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The Inspiration For My Novel ‘Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice’, by Kathleen Benner Duble

My husband does a lot of interviewing. One of his favorite questions to ask is: “If you could have had two roommates, living or dead, who would they be and why?” My answer has always been Marie Antoinette and F. Scott Fitzgerald because they both were bigger than life. I always imagine we would have had quite the wild apartment.

My fascination with Marie Antoinette began years ago when I was sixteen. On a trip to Europe, my family and I visited Versailles, and the grandeur of the place overwhelmed me. The Hall of Mirrors, the Petite Hameau, the Grand Trianon – walking those corridors I could actually envision the young queen who danced nightly in bejeweled gowns only to lose her head to revolution. As a fan, I wanted to tell her story. As a writer, I knew I had to find a way to tell it that no one else had.

Enter Madame Tussaud. Most people don’t know her backstory, but it’s a fascinating one. Madame Tussuad’s mother was housekeeper to a man named Phillip Curtius, a wax worker. When Marie or Manon (as Madame Tussaud was then called) turned sixteen, Dr. Curtius began to teach her the process of this art. Eventually, Manon’s work came to the attention of the king and Manon was sent to Versailles to work with the king’s sister as an art tutor. She worked at Versailles on and off for over nine years until 1789 and the coming of the revolution. As with many others who worked for the king, Manon was arrested and found guilty of being a Royalist. In order to save her own neck, Manon was ordered to sculpt the heads of others beheaded at the guillotine. Those wax heads are still one of the main attractions at her museums worldwide.

When I read that story, I knew I had a great way of exploring the French Revolution. Here was a woman who had crossed paths with both sides of the issue. She’d worked at Versailles, but she’d also provided wax heads for the National Assembly. Using Madame Tussaud was going to be a perfect vehicle to explore the lifestyle of Marie Antoinette and the ensuing upheaval that consumed her.

Next I created a young apprentice as a way of making the story a book for young adults. I had seen a news piece once on a boy who had a photographic memory. I gave my young main character that same ability – a skill that would be invaluable to a wax maker with a museum known for its realistic displays. But I also made my main character a thief – a girl of the streets whose family perished due to the taxes imposed by the royal family. Her sympathies were strong for the poor of France.

Revolution is an interesting subject. While we celebrate the outcome of it, we often forget that freedom isn’t free, and that many people suffer and die in order to bring about that independence. Writing the story of Madame Tussaud with this apprentice gave me the chance to explore the two sides of revolution – the struggle for equality and the violence that often accompanies that fight.

In my book, my young protagonist is a freedom fighter, but she soon learns the hard facts about upheaval and new regimes. What starts out as her quest for freedom eventually dissolves into chaos. The ensuing conflict she feels over her beliefs and the process to achieve them was fascinating to explore.

So, though I was initially inspired by Marie Antoinette and had a grand time writing about the beauties of Versailles, by the end of the book I was equally moved by the men and women who took up that fight for equality.

I love writing a story that I think will affect me in one way only to be surprised to find I am changed and inspired in another. Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice was just such a book.


Kathleen Benner Duble’s author website:

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Kathleen Benner Duble was a monthly contributor for Writing Historical Novels during 2013. Click on the link to see her previous articles.


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