Edward Carey’s ‘Little’

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Among the contributors to the short story anthology that’s being published by English Heritage this month, is Edward Carey. When I saw his name on the list of writers responding to some of the English Heritage sites with mythic/folkloric associations, I recalled reading a glowing review for his novel Little. I duly acquired a copy and read it.

Edward is both a writer and an artist. He makes images to accompany his novels. Little, illustrated throughout with many drawings, is a staggering feat of research married to imagination, a compelling, page-turning history of Anne Marie Grosholtz, better known today – thanks to waxworks attractions around the globe bearing her name – as Madame Tussaud.

The book nailed my attention. Here was a writer who’d uncannily entered the mind of a known eighteenth century woman, channeling her into a first person account with her character fully formed and vibrant throughout the narrative. The Marie of Carey’s Little feels utterly real and present. Moreover he magnificently and dreadfully sets her down in that bloodiest period of civil unrest, the Revolution. A clammy sense of dread pervades the second half of the book as Paris sinks into malign chaos. The aristocrats and their supporters may have been the first to be rounded up and executed, but in the ensuing upheavals of rival factions, civil dissolution and score-settling, you could go to the guillotine at the whim of a jealous neighbour because you’d violated a dress-code. The world had turned in on itself and gone mad.

It’s been said that in later life – and with her waxworks a famous attraction in London – Marie Tussaud’s published account of her early life may have stretched the facts to better make a story. She claimed to have been a teacher of art to the King’s young sister Elizabeth, living for nine years by invitation of the royal family in the palace of Versailles. She claimed to have known the King and Queen. Later, back in Paris in the cataclysmic turmoil of ‘la Terreur’, the story goes that she was forced to take plaster casts from the decapitated heads of people she had once known in order to make wax effigies of them to be displayed and ridiculed. Whatever the truth of that, Carey makes the idea viscerally plausible, and his accounts of what it must have been like to carry out such grim work are convincingly and startlingly detailed. If Marie Tussaud – a great show-woman and self-promoter – did partially manufacture her history, adding a darker lustre to justify the more outrageous elements of her waxworks attraction, then Carey has done a magnificent job of adding flesh to the bones. She owes him a huge debt of gratitude, because she’s now going to be better known as the Marie of Little, than as the Madame Tussaud of her biography. He’s even made her portrait for the book in a pastiche of her times, which will now be the one I feel most truly represents her.

 

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Ed’s short story for the English Heritage collection gave me wonderful inspiration for the illustration I made to accompany it. A few weeks after I’d completed and submitted it, the editor Katherine Davey told me that he’d asked her to pass on how much he liked the image, and enquire whether I’d agree to be contacted by him. We started e-mailing each other almost immediately, and we’ve been e-mailing ever since. We’ve exchanged drawings. I’m now the owner of a delicate pencil image he made for Little, one of many in the book which are supposed to be the work of Marie’s hand. By way of exchange Ed has the drawing of a ‘goblin child’ I made for his title story of the English Heritage anthology, These Our Monsters.

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It’s a wonderful swop. I particularly like that the drawing I have is of a model of Marie created – in the novel – by the young man she loves. It’s a rather grotesque wooden doll that could be mistaken for Mr Punch’s Judy, so it couldn’t have been better chosen for me given my passion for puppets. What a happy experience working on this project has been, and what a lovely drawing transaction.

 

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