Tussaud boasts a cast of characters derived from people who actually existed and who undoubtedly did some of the things attributed to them in this novel. And an impressive cast of characters it is, headed by Madame Tussaud and His Grace William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Portland. A Mrs Druce, who resides in the Baker Street of Sherlock Holmes fame, and a couple of skilled entrepreneurial showmen named Philidor and Pinetti, complete the leading group.
‘Belinda Lyons-Lee’s Madame Marie Tussaud is a highly intelligent person, a truly gifted waxworks artist trying to get established in a man’s world.’
Tussaud is the tale of Marie Tussaud’s life from when she made waxworks of the heads of famous people killed during the French revolution to about the time she started her waxworks public exhibitions in England. It is these which became the famous Chamber of Horrors that was eventually closed some five years ago. Madame Tussauds waxworks is still one of London’s famous tourist attractions and is still in Baker Street.
Belinda Lyons-Lee’s Madame Marie Tussaud is a highly intelligent person, a truly gifted waxworks artist trying to get established in a man’s world. To that end, Marie Tussaud is willing to put aside any scruples that might stand in her way; contracts may be broken, lives may be lost, reputations sullied. Bribery can be used if needs must. All the other main characters are equally ready to do more than just bend the rules to their advantage. This makes for enjoyable reading but few law-abiding readers will find in the story any person with whom they can identify.
This is a fairly long slow-paced novel with lengthy descriptions of detail impacting pace:
While Philidor watched, she sliced each limb open lengthways. With his assistance, the mechanics were inserted and sealed into their respective chambers, and each limb attached to the torso, the head into the spine, the pieces all locked into place with satisfying clicks. The final stages of the aesthetics she worked through herself over the next five days, those of mixing and applying the oil paint to the skin, followed by the pastes, powders and embellishments for the face that needed reapplying, styling the hair and then dressing the figure.
But for many readers such detail in an historical novel is to be desired.
Philidor has considerable mechanical skills, and he it is who teams up with Tussaud in a love/hate relationship, a partnership of mutual benefit. She makes realistic wax figures and his mechanics animate them. These days, automatons, robots and complex cartoon characters abound but back in the early 19th century, a beautiful life-sized waxwork that could move and appear to breath was a phenomenon. So it’s no wonder people came from far and wide to view Tussaud’s wax creations and pay well for the privilege. But Philidor was not content to be a partner, and perhaps the less important one, with a woman, however skilled. What he does, or tries to do, is deplorable. Like many a villain, real or imagined, their skills employed legitimately could have earned them more than all their evil-doing.
In a way, this is also a story that reflects the attitude of its time to a woman trying to make a career. And while the novel is slow-paced, the exciting denouement is not, and provides a satisfying ending to a story of intrigue.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5 ★★★
Tussaud by Belinda Lyons-Lee
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Categories: Fiction, Australian
Release Date: 1 April 2021