The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi

The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi

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By Andrew McConnell Stott

Few biographers have proved so reluctant, but when the raw materials that would become “The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi” reached Charles Dickens’ desk in the autumn of 1837, he was far from impressed. “I have thought the matter over, and looked it over, too,” he told his publisher, Richard Bentley, “it is very badly done, and so redolent of twaddle that I fear I cannot take it up on any conditions.”

What he saw had begun life as a sprawling manuscript of some 400 “childlike and simple” pages written by the pantomime clown, Joseph Grimaldi, in the course of his long retirement from the stage. When a publisher proved hard to find, Grimaldi contracted with a theatrical journalist, Thomas Egerton Wilks to help him revise the entire manuscript, but died before it was completed. Wilks sold the unfinished project on to Bentley, who considered Dickens perfect for the job—not only had he idolized Grimaldi as a child, fondly recalling trips to Covent Garden “to behold the splendour of Christmas Pantomimes and the humour of Joe,” but his own Sketches By Boz (1836) had been widely commended for displaying “the spirit of Grimaldi.”

Having finally relented, Dickens saw it off in a matter of weeks, subjecting it to “a double and most comprehensive process of abridgement,” resetting the narrative from the first person to the third, and not even bothering to write it down, preferring to dictate it to his father, who could be found “in exulted enjoyment of the office of amanuensis.”

Despite all its evident haste, The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi remains unmistakably “Dickensian,” recalling passages from Nicholas Nickleby, Hard Times, and others. Without doubt, his most important decision was to place the biographical details of Grimaldi’s life within a strict economy of pleasure and pain that draws stark contrasts between the tinsel of the stage and the shabby reality of his many hardships. Laughter and misery becomes the balance-beam on which Grimaldi’s existence is constantly weighed as every career triumph is paid for with a proportionate personal agony, and every moment of joy countered by grief.