The world of carny and the march of progress
This is a terrific piece of narrative biography, novelised biography. Melanie Benjamin has done a lot of research into the whole phenomenon of Victorian freakshows, and, in particular, into the life of one particular `freak’ who just refused to be demeaned in that way – Lavinia Warren Bump, who married `General’ Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) and was, for a time, a huge celebrity, meeting presidents and Queens, courted by the glamorous, and hyped up and sold by showman P.T.Barnum.
With modern sensibilities we may absolutely wince at the displaying and exploiting of other human beings because of their physical deviation from the norm. Well we might – but maybe we haven’t moved so far from gawping and goggling and de-humanising – witness the freak show quality of some of our rubber-necking TV, Embarrassing Bodies and the like.
Barnum, an astute business man was actually kinder and more humane than many of his fellows, by all accounts treating his unusually tall/small/bendy and the like employees with some respect, rather than purely as something less than human.
In fleshing out Lavinia Warren, who seems, by all accounts to have been a determined, fiercely intelligent young woman of any time – never mind her own time with its extremely restrictive ideas of what a woman could be and should be – the undercurrent of the American Civil War and the fact that a huge number of America’s people were de-humanised, and seen as less than human, Benjamin makes us think about more than just a particular woman’s story.
But don’t think this is dull, worthy polemic. Benjamin, and of course her authorial voice given expression by her engaging, forthright, witty central character, is a rollicking, energetic, knows-how-to-tell-a-good-story writer
The reader gets to absorb American mid nineteenth century politics and sociology , the march of communications and technology – railways, telegraphs, and electric lighting through a thumping good story, told with verve, vim, vigour and all those other expansionist, dynamic, vibrant qualities. Good stuff!