Framing the Self: Anxieties of Identity in Literature & Culture, 1800 - Present

  • Jonathan Buckmaster (Speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


'Clowns that beat Grimaldi all to nothing turn up every day': Identity as performance in Dickens’s Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi

Many critics have dismissed Dickens’s Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi on the grounds that it only partially reveals its subject’s identity. Richard Findlater feels that it leaves ‘so many questions unanswered or wrongly answered’, and fails to demonstrate Grimaldi’s theatrical genius, focusing instead on the events of his life offstage.
However, this paper will argue that Dickens deliberately chose this emphasis, confessing in his Introduction to ‘an intense anxiety’ to know what clowns ‘did with themselves out of pantomime time, and off the stage’. Moreover, by reappraising the Memoirs alongside such writings as Dickens’s essay ‘The Pantomime of Life’, I will outline his more complex notion of identity which regarded the barrier between ‘offstage’ and ‘onstage’ as highly porous. His method of adopting a 3rd-person narrative as opposed to Grimaldi’s original 1st person account has been criticised, but I will argue how this is crucial to Dickens’s formulation of Grimaldi’s identity as a character in his own ‘pantomime of life’.
Furthermore, I will draw parallels between the Memoirs and characters and episodes in Dickens’s fiction, to demonstrate how Grimaldi’s identity is fragmented and dispersed amongst Dickens’s work, refusing to be contained in the Memoirs alone. For example, Mr. Pickwick shares Grimaldi’s benevolence, and even the style of Grimaldi’s life-story changes, as selected episodes take on the Gothic drama of Oliver Twist.
This paper is in many ways the launching point for a wider discussion on Dickens’s own identity. He often demonstrated a keenness to show himself to his readers, but ironically perhaps Dickens used his own performative mode to hide more uncomfortable facets of his own identity rather than reveal a fuller picture like that of Grimaldi.
Period21 May 2010
Event typeConference
LocationPortsmouth, United KingdomShow on map