Review: Thuy Onon Belinda Lyons-Lee

Grotesque Mannequins

The Mechanical Piece of Art in EVERY respect is the world’s first HUMAN WAX AUTOMATON, endowed with the intuitive Power of attending to the Thoughts of the Company. The world’s greatest magician, mesmeriser and communer with the dead will unveil this Piece of Art for the FIRST time to the London public.

Such is the 1810 playbill for the show Phantasmagoria, as conceived and designed by Paul Philidor in collaboration with Marie Tussaud. He’s a stage magician and rumoured necromancer who trades on lifting the thin veil that separates the dead from the living; she’s best known for her work to come, the Chamber of Horrors, a gory collection of effigies of notorious criminals and murderers on display for the titillation of the paying public.

In Tussaud, her debut novel, Belinda Lyons-Lee does not deal solely with these grotesque mannequins but also goes further back in time to explore their creators’ formative years. Her novel is a fabulist concoction of the real and the imaginary, a wildly theatrical gambit that’s playful in its exploration of deception, betrayal and power. Philidor and Tussaud are both historical figures – and the author adds to their biographies imaginative flourishes of her own. The eerie wax and steel creatures of Tussaud are much lovelier versions of Frankenstein’s monster. And yet the novel brings surprising answers both to familiar questions about the limits of scientific creation, and to familiar tropes of the gothic and paranormal.

Before we get to Phantasmagoria’s optical illusions and the promised mechanical piece of art, a precursor to our modern-day robots, the Prologue of Tussaud takes us back to 1794, to the Place de Concorde, where the French Revolution ‘that had begun with murmurings had grown like a swollen river into shouts and slaughter.’ Although she considers herself an artiste, removed from petty politics, wanting only to create and entertain, Marie Tussaud is nonetheless arrested on suspicion of being a royal sympathiser because she had wax figures of aristocrats in her shop window. Imprisoned for twelve weeks, her hair is shaved in expectation of execution. Her uncle Curtius’ influential connections manage to save her neck, but the reprieve comes with one condition: she is to make death masks of the other less fortunate victims. She is to collect decapitated heads in her basket and to render them in wax art so they can be paraded on the street. As a resigned Tussaud murmurs, ‘the Revolutionaries want to use my skills to boast of their murders.’

Ten years after the Revolution Tussaud is still clattering around in a house full of both real and wax heads in France, and this is where the magician Philidor finds her. He lures Tussaud to England and engages her to help him build and showcase the world’s first human wax automaton; he is to work on the mechanical skeleton, she is to toil on the exterior. Together, their skills will produce a likeness of someone famous enough to beguile the audience.

Lyons-Lee imagines the figure of Marie Antoinette birthed into this intriguing set up. Dressed in a silver gown, with a pearl-encrusted comb and a silver ribbon in her hair, the automaton is the embodiment of the last Queen of France. She’s meticulously crafted from the death mask of the deposed monarch. Designed to follow a predetermined sequence of operations and to respond to encoded instructions, this uncanny combination of wax and clockwork is able to stand upright, nod, smile and shake its head in response to random questions from the audience, ‘Is Billy dead? Will my horse win? Have I lost my love?’

The macabre quotient is cranked up. After an hour or so, disaster strikes. The weather is unseasonably warm. The show lasts longer than planned and the fascinated audience paws the mannequin. One warm hand too many on her cheeck will cause a hole to open ‘to become a gaping wound revealing the cogs, wheels and wires that formed her skull, whirring, grinding and ticking loudly.’ Antoinette will have a literal meltdown. The exposure of her metal cage head and glossy eyeballs ignites uproar; there is fainting and consternation at such slipshod workmanship.

Their reputations besmirched, subsequent shows cancelled and fortunes lost, Philidor and Tussaud must seek their fortunes anew. It’s with curiosity and gratitude that they respond to a secret and most unusual proposition from William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Portland, in his ancestral home, Welbeck. Here, Lyons-Lee’s historical research and free-range imagination make for a potent brew.

