Edward Carey: Little
Published By: Gallic Books
Buy It: here
What The Blurb Says:
There is a space between life and death: it’s called waxworks
Born in Alsace in 1761, the unsightly, diminutive Marie Grosholtz is quickly nicknamed ‘Little’. Orphaned at the age of six, she finds employmet in Bern, Switzerland, under the charge of reclusive anatomist, Dr Curtius. In time the unlikely pair form an unlikely bond, and together they pursue an unusual passion: the fine art of wax-modelling.
Forced to flee their city, the doctor and his protégée head for the seamy streets of Paris where they open an exhibition hall for their uncanny creations. Though revolution approaches, the curious-minded flock to see the wax heads, eager to scrutinise the faces of royalty and reprobates alike. At ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Curtius’, heads are made, heads are displayed, and a future is built from wax.
From the gutters of pre-revolutionary France to the luxury of the Palace of Versailles, from casting the still-warm heads of The Terror to finding something very like love, Little is the unforgettable story of how a ‘bloodstained crumb of a girl’ went on to shape the world…
What I Say:
“Wax, also, is privacy. Wax seals letters. Wax keeps all the world’s words where they should be, until the right hands come to let them out.”
Sometimes you see a book, and you know that it is going to be special. I was very lucky to receive this copy from Gallic Books. I am writing this, because when you find a novel that keeps sneaking back in to your mind weeks after reading it, you want the world to know about it.
Little, of the title, is Marie Grosholtz. Her father dies, she and her mother, in desperate need of money and a place to live, start to work for the mysterious Doctor Curtius. Unable to cope without her husband, and feeling she has let her daughter down, Little’s mother commits suicide. This leaves Little and Doctor Curtius alone and unsure of what to do about each other. Some unseen bond seems to draw them together from the start, and Doctor Curtius assumes the role of Little’s guardian.
What makes this relationship different to a traditional parent child one, is that Doctor Curtius is famed for his work with wax. From the very start, Marie is fascinated by the medical equipment and the body parts that he has all around his house. She is not in the least phased by the seemingly macabre pursuits he has, but instead is fascinated by them and is desperate to learn.
Curtius realises that a city like Paris would have far more potential for models for his wax works, so he takes Marie (who is known as Little due to her diminutive stature) to live with Widow Picot and her son Edmond. Widow Picot views Curtius and especially Little as inconveniences who inhabit her space. You sense that Little is slowly fading into the background.
What is one of the most interesting and timely ideas in the novel, is the notion of celebrity. Curtius becomes more in demand as he makes wax heads of the famous and notorious of Paris. To be immortalised in wax and to be famous enough to be displayed becomes increasingly important to the great and good (and not so good). If your wax head is chosen to be exhibited, you matter, and your place in society is secured. However, once you are no longer relevant, the wax head is melted, ready to be moulded into the shape of the next newsworthy person. Your success is measured by how long your wax head is on display.
Curtius’ reputation and success grows, and along with Little, Widow Picot and Edmond, they move into a larger house. Curtius realises he is falling in love with the Widow, and Edmond and Little are getting closer. Widow Picot is proving herself to be an astute businesswoman. Business is booming and Little is permitted to start working with Curtius again. When they are able to meet and make a wax head of Voltaire, their display becomes the must see exhibition and makes Edmond a very eligible bachelor. When Edmond is forced to marry the daughter of a print factory owner, Little is bereft.
It is at this point that Little meets Princess Elisabeth, and she is called to the palace to become Princess Elisabeth’s sculptor tutor. What no one could foresee is that for the next eleven years, Little’s home is a cupboard in Versailles Palace.
Little seems to be nothing more that a possession, a plaything for the Princess. She brought out of her cupboard, played with and then sent back again. For many, this would seem to be a life of misery. Little understands that this is now her chance to make herself indispensible to Princess Elisabeth, and sets about working to ensure she is a vital part of the Princess’ life. They start to fall in love and one cannot function without the other.
When Elisabeth is no longer a viable marriage asset for the family, she is sent to a far wing of the castle and Little goes with her. When the Widow and her family arrive at the Palace with wax heads of the royal family that Little has smuggled to them, Little is dismissed from the Palace in disgrace.
France is now in a complete state of turmoil, the Revolution is in full swing, and the family is destitute as their bookkeeper has disappeared with their money. What Edward Carey does with such mastery is to weave in French history seamlessly throughout the novel. Monarchs are overthrown, the French Revolution moves apace and the celebrated wax figures are of those who lost their lives to the cause- Revolutionaries bring dismembered heads demanding that these martyrs are captured for eternity.
Edmond is back home, a changed man after having a breakdown, and Little is the only one who can reach him. When the occupants of the house are rounded up and arrested, Edmond is left in the attic and to his death. The Widow is executed and finally Little and Curtius find their way back to each other. He allows her to call him Uncle – the family that has eluded her for so long is now right in front of her. Little knows that to be accepted into society she has to marry, so chooses Francois Joseph Tussaud. Little is no more, and instead, Madame Tussaud is the name that will be remembered throughout history.
Little is an astounding novel. It is breathtaking in its historical scope and detail, and you will be completely absorbed by every twist and turn of Little’s life and those around her. Edward Carey’s amazing illustrations make you feel as if you are reading Little’s diaries and serve only to bring the reader even closer to her.
Love, motherhood, what it means to be a parent and the power of celebrity are all part of this stunning novel. However, at the very heart of it, and in every single page you read, is Little and her determination to finally be heard.
I hope that Little finds a space on your bookshelf and a place in your heart.
“Many call me Madame Two-Swords. I am rather a public building. I used to tell my visitors the story of my life. Is it all true? they wondered. Wax, I told them, does not know how to lie”.