Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb

The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb
By Melanie Benjamin

Anyone who has heard me read my short story “Dwarves without Giants” ( will immediately understand why I picked this book up; researching P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and its destruction by fire, one cannot help coming across his star performers, which Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump (billed as Mrs Tom Thumb; referred to in society as Mrs Charles Stratton; called “Vinnie” by friends) certainly was.  One likes to show a certain solidarity with those writing on similar topics, and even with a similar style; I recognize that any criticism of Benjamin is likely to be criticism of my own style of writing, for the two resemble each other greatly (it seems to me).  Therefore, with the greatest respect, I say it was enjoyable read that never quite kicked into its highest gear, for me at least.  

This is entirely my opinion, but I believe a story like Lavinia Warren’s (or, for that matter, Anna Swan’s) should be told in something other than a linear narrative, if it is going to be sustained over a long period of time (ie, novel-length) and if it is going to be told in first-person.  Why?  Otherwise, it risks a pace that ranges from sedate to plodding, with all the twists and turns signposted miles ahead of their appearance.  Never display the gun on the mantelpiece if you’re not going to use it; to that end, the early introduction of Carlotta’s “prevention powders” signalled the inevitable doom associated with sex, pregnancy, and rape, one of the novel’s obsessions. 

The Autobiography shies away from potential firestorms of conflict in some of the oddest moments.  When a very young Vinnie becomes a schoolteacher (successfully!) in her native New England, the experience is related and then dropped without much reflection.  I was bemused when the 1865 fire was so glossed over, but I understood the need for it when a much more emotionally damaging fire occurred for Charles and Lavinia in Chicago in 1883.  This was the highlight of the book, and unfortunately the narrative quickly sunk into torpor again after it was over. 

It’s impossible not to see the parallels between The Autobiography and “Dwarves without Giants”; the title of the latter seems to anticipate the friendship between Sylvia the giant and Vinnie the “fairy woman.”  As “Dwarves without Giants” contained an unrequited love affair between Anna and Barnum, Vinnie and Barnum in The Autobiography share an unspoken but reciprocated (almost screwball-esque) relationship.   I can only conclude that Benjamin, like me, found Barnum a magnetizing presence, despite the fact he could hardly appeal as a romantic hero, at least conventionally. 

One reviewer commented on how the book was able to deftly combine historical research and narrative, and while I don’t always agree (Benjamin, perhaps, has the opposite problem to me—I tend to flaunt my research, while in some cases I was never convinced by the authenticity of the voice) I think Vinnie is presented, mostly, as a person of her time:  that is, a Victorian from the other side of the Atlantic. 
“Very few people marry whom they truly want, do they?”  I looked at him levelly.  He did not contradict me. . .  .” We all have to settle for something—less eventually.  Don’t we?” 

The marriages in this book, particularly that between Charles Stratton and Vinnie, represent the almost decorative quality of a proper marriage of the period, where absorbing Vinnie’s unmarried sister Minnie into the bosom of the marriage wouldn’t cause a batted eyelid.   Vinnie’s restless pursuit of “something more” might occasionally seem too modern to be espoused, but I like it, for I can identify with it. 

The problem with The Autobiography, in my opinion, was that it was too safe.  How can that be possible, you wonder, when it deals with violence, travel, death, traumatic birthing scenes, and the constant spectre of rape?  Despite the fact that Benjamin thinks the real autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb flitted over the tragedies of her life, the novel seems to flirt with big, searching scenes without properly delving into them.   

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