Having written some tourism-boosting articles about southeastern Massachusetts in my younger days, I was aware that Mr. & Mrs. Tom Thumb were “claims to fame” in nearby Middleborough. But that’s about all I knew until I read Melanie Benjamin’s vividly imagined novel The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.
Lavinia (“Vinnie”) Warren Bump was born in 1841 to a modest farming family; her mother could (and frequently did) trace her roots to the Warrens of the Mayflower. Vinnie’s intelligence and ambition far surpassed her diminutive stature of thirty-two inches. Resisting her parents’ desire to shield her, she insisted on attending school with her average-sized siblings, and then progressed to becoming the town’s teacher. She quickly realized, however, that the vocation of spinster schoolmarm would not satisfy her dreams for a life filled with adventure and meaning.
Through a partnership with P.T. Barnum and her subsequent marriage to Barnum’s star performer, General Tom Thumb, Vinnie parlayed her size and her talents into a remarkable career. She had countless fans, traveled the world, and earned the admiration of presidents, royalty, and members of high society. She also experienced her share of unhappiness, in relationships and in her own sense of self.
In Vinnie, Benjamin has created a captivating character who weaves the story of nineteenth-century America—the disruptions of the Civil War, the fascination with emerging technologies—into her own narrative. Mrs. Tom Thumb truly was “in the right place at the right time” to achieve an unusual kind of fame.