Novelists don’t give themselves much leeway when they seek to render in fiction the lives of well-known historical figures. For subjects who lived through cataclysmic events such as the French Revolution, this is fortunately no drawback. In the case of Edward Carey’s rendering of Madame Tussaud’s story, a macabre imagination must have been the only requirement to do it justice.
But it seems Tussaud herself was not averse to a little embroidering of the facts; at least, not all the claims she made are verifiable. This gives Carey some wiggle room. The novel purports to be a memoir in old age and is accompanied by apparatus appropriate to the Victorian period, from its prolix title page (‘The Extraordinary Life and Historic Adventures of a Servant called LITTLE’) to the chapter headings – ‘In which I am born’ and so forth. These very quickly turn strange: ‘Sounds of the outside falling in’, ‘On itching’, ‘In which heads are stolen’.
Anne Marie Grosholtz, known as Little, is born in Alsace in 1761, her soldier father’s artificial jaw – or, as she has it, his ‘inferior maxillary bone’ – being an early object of fascination. This strap-on chin becomes her introduction to anatomy, replica and modelling. On his death,