I have problems reading Dickens. His novels are too long, with too many caricatures. I find I have to watch a TV adaptation before I can make a start and then I have to read according to a schedule dictated by the original installments. Then, and only then, does a Dickens novel work for me.
There simply wasn’t time for that within the timeline of the current Classics circuit. Hence my choice of The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi. At 350 pages, it’s must shorter than an average Dickens and as a piece of non-fiction, it doesn’t have the huge cast of characters. But it is still a curiosity.
Joseph Grimaldi was Britain’s most famous clown – the man who put P into pantomime. He trod the boards from early childhood until his health-related premature retirement. He was a national sensation. He worked hard, made a lot of money and lost most of it not through dissolute living but through poor investment. He was a decent man – his philosophy being never to refuse help to a human being when it was in his power to do render aid. His life was not without trials though the tears of this particular clown were mostly reserved for his final years when his talented only son followed him onto the boards and transmuted into a 19th century Richard Harris. Grimaldi’s retirement led to reduced circumstances also and it was these that led him to write his celebrity memoirs, starting a trend that prevails to this day!
Except a) he never lived to see them published and b) they weren’t very good, even after they had been rewritten, revised and corrected by the journalist, Thomas Egerton Wilks. When a young Dickens was asked to rework them in 1837, he wasn’t very keen. He considered them redolent of twaddle and was so doubtful that he could make a silk purse from this pig’s ear that he demanded a £300 advance without any reference to sale. His terms were accepted and he reworked them in just two months. The Grimaldi grows under the alterations much better than I supposed possible he opined.
Thank goodness for that! Because to this reader, who doesn’t read ghostwritten 21st century celebrity memoirs but knows how salacious they can be, this 19th-century equivalent is a tad dull. Inbetween the seemingly interminable details of Grimaldi’s next stage performance and his resulting earnings, there are plenty of interesting anecdotes. Grimaldi was targetted by highwaymen and charlatans and suffered personal setbacks, including near bankruptcy. It’s just that the telling is so restrained. For example regarding the death of his first wife:
After many months of hope, and some of fear, and many lingering changes from better to worse, and back and back again, his dear wife, whom he had loved from a boy with so much truth and feeling, and whose excellences were the old man’s fondest theme to the last moment of his life, many years afterwards, died.
What? She died – just like that?
I think this text would be of greater interest to a Dickens aficionado (as it is apparently similar in style to The Pickwick Papers) or to a historian specialising in the form and content of contemporaneous Victorian memoir. I found myself referring frequently to Andrew McConnell Stott’s The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi to fill in a detail here and there and inject some life. Published in 2009, Stott’s book is the Winner of the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award, Sheridan Morely Theatre Book Prize and George Freedley Memorial Award. It confirms that there’s a good story in Joseph Grimaldi’s memoirs; it’s just that 19th century convention prevented Dickens from telling it with the detail that is appealing to a 21st century general reader.
Go on judge for yourself. Which style do you prefer? a) or b)?
Of the incident which sent the relationship between Grimaldi and his son into a downward spiral ….
a) Young Joe had received a severe blow on the head from a staff, which crushing his hat, alighted on the skull and inflicted a desperate wound. It is supposed that this unfortunate event disordered his intellects, as from that time, instead of the kind and affectionate son he had previously been, he became a wild and furious savage.
b) It all began with a blow to the head that would open the vents of hell.
This post is part of the Classic Circuit Duelling Authors: Austen vs Dickens tour. I would have chosen to read Austen if I had any of her finished novels left to read. From her oeuvre, I reserve my snark purely for Emma, whereas I am snarky abot Dickens almost all the time. I bear the scars of ploughing through David Copperfield when I was too young. I do not like Great Expectations – can’t stand Pip or Estella and the novel is simply painful to read when you couldn’t give a toss about either of the major characters. Yet, if ever consigned to the proverbial desert island, I’d make space in my luggage for Bleak House and for Pride and Prejudice only if there was room left over. Which fact, against all odds and form, means that Dickens has just delivered the knockout blow.