“Here is the truth: people are very fascinated by themselves.”
There is a myriad of ways for people to become immortalized. A brass sculpture in a park. A New York Times best-selling memoir. Even a pithy selfie on social media. Or, as in the case of “Little” by Edward Carey, they could have their likeness cast in wax.
If that sounds like an introduction to Madame Tussaud, then you’ve discovered the central character in “Little,” as it is (very) loosely based on Tussaud’s life. Anne Marie Grosholtz is born in Switzerland in 1761. She’s a small, odd-looking child with a very sharp mind. When her parents die at the tender age of six, Marie becomes the servant and helper to Dr. Philip Curtius, an eccentric whose passion is making anatomically correct body parts from wax. His first experiment is to cast Marie’s head in wax. Afraid that Curtius will turn her out on the streets, Marie throws herself into learning everything she can about the human body and how to transform it into wax.
Bad debt requires Curtius and Marie to flee to Paris, where they look up Louis Sebastien Mercier, a man they met in Switzerland and the one who christens Marie as Little. He arranges living quarters for Curtius in the home of the recently widowed Charlotte Picot. The widow and her son, Edmond, live in squalor and she immediately takes advantage of the socially shy and awkward Curtius. She sees Marie as an adversary and relegates her to servant status. The widow pushes Marie away because she recognizes the brilliance of Curtius’ waxwork and is loath to share him, or his riches, with this odd little girl. So Marie’s days as an apprentice comes to an end and she painfully watches Curtius become famous without her by his side. But then Marie has a chance encounter with Princess Elisabeth that results in her leaving Curtius and the widow to become the Princess’ tutor. Marie is hopeful this will end her run of bad luck but that is not the case. She is relegated to living in a cupboard with virtually no companionship. Then the French Revolution interrupts her lonely existence and she sent back to Dr. Curtius and the widow. Determined not to become a servant again, Marie fights for independence by becoming a world-class wax sculptor. Eventually she marries, moves to London and creates the infamous wax museum that we know today.
“Little” is a macabre, peculiar book which is quite fitting, given the subject. My first encounter with the Tussaud Wax Museum was during a childhood trip to Niagara Falls. It was creepy, fascinating and disconcerting all at the same time. I didn’t like it and have never gone back. So “Little” gave me the heebie-jeebies with its vivid descriptions of beheadings and body parts. Throw in the pre and post French Revolution time period with its poverty and barbarity and the whole book could be construed as nothing but a thankless treatise on all that is dark and miserable. It was like “Frankenstein” met “A Tale of Two Cities.” Thankfully, Carey takes care to never make Marie morose when she certainly could have become that way. She is a spirited and endearing character full of light and humor, even as she describes brutal scenes and draws lifelike heads (indeed, the book has many of Marie’s drawings, which amps up the quirkiness of the book). Marie’s distinctive voice and natural inquisitiveness are definitely the highlight of the book. So if you have a fascination with wax figures and the French Revolution, you will love this book. If not, you’ll still enjoy Marie and her quest for relevance and recognition. Just make sure to read it in daylight!