The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
Passionate, strong women intrigue author Melanie Benjamin so much that she is compelled to tell their stories. First, she took on the enormous task of bringing the real Alice in Wonderland, Alice Liddell Hargreaves, to life in Alice I Have Been, a national bestseller. We are lucky that Benjamin was not content to stop with Alice. While reading E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Benjamin came across a brief reference to Lavinia Warren Stratton. She filed this name away in her brain but would ultimately come back to it months later while researching possible subjects for her next novel. The name jumped out at Benjamin again, and she conducted a further search. Benjamin knew she had her girl. I hate to think how deprived we would be of this incredible woman if she had chosen someone else.
Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump (“Vinnie”) was born in October 31, 1841, in Massachusetts. Benjamin opens the book as Vinnie herself would, with an accounting of her ancestry. Vinnie’s mother loved to tell whoever would listen that she was could trace her people back to the Mayflower. Interestingly, Vinnie goes on to do the same throughout the book.
As an adult, Vinnie grew to two feet, eight inches tall, yet she was larger than life, as Benjamin recounts. Only her younger sister, Minnie, shared her diminutive stature; her other family members were of normal size. Vinnie and Minnie suffered from a pituitary disorder called proportionate dwarfism, which would be treated today with human growth hormones. Thus, from a very young age, her family knows Vinnie is different, and they feel as if they must protect her from the outside world. In the mid-nineteenth century, few careers were open to women. Vinnie is doubly handicapped, then. Not only is she a female during this time, but she is also what many consider an “oddity.” Vinnie becomes a teacher for a time, but this girl has a case of wanderlust. She will not be content to stay in Massachusetts, where she feels her family smothers her. She never wants to be burdensome to them.
Fate soon arrives on the Bump doorstep in the form of Colonel Wood, who is a distant cousin. He lures Vinnie with, what turns out, empty promises. Vinnie performs on a riverboat freak show as it travels the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, yet this life is not what she envisioned. Wood is cruel, hateful, and predatory. The coming of the Civil War allows Vinnie to escape from Wood’s clutches and rejoin her family. Vinnie is safe in the cocoon of home for a time, but that wanderlust returns. She cannot help but write to P.T. Barnum, that famous man who discovered her idol, Jenny Lind, and who runs the American Museum. He answers her missive. Soon, Vinnie is under contract with Barnum. It is under Barnum’s tutelage that Vinnie thrives.
Barnum, pulling yet another “humbug,” introduces her to Charles Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb. The nuptials of Mr. and Mrs. Tom Thumb become the wedding of the century and a boon for Barnum. Husband and wife tour the country and later the world. It is amazing how much history Vinnie sees and lives, from railroads, riverboats, wars, battles, presidents, royalty, to a big fire. Benjamin, in effect, takes readers on a historical journey of America from the 1850s to the 1880s, showing the enormous research she did for this novel.
Everyone loves the diminutive couple, especially Vinnie, the “Little Queen of Beauty.” Vinnie is a fully-formed woman in miniature. She has good manners, grace, elegance, and good breeding, which, as previously stated, she is fond of mentioning. She is different from other “grotesque” oddities. Neither Mrs. Astor nor Mrs. Vanderbilt would have had them to dinner or bestowed lavish gifts on them. Vinnie is unique; she is like them, but in miniature.
I am happy that Benjamin wrote this novel in the first person because it allows the reader to really get into Vinnie’s head. We experience her hopes and fears, such as her dread of procreation and giving birth. We, too, want to protect her sister, Minnie, from unpleasantness.
An interesting thing occurred mid-way through the novel. Vinnie begins falling in love with Barnum. I saw this coming. Of course she falls in love with P.T. Barnum. How could she not? He is the only fully-formed man who looks at her without pity, without curiosity. He matches her intellect and her wit, her everything. I admit that I, too, fell in love with Barnum.
In a September 9, 2011, Twitter lit chat with the author, Benjamin revealed that Vinnie’s descendants came to meet her at book signings. They were thrilled, as they should be. In fact, it is my belief that Vinnie would be quite pleased with The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb. Throughout her life, Vinnie desperately wanted not to be forgotten. She got what she wanted: she will always be remembered.
Benjamin uses real people and real events in her book. She takes facts and imagines the rest, yet everything is always utterly plausible and believable. Readers will forget Vinnie is not actually telling the story herself. Benjamin is just that good!
A popular subject currently in the literary world is the circus. Circus books are everywhere, such as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie to name a few. Vinnie makes The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb stand head and shoulders above the rest.