By Chet Yarbrough
By: Michelle Moran
Narrated by: Rosalyn Landor
Michelle Moran weaves a tapestry of history from threads in Madame Tussaud’s life as a famous wax museum modeler and entrepreneur that lives through the French revolution. Madame Tussaud is a merchant; a representative of a growing middle class in France.
Ms. Tussaud’s acquaintance with Rose Bertin, the Queen’s dressmaker, leads to a royal family introduction.
Moran cleverly chooses Tussaud because she not only represents a sociological change in France but is in a business that bridges a political and economic chasm between the Third Estate, the poor and starving, and the First and Second Estates, a titled Aristocracy and a privileged clergy. The Third Estate demands freedom from the “slavery” of a privileged class.
Moran describes Tussaud’s history. Tussaud tutors in business under the guidance of Dr. Curtius, a physician turned wax-modeler, who serves as a Captain in the French National Guard when the Bastille is captured. Curtius takes the side of survival in dealing with the revolution; i.e. he adapts his political position based on living through the terror rather than standing for any ideological belief. There are historical truths in Moran’s fictional history; i.e. all the characters in the novel exist in the history of the revolution and Tussaud actually met the royal family and modeled Marie Antoinette for Dr. Curtius’ museum.
In Tussaud’s connections with revolutionaries and royals, Moran pictures the ugliness of mob violence and the royal family’s guillotined death. Tussaud, whose maiden name is Marie Grosholtz, is enlisted by the revolutionary guard to create models of beheaded royalists that are guillotined.
The heads are often spitted and used as propaganda for the revolution. Tussaud is said to have hated her role in modeling these victims and Moran notes that Tussaud has few kind words for Robespierre, Murat, or the duc d’Orleans. Toward the end of the “Reign of Terror”, Tussaud refuses to create these horrific models. Robespierre sentences Tussaud and her mother to a fetid prison with thousands of other political detainees that are to be guillotined.
Robespierre is pictured by Moran as an insecure, ascetic rabble-rouser; Murat is a leader and accuser in the revolution, responsible for many murders in the “Reign of Terror”; the duc d’Orleans betrays his cousin, Louis XVI, and supports the Jacobin club, endorsing Rousseau’s revolutionary beliefs that hasten the destruction of monarchy. The irony of this story of these historic figures is that they are murdered by the violence they released in encouraging the revolution. Of the three, only duc d’Orleans renounces his role in the revolution.
Charles Dickens exposes some of the atrocity of the French revolution in “A Tale of Two Cities” but Moran pictures its horror from the perspective of the royal family. The confusion of equality with the goal of liberty is exemplified in a fictional account of a meeting between Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette (the French hero of the American Revolution) with Tussaud. Both Jefferson and Lafayette say France should become a constitutional monarchy but the rise of the Third Estate foments anarchy.
Lafayette, in Moran’s version of history, becomes disillusioned with the French revolution because of the “Reign of Terror”. Lafayette begins as a supporter of a constitutional monarchy but is swept up in the anarchy of revolution and is jailed in Austria until released through the intervention of Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800s. Jefferson is quoted to have said, “Every generation needs a new revolution” while Moran inclines more to Lafayette’s assessment of France’s 5 years of destruction.
Moran touches on the poverty and circumstances that foment revolution with details like the starving poor that sell teeth for food; however, Moran suggests that much of the Third Estates’ revolutionary zeal is manufactured by journalist’s lies and exaggerations. The Bastille, contrary to rumor, is not a royal dungeon of torture and despair but a jail for 7 prisoners, one of which is the infamous Marquis de Sade.
The primary use of the Bastille is for storage of arms and gunpowder.
There is a confluence of bad events and circumstances leading to the French revolution; i.e. a bad 1787 food harvest, a history of unequal tax treatment, and a privileged clergy that serves the rich more than the poor. Moran suggests that exaggerations of Royal suppression and duplicity misrepresent fundamental causes of the revolution. Moran infers that the monarchy is a scapegoat for inherited circumstances and a bad harvest. She characterizes the King as indecisive and ineffectual and a Queen that is shielded from the reality of 18thcentury French life. Moran paints the Royal Family members as victims of circumstance and ineffectual rule, more than tyrants of a great nation.
Moran paints a picture of the King’s respect for his people but shows the King to be incapable of leading or lifting his country out of poverty. Moran shows the King’s sister, Elisabeth, to be deeply religious and sadly disappointed in the people’s misperception of the King’s love and concern for the people of France.
However, Moran tells an ambiguous story. While the King and Queen try to surreptitiously escape from France, after the 1789 revolt, they travel with an entourage of coaches to carry the Queen’s dresses; this hubris suggests either ignorance or unconcern for the true plight of the Third Estate. The King and Queen are fleeing to Austria; they may have the intent of raising an army to attack revolutionaries and restore the monarchy.
Michelle Moran writes an interesting historical fiction of the 1789 French revolution that highlights causes and consequences of a population’s discontent. It is an interesting fiction because many of the details are consistent with reported facts of history. Moran offers an epilogue that clarifies the known information of historic characters in her book.
Though one cannot fairly compare one nation’s revolution with another, France’s revolution is a brutal example of the unleashed fury of a suppressed people. There is a message in Moran’s story; i.e. in a revolution, a price will be paid in blood and tears by both rulers and ruled. Moran notes that an estimated 40,000 people were beheaded; 70%-80% of the guillotined victims were from the Third Estate; the remainder–the clergy and aristocracy.
Napoleon Bonaparte becomes emperor in 1804. Who won; who lost?–mostly the lower classes, the workers, the poor, the disenfranchised, but no class escaped the anarchy and destruction of revolution. France is no longer a monarchy but only a long-suffering indigenous population made it so–revolution may be a harbinger of freedom but truth is left to time and history.