The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

The Aviator's Wife Melanie Benjamin picks such interesting subjects for her novels, introducing us to historical figures who, despite their significance, we may not know much about: first Alice Liddell, the inspiration behind Alice in Wonderland, then Lavinia Warren or ‘Mrs Tom Thumb’, and now Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh.

We first meet Anne Morrow, daughter of the US ambassador to Mexico, in 1927 at a reception attended by Charles Lindbergh who has recently completed his first solo flight across the Atlantic. Everyone expects Lindbergh to be drawn to Anne’s beautiful older sister, Elizabeth, but instead it is the shy, quiet Anne who catches his eye and when he takes her up in his plane for a private flight, she finds that she shares his love of flying. Soon Lindbergh proposes and Anne accepts, but she quickly discovers that being married to one of the most famous men in America is not going to be easy.

Before reading this book I had heard of the Lindberghs but knew almost nothing about them so, for me, The Aviator’s Wife was very educational as well as being an enjoyable story. I’ve never given much thought as to what being an aviator actually involved and it was interesting to see how the Lindberghs use their roles as aviators to perform a range of useful and varied tasks including charting new routes and mapping flight paths for passenger planes, flying over places of interest to take aerial photographs, and delivering aid to disaster zones. Flying in those early aircraft must have been an amazing experience – the description of Anne’s first flight with Lindbergh is wonderfully written and sounds both terrifying and exhilarating.

This book gives us some fascinating insights into what it is like to be a celebrity. The Lindberghs have very little privacy and everything they do attracts attention from the world’s media. They are followed by reporters and photographers everywhere they go, though as quiet, reserved people neither Charles nor Anne seem very comfortable with being constantly in the spotlight. Charles has already learned to deal with it in his own way, but Anne often finds it difficult. Their fame eventually leads to tragedy – I won’t go into details here (if you’re familiar with the Lindberghs’ lives you will know what this tragedy was and if not I won’t spoil the story for you) but this part of the book was heartbreaking and made even worse by the fact that the way Charles chose to deal with the disaster was completely inadequate.

The relationship between Anne and Charles becomes more and more tense and strained as the years go by, but even as Charles grows increasingly cold and distant, Anne tries to stay loyal to her husband and is supportive when he expresses his controversial views on Hitler and the Nazis, despite the fact that she’s not convinced that he’s right. Charles is portrayed as a complex person with some good qualities but also a lot of bad ones. He tries to control every aspect of Anne’s and their children’s lives and at first it’s frustrating to see how Anne allows him to do this, but eventually she begins to move out of his shadow and finds some independence. As well as being her husband’s co-pilot, navigator and radio operator, Anne becomes an accomplished pilot in her own right and is also the first American woman to obtain a glider pilot’s licence. She later starts to build a successful career of her own as an author, publishing books including the best-selling Gift from the Sea.

I’ve enjoyed all three of Melanie Benjamin’s books but I think this one is her best so far. I was left wanting to learn more about Anne Morrow Lindbergh and feeling that she really deserves to be known as more than just ‘the aviator’s wife’!

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley

The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Despite the title, this is not a real autobiography, but a fictional account of the life of Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump. Measuring only two feet eight inches tall, Vinnie is described as ‘a perfect woman in miniature’. Not content to spend her life living on her family’s farm in Middleborough, Massachusetts, she works briefly as a schoolteacher before leaving home to perform with Colonel Wood’s riverboat show. Wood, who claims to be a cousin, promises to make Vinnie famous as an entertainer but it soon becomes obvious that he has other plans for her and she returns home disillusioned.

Determined not to give up on her dreams, Vinnie contacts the great showman P.T. Barnum and soon becomes a celebrity, travelling the world and meeting presidents and royalty. Her wedding in 1863 to another small person, Charles Stratton, known as General Tom Thumb, captures the imagination of both the press and the public. But when her younger sister Minnie, who is even smaller than herself, is also drawn into the world of show business, Vinnie fears it could all end in tragedy.

I enjoyed Melanie Benjamin’s previous novel, Alice I Have Been, which told the story of the girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so I’ve been looking forward to reading more of her work. And I enjoyed this book too. There were plenty of things to admire about Vinnie – she had lots of courage, lots of confidence and dignity, and lots of ambition. Instead of staying in the safety of her home which would certainly have been the easiest thing to do, she wanted to get out and see the world, to have new experiences and to build a successful career for herself. I’ve never really stopped to think about how difficult – and even dangerous – everyday life can be for a person smaller than average in a world built for much taller people. Such simple things as opening a door, getting into bed, climbing up stairs and even walking through a crowded room were a challenge for Vinnie and I was impressed with how well she dealt with the situations she found herself in.

