Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2021

Tussaud, by Belinda Lyons-Lee

Gothic historical novels are not usually my thing, but there’s a lot to like about Tussaud, the debut novel of Belinda Lyons-Lee.

As you can tell from the cleverly designed cover art, the title alludes to Marie Tussaud who was famous for making death masks of victims of the guillotine in revolutionary France.  I first read about her in one of those children’s annuals that I used to receive at Christmastime.  I loved reading them… brief snippets about all sorts of topics but often about heroic women. I read about Marie Curie, Nurse Cavell, Florence Nightingale, and yes, Marie Tussaud—who made a career out of creating wax portraits of celebrities such as Jean-Jacques RousseauBenjamin Franklin and Voltaire, and was then forced to immortalise the dead during the Reign of Terror.

Belinda Lyons-Lee’s story which is based on these real events begins in the aftermath.  Still traumatised by her own brush with death because she’d been judged a royalist, Marie agrees to go to London with Philidor as side-kick to his automaton shows.  She knows he is a charlatan, but it’s a chance to make a fresh start in safety and to make a home for herself and her two boys.  It is her job to make the wax models, and Philidor’s to automate them, bringing the dead back to life.  But from the start they have very different perceptions about who will have control: creative control; control of the money; control of the publicity, and control of managing the show itself.  Philidor’s refusal to listen to Marie results in catastrophe on their first night because he doesn’t understand that wax can’t be exposed to light and heat for too long.  ‘Marie Antoinette’ melts because the show goes for longer than the stipulated hour.

This disaster, however, is the catalyst for the Gothic elements to enter the story.  The eccentric Duke of Cavendish hires the pair, stipulating bizarre conditions and a contract which compels them to create an automaton to his strict instructions.  In return, he provides the venue for their new show underneath his mansion at Welbeck Abbey, amid fifteen miles of tunnels and rooms, including a ballroom.   Before long, Marie is doing the things that characters do in Gothic novels, which is not to say that these things are clichés, it’s to say that the author has the atmospherics right.  Marie goes wandering about in the dark within a labyrinth of gloomy corridors and locked doors; she hears strange sounds and sees glimpses of people who ought to be elsewhere; she discovers peculiar things and notices items persistently awry; and—without letting curiosity get the better of her because she’s not that kind of woman, she takes up a quest to find out who Elanor was and why the Duke wants to reproduce her in wax.

Marie is a strong and purposeful woman, who takes no nonsense from anyone.  She anticipates blackmail, and replies in kind.  (This is not so hard to do since all the men, with the exception of her Uncle Curtius who taught her the trade) are lecherous sleazes with not only the kind of behaviours that #MeToo has led us to expect, but some novel variations on the theme.   All this reaches a very satisfying conclusion, leaving the reader to ponder the question alluded to on the front cover: What if we could cheat death itself?  This is the same question that underlies Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun

Just for fun, you might enjoy visiting these sites:

Author: Belinda Lyons-Lee
Title: Tussaud
Cover Art by Josh Durham/Design by Committee
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760620, pbk., 352 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


Responses

  1. Snap! I have a copy waiting for me at the library.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think I’d like this one!

    Like

  3. Yes, I think you would!

    Like

  4. Hmmm … the cover would completely put me off this one. It immediately tells me it’s a gothic-y sort of historical fiction that I don’t gravitate to. It’s not that it’s a bad cover. In its own way it’s stylish and beautiful but its message to me is “this is not for you”! But that’s OK, because many people will, I think, love to try it.

    Like

    • I hear you: OTOH I wasn’t expecting to like this as much as I did. It’s the right kind of book if you’re in the mood for something that doesn’t ask to be taken to seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What an unusual life she had. Interesting.

    Like

    • Yes! An amazing example of resilience!

      Like

  6. I’m reading historic gothic fiction right now. Radcliffe, and she’s got a lot to answer for. Not my favourite genre at all. But people do seem to enjoy being frightened.

    Like

  7. I’d probably like this even though (1) that cover is horrible and (2) I deliberately never visited Madame Tassaud’s in London because I thought it was a tacky tourist trap!

    Like


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