The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Benjamin’s1 novel about the very real Lavinia Warren Stratton struck me as a quick but engaging read; the author has done enough research about her heroine and the era to make this a reasonably accurate description of the time, circus/touring life, and the real characters described herein.

Born a normal sized baby, Mercy Lavinia Bump stopped growing at 32″. A determined intelligent woman, she was determined to make something of herself, to support herself in a time when there were few options for women of a normal size: housewife, schoolteacher or remain with your parents about summed up the options. She began as a schoolteacher at the two room schoolhouse in her home town, but wanted to make more of herself. Despite not wanting her height to define her, she made a living exhibiting herself to those interested in gawping at first a miniature woman, then working with P.T. Barnum, a miniature couple. (She married Barnum’s protege, Tom Thumb.) She began her time in show business contracted to a “cousin”, working in a precursor to the side shows of today: a collection of unusual people performing on a riverboat running up and down the Mississippi. When he proved to be a cad and no gentleman, and as the Civil War broke out, Lavinia retreated to her home. Show business, and the desire to become more than a small town girl, had gotten into her blood, so despite her poor experience with the Colonel, she contacted P.T. Barnum. He hired her, promoted her and slipped her into the beau monde. This first adulation, though sweet, does not last; the world moves on to the next fad, and the Strattons are reduced (in Vinnie’s eyes) to touring as part of Barnum’s larger circus, rather than as the sole attraction, and then to scrabbling together tours on their own. The book ends shortly after the death of Mr. Stratton.

Disappointingly, this isn’t the complete story of ‘Vinnie’s’ life; Benjamin ends shortly after the death of Tom Thumb, while Vinnie not only lived another 40 years but remarried and exhibited herself in order to support herself during the remainder of her life. It’s written as a modern take on a Victorian mindset, and so might not appeal to those who like purely modern or Victorian books. Vinnie and Charles Stratton are described with a minimum of glurge, though, and the description of what it must be like to live as a midget in a culture which accepted pointing and laughing at the markedly different among us fascinated me.

What to read next? Possibly Like Water for Elephants, if you liked the descriptions of circus life. Possibly Ragtime, if stories about the Gilded Age.


1pseudonym for Melanie Hauser


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