet son Edmond. The widow treats Marie cruelly, and Curtius is too taken with her to notice, or stand up to her. But Marie learns how to make plaster casts of heads, and to sculpt in wax, from him. Marie becomes friends with Edmond and, eventually, falls in love with him. Curtius’ business, a wax museum in an abandoned monkey house, becomes a huge success as, encouraged by the widow, he makes wax figures of the intellectuals and statesmen of the day, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Benjamin Franklin. He also makes sculptures of infamous murderers and criminals, which prove to be very popular. Crowds flock to the museum, and Curtius holds a lottery in which the winner will be sculpted in wax.
Soon Curtius’ museum draws the attention of the royal family, and Marie goes to Versailles to tutor the princess Elisabeth, younger sister of Louis XVI, in sculpture. The two girls become close friends. The first model that Marie sculpts at Versailles is the king himself, but that is not enough for the greedy widow, who is still her employer, since Marie had only been lent to the royal family. The widow wants a bust of the queen, Marie-Antoinette. Eventually, Marie saves the queen from dying in childbirth, but the widow does not get her wish. In 1789, shortly before the royal family is forced to leave Versailles, Marie re-joins Curtius and the widow in Paris.
Carey brings the tumultuous days of the French Revolution vividly to life. Marie makes figures of many of the prominent revolutionaries, but, as the revolution becomes increasingly more radical, she has to hide or destroy many of her works, as the heroes of the early part of the revolution become the villains during the Terror. When the king is guillotined, the National Assembly orders Marie to make a plaster cast of his head, which she never turns into a completed sculpture. She makes wax models of many victims of the guillotine. But, eventually, she falls into disgrace because of her Swiss nationality and her association with the royal family, and she is imprisoned during the Terror. For a brief time, she shares a cell with the future Empress Josephine, before being released after Robespierre’s fall.
Marie’s narrative voice is brilliantly rendered, and Carey is wonderful at conveying her unique perspective. She sees the world differently from most people, probably as a result of the circumstances of her childhood, as well as her great talent. Her life is tragic, but she is ultimately a survivor. After losing many of the people she loved during the French Revolution, she eventually goes to London and lives to the advanced age (for that time) of eighty-nine. Carey’s macabre drawings are an excellent enhancement to the story. They show many of the heads and body parts that Marie sculpts. This novel is clearly a labor of love. Carey worked on it for fifteen years, and first came up with the idea for it when he worked at Madame Tussaud’s Museum in London. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys beautifully-written historical fiction.
Little is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library and the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, as well as another copy at the Hatcher Graduate Library.