The reclusive eccentric commissions Philidor and Tussaud to make him a bespoke wax creation of his own specification and design. He will finance all the materials, offer them temporary board in his estate during the duration of the work and certain rooms and facilities with which to stage their new and improved show.

And in return? His request is a life-size model of the ethereal Elanor, anatomically correct no less. She was his childhood sweetheart, and the mystery of her disappearance at the age of 16 lies at the heart of the novel. This daughter of tenant farmers is now considered dead. Her simulation is not for public display but for the Duke’s private use. For reasons not readily apparent, it is forgiveness and peace he wants from this creature.

He lives in solitary grief within the splendour of his estate. Once used as a monastery, Welbeck has tall iron gates, a stone lion atop a pedestal on each side that’s forever petrified in a silent roar, a roof lined with turrets like a medieval fort, a grand staircase and a chandelier. If that’s not grandiose enough, there are three libraries, a ballroom, billiard and museum and over fifteen miles of underground tunnels. All the rooms are painted pink. The extensive grounds with their surrounding forest include stables, grotto, chapel, and orchards. There are also topiary trees shaped into ancient mythical creatures, including a Sphinx and a Cerberus. The entire architectural set up is pure Gothic splendour.

The creation of the bewitching Elanor, even more life-like than Marie-Antoinette, is the novel’s masterstroke, and it brings rumblings of otherworldly strangeness to novel’s sustained tone of hallucinatory fervour. Philidor and Tussaud have learned from their previous mistakes with the easily-damaged Antoinette. Once complete the Elanor creation is uncannily vivid; it seems breath might escape from her lips. Existing as she seems to do, between a ghoulish reality and a mordant playfulness, (remember, the ‘real’ character is presumed dead), Elanor leads Tussaud’s exploration into the thin line between life and death.

Elanor may be an invention of Lyons-Lee but the Duke of Cavendish, a former British army officer, and his stately mansion and underground maze, have real counterparts. Welbeck Abbey is still standing. As for Cavendish, in fiction, as, apparently, in real life, he abhors company, keeps a small retinue to attend upon his needs and forbids anyone to look at or talk to him directly. He communicates via messages placed in a brass box facilitated by his valet.

His oddities make him an ideal character to insert into a book about strange and supernatural shenanigans and indeed, Lyons-Lee has a lot of fun exploiting Gothic tropes in Tussaud. Aside from the obvious references to Mary Shelley, she also pays homage to authors like Wilkie Collins, Daphne du Maurier and Edgar Allan Poe.

At times, reading this novel feels like riding a ghost train; one waits for ghouls to jump out from dark, cobwebby corners. There are groans on the timber stairs, noises in empty corridors and servants creeping about. The portrait of the Duke’s father is constantly askew, and sealed rooms, forbidden thresholds, labyrinthine tunnels and a locked cavern with a shrine heighten the atmosphere. Waxy Elanor is transported in a box shaped like a coffin and Philidor has an arch nemesis, the Great Pinetti, Professor of Natural Magic, who also specialises in raising ghosts and necromantic rituals. There’s a mantelpiece with purported magical powers and also wildflowers called ‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’ that aren’t supposed to have a scent but nonetheless evoke decay. Of course there are storms and shadowy figures hiding beneath the foliage. But despite these portents of wonder, terror and death, the book is underpinned with a more nuanced emotional realism. Lyons-Lee’s characterisation is astute enough to make a reader care about what happens to her motley crew, whether they are historical figures or inventions, or a combination of both.

The novel moves between the present and Philidor and Tussaud’s dramatic childhoods, as well as taking detours to the Duke’s battlefield trauma. In due course it will reveal the darkness from whence Philidor’s sleight-of-hand tricks and golden voice developed, how Tussaud’s growing interest in anatomy and wax replication were fostered; and how Cavendish’s military experience affected his psyche. These backstories are woven into a narrative that travels to and from Paris and London. Lyons-Lee is careful to show the squalor beneath the Regency glamour. Carriage rides reek of the fetid waters of the Thames, the smell of unwashed bodies mingles with Tussaud’s fine French perfume. The extravagance of the Duke’s estate is in stark contrast to the sorry sight of women selling themselves for gin, ‘wretches … who crawled into the gloom of doorways and corners to curl up and waste away in soft grey clouds of rags and sighs.’ This is a world of fraud, gambling and prostitution, of social climbing and of leveraging power in the smoky rooms of gentlemen’s clubs.

