You've heard about the four-and-twenty blackbirds, but an 18-inch, 7-year-old boy, baked in a pie? The truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. It's not the pie but the seven-year-old who commands attention in Lord Minimus: The Extraordinary Life of Britain's Smallest Man, an engaging, poignant biography of a little man who had a little luck for the first 25 years of his life and ran short on it thereafter.

Born in 1619 to a butcher and his wife in a simple English village, Jeffrey Hudson caught the attention of the King's favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, not just for his dwarfism, but for the fact that he was "wholly proportionate and very good-looking." Desperate for royal attention, the Duke staged the pie presentation for the 15-year-old French queen of King Charles I. An enthusiastic lover of dogs and monkeys, Henrietta Marie took to her "little man" at once, and for the next 15 years the two were virtually inseparable.

It was a lovely life of dressing up and elegance, feasts, masques and opulence. Five paintings were made of Jeffrey, one by Van Dyke. But all too soon the idyll ended. In 1642 early flare-ups of the English Civil War forced the queen to leave London. For Jeffrey, the departure led to a whole new life. Commissioned a Captain of Horse, he may have seen battle. He eventually killed a man in a duel. Captured by pirates at sea, he was sold into slavery in North Africa, then released and returned to England after some 25 years (unaccountably a foot and a half taller). He died 12 years later, after being persecuted for his Catholicism.

Nick Page, author of The Tabloid Bible, makes good use of sketchy documentation in presenting this colorful life of triumphs and tragedies, contrasts and ironies. Much of his story is well-founded speculation, but his digressions into life at court, architecture, the English practice of buying back citizens enslaved by Barbary pirates, and the origin of the word "Tory," all offered with an appealing light touch, make this book a jewel of popular social history.

Maude McDaniel writes from Cumberland, Maryland
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