‘A man of great feeling and sensibility’: The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi and the Tears of a Clown
In the ‘Concluding Chapter’ of his Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi (1838), Charles Dickens describes Grimaldi as ‘a man of great feeling and sensibility’, despite the fact that he thinks ‘many readers will ridicule the idea’ of a clown being capable of such emotional depth. But here Dickens is not merely a traditional biographer, summarizing the evidence and using it as the basis for an evaluation of his subject’s life. In fact, this is the carefully crafted conclusion of a narrative deliberately constructed to tell the life story of ‘a man of the kindest heart’.
The level of Dickens’s creative input in the Memoirs has always been a matter for debate, but in a letter to Grimaldi’s doctor, Dickens explains how he directly shaped the way that Grimaldi’s emotional side was presented. Despite claiming his role as a mere editor, Dickens admits that ‘I was very much struck by the many traits of kindheartedness scattered through the book, and have given it that colouring throughout’, clearly signalling his focus on the sentimental side of Grimaldi’s character.
In the first section of this article, I demonstrate how Dickens provides that colouring through his shaping of the biographical material, and reconstructs Grimaldi as a real-life counterpart to Dickens’s extremely popular character of time, Mr Pickwick. Through his choice of incidents from Grimaldi’s life, and the way in which he presents the choices and actions Grimaldi takes, Dickens attempts to offer Grimaldi as an admirable model of feeling towards his fellow man.
However, in the second section of this article, I show how this biographical imperative to show Grimaldi as a man of feeling is counterposed by a contesting narrative. This second narrative is the work of the more creative writer within Dickens, and like his earlier essay ‘The Pantomime of Life’ (March 1837) it posits identity as being based on external performance and affect rather than interior feeling and emotion.
The theatrical nature of many of its figures and the persistent dynamic of performer and audience working within the Memoirs ostensibly seem to set the unaffected figure of Grimaldi apart, moving his character closer to Dickens’s intended ‘colouring’. Yet Grimaldi’s involvement in a number of offstage ‘performances’, particularly in his youth, suggest that there is no easy distinction to be made between what Grimaldi did ‘outside of pantomime time’ and what he did inside it.
In my conclusion, I consider the implications that this has for our view of Dickens’s own identity. While Grimaldi’s ‘child-like simplicity’ and openness of emotion is held up to be admired, the converse idea, of life as a performance, would certainly have a dark appeal to a man sometimes unable to directly articulate his own feelings and experiences to his much-beloved audience.
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