A little lady, living large
She was one of the nation’s first celebrities— a miniature human who hobnobbed with presidents, queens and Rockefellers.
P.T. Barnum showcased her in his American Museum, and her wedding knocked news of the Civil War off the front pages of newspapers.
In a remarkable, soaring novel about 19th-century sensation Mrs. Tom Thumb—a real-life dwarf born Mercy Lavinia (Vinnie) Warren Bump—author Melanie Benjamin fully inhabits this 32-inch woman, who took a nation by storm.
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb examines just how Vinnie became a global celebrity—a precursor to the current crop of stars who are famous for being famous. With no discernible talents other than her small stature and pleasant singing voice, Vinnie still managed to rise to unparalleled fame.
As portrayed by Benjamin, Vinnie was ambitious, business-savvy and desperate to escape her ordinary life as a Massachusetts schoolteacher.
She accepted an invitation to join a traveling curiosity show that drifted along the Mississippi in a ramshackle steamboat. When the escalating Civil War made that too dangerous, Vinnie returned home and immediately began marketing herself to the famous P.T. Barnum. Together, they plotted her introduction to New York society as “the queen of beauty.” Their deep connection and shared love of good publicity forms the emotional center of the story.
Even Vinnie’s 1863 marriage—to fellow dwarf General Tom Thumb—seemed more rooted in strategy than love. Benjamin depicts their relationship as cordial but platonic. Together, they traveled the world giving performances and meeting heads of state.
So how would Vinnie feel about Benjamin’s novel?
“She’d be coming on [book] tour with me!” Benjamin says with a laugh during a call to her home in Chicago. “She would be so thrilled to see her name in the public again. She just thrived on that attention and meeting new people. I always say she’d have her own reality show if she were alive now. And a Twitter account.”
This isn’t the first time Benjamin has imagined the voice of an iconic female. In her last novel, Alice I Have Been, she wrote about life after the rabbit hole for Alice in Wonderland.
Writing literature set in another time has its dangers—which, to Benjamin, is also its attraction.
“It does worry you,” she says of setting her stories in other periods. “You have to be very careful of language and be really concise. Say if I’m writing in the 19th century—contractions weren’t as prevalent. To me, that’s the fun part of historical fiction. Part of my nerdy-history personality helps out. I was one of those kids who on vacation loved to go to all the museums.”
Benjamin is an astonishingly self-assured writer, especially considering the fact that she didn’t start writing until her late 30s, when her two sons were in middle school.
“I just instinctively knew it would be impossible before that point,” she says. “I don’t know how young mothers do it. I was PTA president, a full-time mom, a room mother.”
It was an offhanded remark from a friend—who said she always thought Benjamin would be a writer—that spurred her to start writing essays and short stories. She began writing more after her children left for college (her oldest son just graduated from DePaul University and wants to be a comic book author, and her younger is a junior at Indiana University, who to her relief has secured himself “a nice summer job”). At this point, Benjamin does several book club appearances a week via Skype, and is embarking on a tour to support The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.
Book tours “take a surprisingly big amount of time,” Benjamin admits. “I’m thrilled to do them. I’m lucky to do them. I actually like it. But then, I also like putting on my sloppy writer clothes and hiding from the world. I enjoy both parts of the author life.”
Benjamin has a home office for the “hiding from the world” part of her job, but often finds herself roaming around the house with her laptop and doesn’t tie herself to one routine.
“I read. I watch movies. I go visit museums and wait for that inspiration to strike. Once I decide on a subject, I have to let it percolate for awhile and live with the character and really formulate the story and absorb the time period.”
Mission accomplished. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is a fascinating story of triumph and tragedy and one person who refused to live a small life. Part biography, with a healthy dollop of artistic liberty, it is a spellbinding tale from the Gilded Age that seems more relevant now than ever.