It should have been Marie Tussaud’s greatest success. An automaton, rendered lifelike through her waxworking skills. It would stand, walk, elegantly wave a fan. Even sweeter that it should be Marie Antoinette; the French Revolution had cost both queen and artist plenty.
But when her business partner, a magician named Philidor, ignores her instructions, the show falls apart. Marie Antoinette is ruined, and Phantasmagoria is cancelled even before the curtain falls on opening night.
And yet, a man in the audience sees something special in the show. A proposition is placed before Tussaud and Philidor. An eccentric duke, living in isolation at the sprawling Welbeck Abbey, has a commission for them. An automaton of his own, built to his exact specifications. In return, a small fortune, and the opportunity to craft a new show, hosted in the underground ballroom of Welbeck itself.
Once settled at the estate, however, things begin to take a dark turn. Tensions with Philidor are high. And bound by the Duke of Portland’s strange rules, and his unnervingly precise list of requests for his automaton, Marie can’t quite shake the feeling that something is dreadfully wrong at Welbeck Abbey.
Tussaud is the debut novel from Belinda Lyons-Lee, and, right from the off, its a delightfully twisty tale. Combining historical figures and locations with a fictional story that owes as much to The Woman in White as it does to Frankenstein, the end result is a Gothic mystery that, for the most part, plays out well.
There’s something inherently spooky about the inclusion of Marie Tussaud herself, famous for her death masks and her Chamber of Horrors. Add that to the well crafted atmosphere and the eerie locations (Welbeck Abbey and its underground ballroom actually exist), you’d be forgiven for thinking this one might choose to lean towards the supernatural. But what this really feels – and reads – like, is a traditional sensation novel.
Popular in the 1860s and 1870s, you could expect a page-turning blend of melodrama, social commentary, and Gothic influence. And that’s exactly what you get here in Tussaud.
Marie herself provides much of the fuel for social commentary – her positions as a woman, as an artist, and as a business partner are all examined closely – while plotlines involving missing girls, feuding brothers, forged letters, and tortured souls tick plenty of boxes in the melodrama and Gothic camps.
While it’s a huge amount of fun trying to put all the pieces together, Tussaud also has its share of missteps. The question of Marie’s emotional stability – or lack thereof – is never really put to rest, though its an on and off plot point throughout. A passing suggestion of the paranormal is made right at the end; but it just feels like a way to explain a few visual choices that the author perhaps couldn’t bear to part with. And the occasional reveal falls a little flat in delivery, either from lack of set-up or just curious placement in a plot that is already so full of twists and turns.
That said, Lyons-Lee can absolutely craft a ripping yarn. Historical license has absolutely been taken, but the amount of research poured into Tussaud is undeniable. A fine choice for fans of traditional historical fiction, as well as those searching for something a little more eerie.
Belinda Lyons-Lee‘s Tussaud is out now, published by Transit Lounge