Melanie Benjamin has a real gift for taking the stories of women hidden by history and bringing them to life in fiction, and as I think that’s one of the best reasons for writing and reading historical fiction, I’m always glad to hear she’s written a book. I enjoyed her novel Alice I Have Been a couple of years ago, and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb has been on my radar ever since it came out.
I think I’ve known the name “Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump” for as long as I can remember (it’s not a name you’d forget). I’ve read a lot of brief references to the famous nineteenth-century little person, General Tom Thumb (obviously that was his stage name; his real name was Charles Stratton) and his wife, who generally went by the name Lavinia Warren. Both were major celebrities in late nineteenth-century America and travelled widely under the management of the famous P.T. Barnum.
This new novel does a wonderful job of bringing Lavinia to life as a strong-willed, feisty, determined woman — a small woman who wanted a larger life. As an unmarried middle-class woman with a difference that would be perceived by most as a disability, Lavinia had already exceeded the options that were supposed to be open to a person of her sex, class and size when she became the teacher in her village schoolhouse. But Lavinia wanted more, and despite the worries and disapproval of her family, she found it when she seized a rather shady opportunity to join a travelling riverboat show. Her role was intended to be that of freak-show oddity, but her own determination, talent, and sense of her personal dignity elevated her to the status of a bona fide performer — though always, as she was well aware, it was her unusual stature that was the draw.
From there, Benjamin traces Lavinia’s journey into the world of Barnum, whose patronage, in this version, she actively pursues. It was her association with Barnum and her marriage, entirely engineered by Barnum, that made Lavinia a real celebrity (and, for a time at least, a wealthy one). I was particularly interested in reading how Benjamin would portray the marriage. In the propaganda of the time it was, of course, billed as a romantic love match, but I’ve always thought it must have been as much an arranged marriage as any royal wedding. What are the odds that these two people, both famous for being about three feet tall, should just happen to be perfectly compatible and fall in love with each other? How much more likely is it that they were pre-selected and paired off for maximum publicity value — and if so, what sort of marriage might have been?
As it’s developed in this novel, the Tom Thumb/Lavinia marriage is pretty much arranged as I’d imagined it must have been, and while not bitterly unhappy, is certainly not a love match either. Lavinia is a very practical character, who recognizes the opportunities this marriage opens to her as well as the dangers it presents. As Melanie Benjamin admits in the Afterword (and as is evident from the book), her main interest was not in the relationship between Lavinia and her husband but between Lavinia and P.T. Barnum, and that unlikely friendship — a friendship with undercurrents of distrust and exploitation — forms the emotional core of the book.
This is also the reason, according to the author, why the book ends midway through Lavinia’s life, with the death of Charles Stratton and the end of a long-standing breach in Lavinia’s friendship with Barnum. While I understood the literary reasons for making this choice, I found it frustrating as a reader — I wanted to know the whole story, including the tale of Lavinia’s second marriage and whether it brought her anymore personal happiness than the first. While I’m sure Melanie Benjamin would have had to imagine the answers (Lavinia’s own autobiographical notes are apparently very coy when it comes to her personal feelings about anything), I would have entirely trusted her to make the story of Lavinia’s later life as compelling as that of her early life. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is a wonderful tour through the world of circuses, sideshows, and high society in late 1800s America (the vivid recreation of that world reminded me in some ways of Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows), but most importantly, it’s a compelling and believable picture of a woman, while smaller than average, was definitely larger than life.
As a side note, I was reading some interviews with Benjamin and noticed that not only is she an excellent writer, she also has terrific taste in the books she reads, as she recommends my local hero Michael Crummey’s book Galore, which you may remember was my favourite book of 2009. I get ridiculously excited when someone from outside Newfoundland draws attention to one of our great local writers, so that was a bonus that added to my admiration for Melanie Benjamin. Clearly, she knows good historical fiction, and I’m very much looking forward to her 2013 release, The Ambassador’s Daughter, about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. [NOTE: At the time I wrote this review I had seen notices online that Benjamin’s book on Lindbergh was going to be called The Ambassador’s Daughter, but it is actually titled The Aviator’s Wife (Feb. 2013)].