Please welcome the lovely Michelle Moran, author of Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution!
Revolutionary or Royalist? by Michelle Moran
This December 1st marked the 250th anniversary of Marie Grosholtz’s birth. And while that name may not be immediately recognizable, Marie’s married name – Madame Tussaud – is probably one of the most famous in French history. It comes as a surprise to many people that the name behind the famous wax museums actually belonged to a real woman.
Born in 1761, Marie grew up in a middle-class family on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. As the daughter of a prominent wax artist who had friends in every walk of life, her family entertained impoverished young lawyers and hobnobbed with royals like the Duc d’Orléans. It was a rich and incredibly varied existence for Marie on the Boulevard. One day she might be dressed in a towering white pouf for a visit with the queen, while the next she might be working in a dirty artist’s apron. She knew how to curtsy and how to spice venison for stew, and was as comfortable in her uncle’s Tuesday evening salons as she was in his workshop, where she modeled wax figures of the rich and famous (and sometimes infamous) for their museum.
But when discontent began to spread throughout Paris, evidenced by the heated debates which took place in her family’s weekly salons, Marie had a choice to make. Would she side with the revolutionaries who were calling for fair taxation and an end to nobility, or would she support the royal family whose patronage had turned her Parisian museum into a must-see event for both French and foreigners alike?
While writing Madame Tussaud, I tried to imagine what I would have done in Marie’s place. I imagined that I was an acquaintance of Marie Antoinette’s, and that I was good friends with the king’s sister, Madame Elisabeth. As the Revolution gathers support from the masses, I witness firsthand the panic gripping the Palace of Versailles. At first, the king dismisses the uprising as a few discontented rabble-rousers. But as the protests becomes more violent, he begins to realize that this is something serious – something dangerous, in fact. Still, no one around him is telling him the truth. Not about the anger, or the violence, or even the state of his own treasury. Should I risk my place at court to speak up? If so, would he even believe me? And even if he did, what would it change at this late stage? There are also my three brothers to consider, all of whom are employed in the king’s Swiss Guard. Yet for all of my royal ties, I can see the revolutionaries’ point as well. People are starving in the streets, jobs are scarce, yet the rich are exempt from taxation.
So do I wear the black and white cockade to symbolize my support of the Bourbons, or do I wear the red, white and blue for revolution? It turns out that Marie did both. As the Revolution gained steam, anyone dressed in clothing that was deemed too “fancy” was subject to arrest. To be seen in public without a tricolor cockade meant literally risking your life. And at a time when nearly 40,000 people were guillotined (more than 80% were commoners), execution was a very real threat. So while Marie kept her ties with the royal family – even when it was dangerous to do so – she was also a very public (and unintentionally influential) figure in the French Revolution.
I can’t imagine the horrors Madame Tussaud lived through during this time, but I can empathize with the very difficult choices she eventually made in an attempt to survive. I didn’t always agree with them, but Madame Tussaud is – without a doubt – one of the strongest women I will ever write about.