It’s also very much a man’s world; it’s men who determine the place of every woman in this novel. As Tussaud’s husband is a ne’er-do-well drunkard and philanderer, she has had to fend for herself and her sons. It’s why she entered into the uneasy partnership with Philidor, even though he proves time and time again to be untrustworthy. He’s long been able to mask his inferior birth with his educated facade and suave showmanship. He’s already skilful at deceiving the masses. Their need for one another is symbiotic; without her he’s nothing but an amateur magician, but without him, she’s ‘a madwoman stuck in a house of heads’. Still, her gender means she’s considered ill-equipped to handle business matters and has to constantly argue for fair income distribution. There’s also the matter of fighting the magician for a reprint when her name is either not on the playbill, or tucked away ‘like a black mouse in the bottom corner’ while Philidor’s name is writ large in red and gold.

Outside of Tussaud’s particular experience, Lyons-Lee paints a dismal but historically accurate representation of the status of women in the early nineteenth century. When they are not being threatened with expulsion to the lunatic asylum for an unseemly outburst of ‘hysteria’, women are treated as sexual playthings, useful for satiating hunger or maybe as a means of elevating status if they belong to the right circles. Harriet, the 18-year-old maid of Welbeck, is vulnerable to assault from the valet. Druce, the housekeeper at Tussaud’s and Philidor’s old digs in Baker Street, earns a subsidiary income by renting out her body. Although those who solicit her are ashamed of themselves and disgusted by her, they still take advantage of her poverty. Even wax dolls are not safe from being soiled by lustful men.

This novel, however, is about reinvention, second chances, secrets, blackmail, counterattacks, and alter egos. No one is quite who they seem. Philidor may be arrogant and duplicitous – but his sidekick has a few tricks of her own. By creating a Marie Tussaud who uses her wits against men determined to sideline or outmanoeuvre her, Lyons-Lee has herself fashioned a protagonist as wily as any conjurer. Beneath the soft folds of her voluminous dresses is a determination as steely as the framework of her automatons.

Even so, the author misses the opportunity to explore Tussaud’s psychological condition more expansively. I found myself pondering the mental health of someone who’s forced to handle the severed heads of the recently executed, and even more distressing, the heads of French royalty who purportedly were patrons of her work. Many questions are left unanswered. What prompted her to resume her business of waxworks post-Revolution, even after her role as death mask artist is discharged? What delusions or fracturing of reality would she have had to endure to continue with her decision to fabricate simulacra? Was she motivated purely by money – or by the obsession of perfecting her art? After all, ever since she was a young woman, she’d been working under her physician uncle’s tutelage with cadavers and their wax renderings to better understand the human body.

This is a novel that behaves at times like a garish thriller, with a fast-paced, labyrinthine plot and a colourful crew of people chasing love, fame, and money. From the blood of the beheaded in the opening to the violent altercations at the end ages, Lyons-Lee keeps up a frenetic momentum, following her three leading cast members as they zig-zag across the estate, ducking in and out of tunnels, double and triple-crossing one another as they fall in thrall to an exquisite human wax automaton. It’s a bumpy, exhilarating ride, and the writing is astute, and often elegant.

Lyons-Lee takes liberties when it comes to real-life characters and locations but Tussaud is unabashedly a melodrama not an historical tract. The melding of the imaginative and the historical is a kind of provocation that’s likely to prompt biographical checks just to figure out which character, plotline or setting have been embellished, changed, or constructed entirely anew. Tussaud may even send readers back to classic Gothic fiction. But what saves Tussaud from being a genre set piece is the presentation of Marie Tussaud as a figure of feminist reckoning. The striving and resourcefulness of this wax maker extraordinaire give this unusual novel unexpected contemporary resonance.

Published May 24, 2021
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Thuy On

Thuy On is a Melbourne-based freelance arts journalist/critic. She’s written for a variety of...

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