If you like novels that deliver down and dirty versions of history, you’ll love Little by Edward Carey. Heads are severed, rats run amok in the corridors of a palace and fleas breed in muck-strewn streets. Add to which are blood-dripping severed heads and decomposing bodies.
This isn’t some nightmare location of a horror novel. It’s how Paris is seen by Marie Grosholtz, an orphaned girl apprenticed to a maker of wax heads and bodies during the time of the French Revolution.
Never heard of Marie Grosholtz? I’m not surprised. As a child she was one of life’s nobodies; a plain, uneducated servant girl who lived in a tumbledown house in Paris that was once a monkey museum. You’ll know her better by the name she adopted after her marriage: Madame Tussaud. Yes that Madam Tussaud. The one who created one of the world’s most successful entertainment empires.
An Extraordinary Life Re-imagined
Little is Edward Carey’s imaginative version of Madam Tussaud’s early life. To describe it as an extraordinary life would be an understatement.
Orphaned at six, Marie became apprentice-cum servant to Doctor Curtius, an eccentric doctor in Switzerland, learning first how to draw the human body and then to make wax versions of diseased body parts. Moving to Paris she progressed to making wax human heads for display and was engaged as art tutor to the King’s sister.
Heroes and villains of the Revolution put their heads in her hands (some more willingly than others of course). Jean-Paul Marat; Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre and King Louis XVI to name just a few. .
An Unusual Narrator
She’s a brilliant narrator. This short-sighted, hook-nosed tiny figure has strong emotions and isn’t afraid to express them or to act upon them. She is not an evident supporter of the Revolution but her views about egalitarianism and equality would have found support in many quarters.
View a person without clothes, and that person could be anyone from any time, great or insignificant. The human body has changed very little over hundreds of years; no matter what you put over it, underneath it still looks the same. Clothe that person, however and you pin him down.
She even has the temerity to insist that her royal pupil looks beyond the clothes and accept that she and her servants have the exact same internal bodily organs and mechanisms.
Looking Beyond The Obvious
Marie has learned herself how to see beyond the obvious; to look beneath the skin as it were. And she puts this to good use to bring to life the people who inhabit the macabre world of revolutionary France. Marie doesn’t just write her own story, she draws it – her pencil sketches of people, some of their body parts, and occasional objects, appear throughout the book.
Together they provide some of the most entertaining elements of Little. King Louis XVI for example becomes a man with ” a fleshy underchin and womanly breasts all of which he stroked from time to time with his pudgy, knuckless hands.” Dr Curtius looks to the young Marie like a skeleton when she first sees him lurking in the shadows:
…. a very thin, long man. So long his head nearly touched the ceiling. A pale ghostly face; the meagre candlelight in the room trembled about it, showing hollows in place of cheeks, showing moist eyes, showing small wisps of dark, greasy hair.
She’s an equally acute observer when she turns her eyes upon the streets of Paris. She’d been told to expect a city full of culture and great minds. But what she sees is a city crowded with desperation and poverty.
One day as I was coming back from the market, I saw a mound in a ditch, some heap of rubbish, but when I came closer I saw hair upon one end. A head, a female human head, grey and fallen in, a body lying dead in the street and all the people walking by i and paying it no heed. A person all stopped, collapsed and ignored; a person of indeterminate age that had once dressed itself and been among us. This is Paris, I thought. Dead people punctuating the streets and no one to care for them.
Carey tells his tale with relish. I don’t mean that he wallows in the guts and gore but that he gives Marie a personality that is hard to resist. Little is a fabulous book, ingenious, unforgettable and unputdownable.
Little by Edward Carey: End Notes
Edward Carey was inspired to write Little because of his experience working at the museum. Entertainment Weekly has an interesting interview in which he talks about his research and why it took him 15 years to write Little.
Little is published by Aardvark Bureau, part of the Gallic Books Collective
The novel was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2019