Off with his head!
We all know about the French Revolution, right? Louis XVI was a tyrant, Marie Antoinette sneered “Let them eat cake,” the downtrodden masses stormed the Bastille while singing “La Marseilleuse” and setting mobs of prisoners free. Aristocrats met a bloody end beneath the guillotine’s blade, freedom-loving patriots like Robespierre championed liberty, equality, fraternity, and things took a turn for the better. Oh and Lafeyette was mixed up in it somehow, and Thomas Jefferson. That’s pretty much how it went, right?
Well, Michelle Moran is having none of it. Her hefty but fast-moving Madame Tussaud packs an awful lot of history into its 400+ pages, but it’s not history from afar—this is sweaty, street-level, vindictive history as it happens. Her presentation of La Revolucion is of something noble that got quickly out of hand, a movement born of a desire for liberty that segued into a bloody Terror that left tens of thousands dead—most of them peasants, and most of them self-proclaimed “patriots”.
Moran cleverly chooses as her main character a woman who many readers will know by name alone. Marie Gresholtz lives with her mother and uncle in a Paris studio renowned for its wax figures and lively Tuesday night salons. These meetings bring together numerous figures of the French Revolution, including Robespierre and the Duc d’Orleans, who are agitating for an end to the monarchy. How exactly this will result in copious amounts of bread and meat—which have been in short supply these past few years—remains unclear, even to the revolutionaries themselves.
Marie and her family are Austrian immigrants who must treat carefully in these unsettled times. When the King and Queen visit to see their likenesses, they are treated with deference, and the ensuing days see a huge spike in attendance. But as months go by and the revolutionaries gain the upper hand, the family must adroitly keep with the times, changing royal figures for those of Citizen Danton and Citizen Jefferson—and even staging mock “executions” of those wax figures who had previously brought in customers.
Foreground to all of this is the story of Marie, a woman in her late twenties saddled with the responsibility of running a business in a nervous city. She is attracted to her handsome inventor neighbor, Henri Charles, but is too concerned with business and politics to have much time for love. Before long, though, she must make a choice.
Complicating matters is her relationship with the King’s sister, Princesse Elisabeth, a good-hearted soul who hires Marie as a companion and teacher. This view into the world of courtly privilege is both illuminating and painful; illuminating, because the good life of the royalty is in many ways highly constricted, and painful, because as the monarchy topples, Marie fears for the innocent being dragged down along with it.
Another complication is the position of Marie’s brothers, three of whom are in the elite Swiss Guards, the King’s personal bodyguard. A position of honor just a few years before, it is now viewed with suspicion by the revolutionaries. As the King’s position grows more tenuous, the Swiss Guards also become labeled as “traitors” to France.
Author Moran handles all these threads, and others, with admirable skill. She is able to do so mainly because of her protagonist. Marie is a sensible woman with one eye on the mob and the other on the cash register. Not until late in the book, when a series of awful events brings her and her mother to the edge of their doom, does she betray cracks in her cool-headed reserve.
Until then, she keeps her nerve even when the news is shocking. “On the thirteenth of February, the National Assembly passes a law forbidding monastic vows and dissolving every ecclesiastical order. Nuns are dragged into the streets to be whipped, and monks are given six months to marry or be killed.” Some time later, the King’s Swiss Guards are trapped and massacred by a mob, and Marie goes to view the bodies and, perhaps, find her brothers among them. “It takes hours to view all the unburned corpses. One young soldier has not been stripped. He has been left to lie in his shredded Swiss uniform, a pool of blood like a halo around his head. The sun reflects from his gilded epaulets, and this is the image I carry with me…”
A large cast of supporting characters rounds out the storyline, ranging from the famous to the infamous (the Marquis de Sade) to the unknown, such as Yachin, the young boy who serves as a barker to attract customers. This range of characters provides a wide-angle view of the many strata of society at the time, and allows the reader to understand, along with Marie, the scope of what is being gained—and lost.
This is a big, engrossing historical novel that reads fast and rarely fails to engage. Its 63 short chapters keep things moving along despite the weightiness of its subject matter, and the bright and compelling voice of its narrator is a pleasure to spend time with. It’s hard to imagine a more sumptuous summertime novel.