Book Review: The Life of P.T. Barnum, written by himself

I have spent a large proportion of this year trying to shoe horn books I’ve been given into categories in my reading challenge – but I decided I needed to try and tick off some of them properly – as broadening your reading is surely the main reason for doing a challenge such as this?

The very first category is ‘A book made into a movie you’ve already seen’.  I – along with most of the world – have recently seen The Greatest Showman – and loved it.  In fact the soundtrack has become the Price family soundtrack of the summer, as it’s something everyone from my 46 year old husband who doesn’t like some of the kids rap music, down to the 6 year old who knows ALL OF THE WORDS – will listen to.   But back to the film, I did wonder how much of it was true – and what bits of his lifestory were missed out as it was only a standard feature film – so I thought reading about Phineas would be great fun.  I saw on Amazon that he’d written an autobiography, so thought I’d try that.

P T Barnum


Here’s the (somewhat cynical!) blurb from Amazon:

“For more than fifty years, Phineas T. Barnum embodied all that was grand and fraudulent in American mass culture. Over the course of a life that spanned the nineteenth century (1810-91), he inflicted himself upon a surprisingly willing public in a variety of guises, from newspaper editor (or libeler) to traveling showman (or charlatan) and distinguished public benefactor (or shameless hypocrite).   Barnum deliberately cultivated his ambiguous public image through a lifelong advertising campaign, shrewdly exploiting the cultural and technological capabilities of the new publishing industry. While running his numerous shows and exhibitions, Barnum managed to publish newspaper articles, exposés of fraud (not his own), self-help tracts, and a series of best-selling autobiographies, each promising to give “the true history of my many adventures.”   Updated editions of The Life of P. T. Barnum appeared regularly, allowing Barnum to keep up with demand and prune the narrative of details that might offend posterity. The present volume is the first modern edition of Barnum’s original and outrageous autobiography, published in 1855 and unavailable for more than a century. Brazen, confessional, and immensely entertaining, it immortalizes the showman who hoodwinked customers into paying to hear the reminiscences of a woman presented as George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse, the impresario who brought Jenny Lind to America and toured Europe with General Tom Thumb, and the grand entrepreneur of the American Museum of New York. Above all, it ensures that Barnum would be properly remembered . . . exactly as he created himself. ” 

Obviously as I started the book I couldn’t imagine him looking like the photo on the cover of the book – he had to be Hugh Jackman!


Initially the book talked about Barnum’s childhood – there was lots about his family, school friends and quite a lot about his local church.  In the film his Dad was a tailor – and whilst that was referenced in the book – his Dad had lots of other jobs too.

It’s written in quite an amusing style – which feels weird when you know it was written almost 200 years ago – and it is quite evident that Barnum loved telling a tale (and bigging his own part – I’m sounding as cynical as the blurb now!!)

What I found odd was the story of Barnum’s wife in the film makes great play of her family being wealthy and him taking her away from this and her parents looking down their noses – but in the book, Charity was the daughter of a tailor herself – and her parents didn’t live in a big house.  It seems strange that the film-makers took such a different tack.

I  have to say from about 35% through the book I started to tire of Barnum’s almost diary aspect of the story – and the tricks he played on other people, or other people played on him.  How much money he made, what the expenses were.   It just felt quite repetitive.  A lot was also made of his religious upbringing and how the church featured in his every day life – which wasn’t referenced in the film at all.

Just when I thought I might give up (which I HATE doing – but life is too short for dire books) it was the bit where they do a tour in the UK for Queen Victoria.  Now, in the film it’s a real ensemble trip – but actually it was for General Tom Thumb.  But – not only did they go to London, but they also came up to Birmingham – where I live!  There was quite an extended passage about Stratford upon Avon – and visiting the various Shakespeare houses / churches – and then about going to Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle (which was already a ruin in the mid 1800s!)  It talked about the road from Warwick to Coventry having the most beautiful views of any stretch of road in England! Now I’ve driven the A46 many times, and have never really been bowled over by the vistas – but it was still great to read about areas I know well – and actual buildings I have been in too. It really caught my imagination again (phew!)

Barnum then mentions he tried to buy Shakespeare’s birthplace to have it shipped to the US but was thwarted by locals buying it instead. I can confirm it’s still in Stratford as we visited last year!

Lots and lots is made of Barnum’s vow of temperance – and how he persuaded many others to take the pledge. Something else overlooked in the film completely (in fact I can remember him and Zac Efron dancing about with beers!)

Introducing Jenny Lind to the masses is discussed – but unlike the film, he wasn’t caught in a compromising photograph causing marital strife – or did he just chose to omit this from the autobiography??

His family are barely mentioned at all until the very final chapter – and even then it’s only to give the details of his 4 daughters.  There’s a 7 year age gap between the first 2 (who were much closer in the film), and then a daughter who died as an infant, before a 4th that survived.

All in all this is not the best book I’ve ever read – but interesting to read something written in the 1850s.  The film clearly took total artistic licence – which I guess isn’t a surprise – but I’m still not sure what was true and what was Barnum spin!

But at least I’ve ticked off ‘A book turned into a movie you’ve already seen’ from my 2018 Reading Challenge.














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