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The Smallest of All Persons Mentioned in the Records of Littleness
Gaby Wood

The Smallest of All Persons Mentioned in the Records of Littleness
Gaby Wood
Profile Books
London 1998

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UK Edition: Amazon.co.uk

Long title, small book, dark story. When the eight year old Caroline Crachami, the ‘Sicilian Fairy’, was set up as a freak show in London’s Mayfair in 1824 she became an instant hit. Nearly ‘three thousand distinguished fashionables’ including, inevitably, Royalty made their way to examine the girl whose 19″ height, ‘strange unearthly voice’ and automata-like manner exerted a strange fascination over her male visitors. Already worn out by months of being gawped at she died in June of that year after being taken from her room exhausted by 200 visitors in one day and suffering from T.B.

Her father then returned from Ireland to find that Dr Gilligan, a man hired by the family to treat her earlier for a cough, had vanished taking the tiny body with him in a small box. Later it was revealed Gilligan had struck a deal with the Royal College of Surgeons to sell them the body for £500, ‘freaks’ then going for considerably more than ordinary children (or ‘large smalls’ as they were known in the trade), and so the father rushed to the College to retrieve the body only to find dissection had already taken place.

Gaby Wood tells the tale in such a way that in the time it takes to read this book, say, a short railway journey from home to work, you swing from who-dunnit story to tragic 19th Century melodrama and finally fall right into Gaby Wood’s own search for a new insight into the events of 170 years ago. Along the way towards her conclusions she encounters characters who seem to have stepped straight out from Dickens like the taxidermist that lives opposite her local fish shop who remains on constant alert for anyone trying to pass off ordinary baby skeletons as midgets and the cockney ‘bone’ man she goes to for advice about, well, bones. These tales nestle amongst each other like Russian dolls expanding outwards into something darker: a glimpse of what would become the Victorian soul. You hear it in the description of the gentleman queuing up to examine her, like William Jerdan who joked of how he caressed her and wooed her. And then we learn that apart from the chance to see the ‘dwarf’, and secured for an additional shilling, was the opportunity to ‘handle’ the child. One is left wondering whether Crachami’s attraction lay in the desire of 19th Century Britain to know all that was knowable, to catalogue, dissect, measure and categorise and to be sure of life in all its extremes even where it included fantasies and spirits or was it, as Woods hints at, a sinister fascination for her doll-like frailty. The freakish erotic fairy.

Encased in the heart of Gaby Wood’s complex tale remains a curious void: the tragic distorted figure of the nine year old who is revealed as precious and yet disposable and who lived solely to have fantasies of curiosity, sexuality and abuse projected on to her and even as the London of 1824 seems to recede into the past Wood reminds us that a recent Tate Gallery exhibition offered the opportunity to gaze at the tiny jewel-like form of Caroline Crachami. Gaby Wood may not be the first to tell the story of Caroline Crachami but she has brought together so many threads so neatly and in just 60 small pages, that you can’t help but wonder why all books aren’t this length.

Reviewed by Graham Dickson


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