A Royal Likeness

Written by Christine Trent
Review by Diane Scott Lewis

Marguerite Ashby, daughter of a Frenchwoman, runs a doll shop in 1803 London. Married to her childhood sweetheart, she happily creates dolls for even the royal family. When a riot breaks out in the city, drunkards storm their shop. Angry at any French-linked citizens, they threaten her life. Her husband intervenes and is murdered. Marguerite is devastated and retreats to the countryside to find refuge. Marguerite’s haughty mother-in-law insists that Marguerite marry her dead husband’s feckless brother. To escape this horrible fate, and her suicidal thoughts, Marguerite joins Madame Tussaud’s wax figure exhibition, which then travels to Scotland. Taught by the formidable Marie Tussaud, Marguerite learns the art of wax working and meets famous people to make their wax effigies. But Marie’s partner has designs on Marguerite, and threatens to ruin Marie by calling in her debts.

To protect Marie, Marguerite marries the man, learns later he tricked her, but he drowns in a shipping accident where Marie loses many of her precious wax figures. Nevertheless, the two women prevail. The waxwork exhibition now famous, Prime Minister Pitt asks them to make a wax figure of Admiral Nelson. As Marie is busy, Marguerite is sent alone to accomplish this. Through a mishap, Marguerite is trapped on Nelson’s ship Victory as it sails into the Battle of Trafalgar. She must prove her courage and fight her attraction to one of Nelson’s aides.

Marguerite makes naïve choices—such as her bizarre second marriage—and has too many italicized inner thoughts. The author “tells” more than “shows” in her prose. But Marie Tussaud and her exploits are intriguing. The historical descriptions are well done. The wax-working details are fascinating, as are the gritty details of the naval ship and the epic battle that changed history.