Contents Index

Joseph Grimaldi: An Influence on Frankenstein

Dalton Gross and Mary J. H. Gross

Notes and Queries, 26 (226):5 (October 1981), 403-04

{403} Scholars speculate that several elements in Mary Godwin's immediate environment may have provided inspiration for Frankenstein; among these are hearing Christabel and selections from the translation of German tales, Fantasmagoriana ou Recueil d'Histoires d'Apparitions de Spectres, Revenans, Etc. of J. B. Eyries, her presence during conversations between Shelley and Byron on Galvanism and the nature of life, and, perhaps most important, her involvement in the affinities, tensions, and jealousies of the group gathered on the shores of Lake Geneva.1 Chief among long term conscious influences were her Godwinian intellectual heritage and her intensive reading. It may be that under all these influences lay a deeper and more pervasive one, her ambivalent attitudes toward childbirth -- the creation of life -- which arose from her knowledge that her own birth had caused her mother's death and from the precarious health and deaths of her own children.2

To these possibilities can be added one that at first glance may seem quite unlikely -- a performance of the English clown, Joseph Grimaldi. The Covent Garden Christmas pantomime for 1810, Harlequin and Asmodeus: or Cupid on Crutches, contained a scene in which Grimaldi constructed a monster from vegetables -- only to have the monster come alive, fight with him, and drive him off the stage. The print shops produced a widely circulated picture of Grimaldi fighting the monster with the following caption:

in the Popular Pantomime of HARLEQUIN &
ASMODEUS, now Performing at the Theatre Royal
Covent Garden, Setting to with a Grotesque
Figure which he makes up of a series of Vege-
tables, Fruit &c. and which becoming Animated
beats him off the Stage.3
The fundamental parallels to Frankenstein are striking. A man assembles a monster, the monster comes alive, and the monster vanquishes its creator. The parallels were so striking to Grimaldi's contemporaries that after the publication of the novel he was sometimes referred to as 'Joe Frankenstein'. Thomas Hood's 1828 farewell to Grimaldi includes the following lines:
Or like Joe Frankenstein compile
The vegetable man complete!
A proper Covent Garden feat!4
Resemblance between the 1810 pantomime and the 1818 novel could be coincidental, but coincidence becomes improbable when one remembers Byron's interest in pantomime and his friendship with Grimaldi. Grimaldi's Memoirs5 boast of Byron's 'condescension':
At this time [1815?] Grimaldi repeatedly met with Lord Byron, not only at Covent Garde, but at various private parties to which he was invited, and eventually they became very good friends. . . . As to Grimaldi himself, Byron invariably acted towards him with much condescension and good humor, {404} frequently conversing with him for hours together; and when business of the evening called him away, he would wait at the 'wings' for him, and as soon as he came off the stage, recommence the conversation where it had been broken off. . . . In 1808, when he saw Grimaldi for the first time, Byron sent a message to his residence requesting that he would always forward to him one box ticket whenever he took a benefit.
Even if Grimaldi exaggerates, Byron's Letters and Journals (ed. Leslie A. Marchand) indicates some degree of personal acquaintance,6 and in the opening stanza of the first canto of Don Juan, Byron alludes to Don Juan: or the Libertine Destroyed, a pantomime in which Grimaldi appeared.7 Although Byron was out of the country when Harlequin and Asmodeus came out, he would have known about Grimaldi's performance through his involvement in London's theatre life and because of the wide circulation of prints based on this pantomime.

Mary Godwin may consciously have remembered talk about Grimaldi, or the talk may have slipped into her unconscious where it helped to form her dream. In either case, Grimaldi's performance in Harlequin and Asmodeus was probably a primary influence on the plot of the novel.


1. Leslie A. Marchand, Byron: A Biography (New York, 1957), ii, 625-30. See also William A. Walling, Mary Shelley (Boston, 1972), 27-30.

2. Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York, 1976), 90-99. See also Marc A. Rubenstein, "'My Accursed Origin":The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein,' Studies in Romanticism 15 (Spring, 1970), 165-94.

3. A brief account of the pantomime appears in Richard Findlater, Joe Grimaldi: His Life and Theatre, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1978), 137. The manuscript of the pantomime in the Larpent Collection at the Huntington, like most pantomime manuscripts submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, includes only libretto and has little description of stage business. The print with its caption is reproduced in A. E. Wilson, Christmas Pantomime: The Story of an English Institution (London, 1934), opposite page 73. Wilson's copy of the print came from the Enthoven Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

4. Findlater, 251.

5. Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, by Charles Dickens edited by Richard Findlater (New York, 1968), 226-7. The question of authorship is somewhat confusing. Dickens not only edited Grimaldi's memoirs, but rewrote them as well. When they were first published in 1838, 'Boz' was shown as editor, not author. Findlater discusses the problem in Joe Grimaldi, Appendix C, 244-8.

6. Cited by Findlater, Joe Grimaldi, 180. Volume I: 1798-1810 (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), 153.

7. See E. H. Coleridge's edition of Byron's Works (London, 1898-1904) vi, 11, n. 2.