The String of Pearls and Space

Space and The String of Pearls

(continued from previous post on The String of Pearls)

That The String of Pearls is set in and around Fleet Street – the main street for the production of newspapers and therefore one of the main centres of knowledge production and circulation at this time – is unsurprisingly significant.  It’s a street that connects the financial centre and the centre of government, the City and Westminster, and the markets of Smithfield and Spitalfields to the rich West End. It’s also a centre of gravity for information and spins it off throughout London and elsewhere through its daily distribition of news.

Given the importance of voyages and ships in this story, it is fair to remark that not only does the street run parallel to the river but that it is a parallel to the river. Through it flows not water but information, residents, tourists and money. The parallel to the river is not that far-fetched — after all, it is named after the Fleet, the once notorious sewer/ river that Eliza was thrown into at the beginning of The Mysteries of London.

If the previous discussion of the economics of money and information in a previous post be followed through – that Sweeney Todd is himself a blockage of the flow of information – then we will note that it was around where his shop was located that one of the most infamous blockages of traffic in London stood for most of the nineteenth cnetury. This was Temple Bar, “a gateway”, so Wikipedia tells us,  “that marked the point where Fleet Street, City of London becomes the Strand, Westminster“.  It was removed in 1878. An informative website is dedicated to it. There we learn Temple Bar’s rather gory history. During the first half of the eighteenth century the heads of traitors were displayed on it, set on iron spikes which protruded from the top of the main arch. Although this had ceased by the time of Sweeney Todd, its horrible history is very suggestive.  Temple Bar was removed in 1878 because it caused too many problems for the progress of law. The Royal Courts of Justice and the Temple were close by and the arch caused too much interruption to the flow of traffic to and from these key seats of British law. By the time the story was written (and when it was set) this blockage was still present of coyrse. The idea that Sweeney Todd and Temple Bar are both blockers of information flow  is a wonderfully evocative metaphorical connection between real and fictional space! It may seem far-fetched but it can be thought of  as an example of the kind of dream logic of association that fiction, according to psychoanalysis, operates on.

The Temple plays an important, if fundamentally ineffectual, part of The String of Pearls.  Mrs Lovett’s clients in her shop are mainly lawyers. In her shop they become unwitting cannibals. They feed off human flesh as though they were vampires (Varney the Vampyre, a text influential on Dracula,  was another Edward Lloyd serial and if Helen Small is to be believed, it was written by the same man). But lawyers aren’t condemned as immoral bloodsuckers (as they are in, say, Dickens’s Bleak House) so much as represented as foolish victims of their own animal appetites. Mrs Lovett excites them by flaunting her charms as she sells, combining sexual desire with greed for food. Besides her special pies she makes them want her special “smiles”. The system – here the organisation of space that puts them into contact with Mrs Lovett’s smiles and pies – is bigger than they are. It’s that that makes them into cannibals. They just can’t resist. The same goes for Sweeney’s poor assistant Tobias, who becomes a barber’s assistant because he’s a failed lawyer, and who is forgiven little but for stopping to buy a pie from Mrs Lovett. He’s not a willing nor witting cannibal and certainly isn’t condemned – on the contrary, we are supposed to feel very sorry for him.

What do the lawyers (and Tobias) get in Mrs Lovett’s pieshop? Pies, smiles – but also information: they go there to gossip. Lawyers were and are knowledge workers who depend on and control the flow of information. Mrs Lovett’s retail space is positioned in exactly the right place and way for them to do that. They are carefully corralled within the horse-shoe of her counter and never allowed beyond it. Of course she doesn’t want them to go behind it in case they discover her secret. This is a form  of negative information control. But their corralled cannibalism also gives them the opportunity to pause for gossip and the production of knowledge. Their information exchange and production is, paradocically, predicated on Mrs Lovett’s control of their ignorance of the exploitation and consumption (at one remove) of other people. They don’t know about the farmers who have come from the country to Smithfield to sell their cattle, who have made a profit and who, murdered by Sweeney Todd, give up their profits, their valuable canes and hats, to his store rooms and secret drawer (Sweeney is not one to reinvest or speculate like Eugene/ Mortimer in The Mysteries of London i.e. he doesn’t put what he’s taken back into circulation). The String of Pearls to that extent is like those attempts today to expose the working conditions in sweat-shops where the cheap clothes we just must have are made, or the conditions that animals are kept in for the food we think we have a right to eat. The novel is thrilling and the story has survived so long  because it deals with a topic perennial to capitalism: the ethical choices all consumers make, often in ignorance of how what we want is made. In the novel this is figured as the difference between street-level consumption in the shop and the terrible underground manufactory. Another organisation of space therefore.

Sweeney Todd stores his stolen treasures upstairs, in the private spaces where the public don’t go. It’s the equivalent of Eliza’s boudoir in The Mysteries of London in which she stores her real identity. Sweeney’s “boudoir” (the word isn’t used of course) likewise contains the evidence of his thefts and murders — this is, his real identity defined by his real activities.

Vertical space therefore is organised in three: the basement reality of manufacture and storage of consumed remains, street level where the story goes on, and the upepr storeys of the house where the reality of identity is hidden away. Only on street level can circulation take place.

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Andrew King

Andrew King is Professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has always been interested in how and why certain texts are kept for posterity and others disappear. His first degree was in classical and medieval Latin, and he has MAs in Medieval Studies and English. He completed his PhD in English at Birkbeck, supervised by Laurel Brake. He taught for many years at Universities overseas, though immediately before he came to Greenwich in May 2012, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. His official profile can be found at http://www2.gre.ac.uk/about/schools/humanities/about/departments/cca/staff/andrew-king.

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