However, as the story continued I began to dislike Vinnie more and more. She was obsessed with fame and fortune, she had a very superior attitude and appeared to consider almost everyone else, including her husband and sister, to be less intelligent than herself. I found her relationship with Charles particularly sad to read about as it had the feel of a professional business arrangement rather than a happy marriage and Vinnie seemed to have very little affection or respect for him. Luckily, though, my dislike of Vinnie didn’t stop me from loving the book; it was still one of the most fascinating and original historical fiction novels I’ve read for a long time.

While Vinnie’s personal story is the main focus of this book, there are also lots of interesting facts of American history scattered throughout the novel. Vinnie lived through an eventful period that included the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, as well as the arrival of some exciting new inventions such as the electric light and the telephone. Information on all of these things and many others are provided in the form of short news articles during the ‘Intermissions’ between chapters. Some of these facts are relevant to the chapter that follows, while others are seemingly unrelated pieces of trivia – these don’t do anything to move the story forward, but they all give fascinating insights into the period.

I knew nothing about Lavinia Warren before reading this book so I can’t comment on the historical accuracy of the story, but it did appear to be very well researched. The real Vinnie never actually wrote an autobiography, but she left behind some travelogue-style journals and essays which Melanie Benjamin read as part of her research for the novel. She also includes some interesting photographs in the book, though I was disappointed that there weren’t more pictures illustrating some of the characters who appeared in the story. I was able to find some for myself online and seeing photos of Vinnie, Charles, P.T. Barnum and the others really helped bring the story to life!

Review: Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

I had been reading so many good reviews of Alice I Have Been that when I won a copy from The Book Whisperer I couldn’t wait to read it and see if it deserved its reputation. I’m happy to say that it did.

Before I read this book, I knew Alice Liddell was the girl who inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but that was all I knew about her. I also knew that Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and that he was an Oxford mathematics professor, but that was all I knew about him. Alice I Have Been is the story of how Alice’s relationship with Dodgson and the book he wrote changed her life forever.

The 19th century is one of my favourite historical periods and it was interesting to read about Alice’s life as the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, mixing with the upper classes of Victorian society. Mr Dodgson was a friend of the Liddell family, who enjoyed visiting the three little girls – Ina, Alice and Edith – and taking photographs of them. The relationship between Alice and Dodgson was slightly disturbing, but the overall impression I got of him was of a shy, lonely man who felt more comfortable with children than with adults – and didn’t want those children to grow up. When Alice was eleven, an incident occurred that caused a rift between Dodgson and the Liddells – in real life, this is a mystery that has never been solved. Melanie Benjamin gives one possible explanation but states in her author’s note that this is her own interpretation and not necessarily the truth, leaving us to wonder exactly what really did happen.

I had no idea Alice Liddell had such an eventful adult life or that she was romantically involved (though maybe not to the extent the book suggests) with Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Prince Leopold – until hints of the scandal in her past came back to haunt her.

This book is a clever mixture of fact and fiction. I always think a sign of a good historical fiction novel is when it inspires you to find out more about the people you’ve been reading about. There’s a lot of information about Charles Dodgson available online, including some of his photographs (a few of which are reproduced in the book). It was interesting to read about seven year-old Alice posing for Dodgson as a gypsy girl, then being able to look at the actual picture itself. I also wanted to find out more about John Ruskin, who is portrayed quite negatively in the book.

Now I want to go and read Alice in Wonderland again to see if I feel differently about it now that I know the story behind it.

Recommended

Genre: Historical Fiction/Pages: 345/Publisher: Random House/Year: 2010/Source: Won in giveaway

New Book Arrival: Alice I Have Been

I won Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin in a giveaway at The Book Whisperer. Thanks Boof!

[From Goodreads]
“Alice Liddell Hargreaves’s life has been a richly woven tapestry: As a young woman, wife, mother, and widow, she’s experienced intense passion, great privilege, and greater tragedy. But as she nears her eighty-first birthday, she knows that, to the world around her, she is and will always be only “Alice.” Her life was permanently dog-eared at one fateful moment in her tenth year–the golden summer day she urged a grown-up friend to write down one of his fanciful stories.

That story, a wild tale of rabbits, queens, and a precocious young child, becomes a sensation the world over. Its author, a shy, stuttering Oxford professor, does more than immortalize Alice–he changes her life forever. But even he cannot stop time, as much as he might like to. And as Alice’s childhood slips away, a peacetime of glittering balls and royal romances gives way to the urgent tide of war.

For Alice, the stakes could not be higher, for she is the mother of three grown sons, soldiers all. Yet even as she stands to lose everything she treasures, one part of her will always be the determined, undaunted Alice of the story, who discovered that life beyond the rabbit hole was an astonishing journey.

A love story and a literary mystery, Alice I Have Been brilliantly blends fact and fiction to capture the passionate spirit of a woman who was truly worthy of her fictional alter ego, in a world as captivating as the Wonderland only she could inspire.”