We spent our days instructing the public not to touch. Taking photographs was permissible. We worked in a museum of dolls. The dolls were all lifesize and made of wax, they were of short people and tall people, some of them were only of a part of a person – the head, for example, upon the end of a stick.
The public would come into see the dolls and rush from one to the other with great excitement. They recognised the dolls. They wanted to stand beside them. They wanted to touch, but we were there to discourage this. How the public loved “the doll shop” as we called it. We protected the dolls. Even when the public rushed about them pulling faces and making unkind comments, still they did not budge.
They were so stoical. So close to being alive, but never quite achieving life. They had such personalities, and in time working there we grew a great respect for them. Their stillness and silence began to feel dignified, and soon we kept silent and still beside them – alarming the public when, at last, we had to admit that we were not part of the doll fraternity, that we were poor flesh too. We could not keep still for very long. When the public leaned in close to our still bodies and commented upon how lifelike we looked, we said, very quietly, “Hello” and this made them scream. (We were not supposed to do this.)
Madame Tussaud modelled history, the best of it and the worst of it
The museum was Madame Tussauds, and in my early 20s I worked there making sure that the visiting flesh people did not harm the resident wax ones. This was their home after all, people should be more polite. But they weren’t especially. There is a certain melancholy to the wax figures. Stillborn and frozen, they hold the shapes of famous people as if they had no right to be their own person. They had no choice. How awful for the poor wax figure who may have wanted to have been – given the chance – Princess Diana, but instead was made Charles Manson.
Among the waxworks were various figures modelled by the long dead proprietress herself, Marie ‘Madame’ Tussaud. She modelled Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (both their whole bodies and their guillotined heads), Napoleon and Jean-Paul Marat, captured in wax just after he was stabbed to death in his bathtub. She was in Paris through the French Revolution and was nearly killed by it – she was imprisoned (one of her cellmates was Napoleon’s future empress Josephine) and escaped the guillotine because of the fall of Robespierre, whose mangled head she cast.
Madame Tussaud modelled history, the best of it and the worst of it. She had an extraordinary talent for collecting the most celebrated physiognomies of her time. When Napoleon rose to power France only cared about Napoleon, and that was bad business for the waxworks. So she brought her wax people over the channel and showed the English precisely what the French Revolution was like. There was also a self-portrait. Tussaud showed herself as a small wizened woman with a large nose and chin and an intense smiling face. She seemed to be saying: ‘I am history!’
What a life she had led, what a trail of death she left behind her
She’s the Baba Yaga of the museum world, a strange Dickensian mollusk, a bombazined rodent who slipped in bloody history and then brought it over the Channel so that the English might witness it, for a fee. What a life she had led, what a trail of death she left behind her, but she kept her dead close to her in wax duplicates.
In the end I think she out-personalities all the personalities around her. She’s the great puppeteer of wax life. And working beside all those wax models I tried to imagine her life, how this tiny person managed to survive such a bloodbath and come out with such incredible relics.
Over 25 years ago I stood beside Madame Tussaud in Baker Street and began to wonder if I could write a novel about her life. I always illustrate the books I write, and for the last quarter century I have been drawing Tussaud. I’ve carved her out of wood, made small busts of the people of her life and waxwork death masks, and now I’ve finally finished a novel. I could not get her out of my head. Sometimes, in my dreams, I am still standing beside her in the doll shop.
I suspect at night in the wax halls, that little dark figure can just be heard, walking about her stilled populace.
Image: The John Deakin Archive/Getty Images