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.

The String of Pearls, sentimental romance and moral free trade

illustration for the famous Dibdin-Pitt theatrical version

Another fascinating and very funny class saw us explore the anonymously manufactured but quite delicious pie which contains Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet street (as later theatrical adaptations advertised him). Serialised in Edward Lloyd’s The People’s Periodical in 18 parts over the winter of 1846-7,  it participates in folk culture, urban myth, feeds off other texts (especially Dickens) and very quickly, helped by the theatrical adaptations which rapidly followed its original publication, makes its own urban confection, as Robert Mack has detailed in his The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: the Life and times of an Urban Legend (Continuum, 2007).

Your initial questions were very revealing of how the text operates. They were very much concerned with how the plot developed, with Sweeney’s motive of particular concern to you.

Unable to identify an author, we started by looking at the context that the story appeared in. Besides focussing on Edward Lloyd (for detail on him turn to the excellent Robert Mack edition entitled Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street) and the ever more densely crowded mass market of the 1840s, we also considered how the story should be read. The String of Pearls marks itself out as a “romance” straight away. Now the distinction between the romance and the novel drawn by David Masson, professor of English literature at University College, London, is often cited. He wrote “when we speak of a Romance, we generally mean ‘a fictitious narrative, in prose or verse, the interest of which turns on marvellous or uncommon interests’; and when we speak of a Novel, we generally mean ‘a fictitious narrative differing from a  romance, insomuch as the incidents are accommodated to the ordinary train of events, and the modern state of society’ (British Novelists and their Styles, Macmillan, 1859, p. 36). What’s not then mentioned is that not only does he go on to say that the distinction isn’t really important, but that the romantic elements of the novel are “medicinal” and connected with nature! Counter to “novels of real life” he sets the following:

In these days especially, when so many of us, cooped up in cities, and chained to this part or that of the crowded machinery of complex civilisation, have all but lost our acquaintance with our ancient mother earth, and hardly known even the overhanging sky, except in ribbands over streets, and as giving picturesqueness to chimneys – is it not well, is it not medicinal, that as much as possible, in the page so fur novelists, as in those of our narrative poets, we should be taken away in imagination from our common social haunts, and placed in situations where Nature still exerts upon Humanity the unbroken magnetism of her inanimate bulk, ‑ soothing into peace in the quiet meadows, whispering of the unearthly in the depths of a forest, telling tales of the past in some solitary crumbling ruin, moaning her sorrow in the gusts of a moor at midnight, or dashing the eternal monotone of her many voices against the embattled shore?  (Masson British Novelists and their Styles, 1859, pp. 37-8)

Doesn’t sound like the same kind of romance as The String of Pearls to me! But The String of Pearls  IS a romance in another sense – the “sentimental” sense. I won’t repeat here what we covered apart from the hilarity engendered by someone saying “Love Conquers All” (which wonderfully sums up the sentimental romance) and remind you first of the significance of the dog who has a – key word – sympathetic relation to his master (and in the first illustration, to Johanna)  and of Colonel Jeffery who not only feels for and with Johanna but is also a good friend to Thornhill: “My friendship for Mr Thornhill, and gratitude, as you know, for the great service he has rendered to us all, will induce me to do my utmost to discover him” he says.  For more detail on the values of the “sentimental” I’ll refer you to the chapter on “Literature of the Kitchen”: Cheap Serial Fiction of the 1840s and 1850s” in  the Blackwell Companion to Sensation Fiction edited by Pamela Gilbert. There the development into the nineteenth-century mass market of what had been originally an eighteenth-century upper-class mark of distinction is more fully explored.

Now, here is a summary of your very rich comments on economics, space and gender.

The economic aspects of the story are, as always, complex – but less so than in G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London. You very well pointed out that the string of pearls itself which Lieutenant Thornhill is carrying to Johanna from her beloved Mark Ingestrie – which we later find out is worth the enormous sum of £10,000 – comes from a sailor’s successful “voyage to India”. “[W]here he got them I have not the least idea, for they are of immense value” says Colonel Jeffery to Johanna about Mark, as well he might. We can’t imagine that they just fell into his lap: presumably he undertook what in London would be regarded as some dirty dealings. But since these dealings took place in India, the text doesn’t seem to care (what happens in India stays in India – except for the valuable produce!). The pearls in London are merely a symbol of Mark’s financial and imperial success. In gender terms this marks him out as a real man!  Without them his masculinity would be compromised. Sweeney Todd, the strange outsider whose body and its “cachinatory effusions” terrify people, wants to participate in that. The question remains what “that” is though. Is it Mark’s masculinity? Without money Mark is feminised – he becomes a captured Gothic maiden imprisoned in an underground vault. The text thinks that an outrage against nature, and of course rectifies matters in the end. But how far is money merely a sign of masculinity?

For you pointed out how business and the passion for profit underlie the whole text in more ways than simply proof of gender. The String of Pearls doesn’t condemn profit wholesale.  Rather, it points out that there is a good approach to profit and a bad one. Obviously Sweeney Todd’s and Mrs Lovett’s approaches to it are bad. On the other hand, the farmers who have sold their cattle for a profit at Smithfield aren’t morally condemned (just because Sweeney “polishes them off” doesn’t mean they get what they deserve). Mark Ingestrie’s dubious gain of the string of pearls isn’t condemned either. Mrs Lovett is condemned on the other hand because she exploits her worker too much – without sympathy. She is clearly a brilliant business woman whose main profits come from wholesale not the personal retail sales to promote which she flaunts her charms. She is somehow in possession of a marvellous technology whereby one worker can produce thousands of pies a day. She has entered into a very profitable business – not sexual – partnership with her most important supplier. All that is admirable. But, to recall the words, of David Masson, she “coops  up” her worker in the (manu)factory without pity, and “chains” him “ to this part or that of the crowded machinery of complex civilisation.” She and her supplier exploit people mercilessly, use up their bodies and throw them in a heap when they have no more to give (literally)  underneath St Dunstan’s Church without stopping to consider what their victims feel or the emotional consequences of their actions.

And then we had fun reading metaphorically the human flesh stripped from bodies and recycled into pies sold for profit as like the way Lloyd’s authors regularly raided the private property of other texts (most famously Dickens) and recycled them in altered form, served them up as literary confections in Lloyd’s very own literary factory in Salisbury Square – which is situated just off Fleet street, and not far from Smithfield meat market, and near to where Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett had their shops.

In the end, we concluded that The String of Pearls was in favour of free trade tempered with sympathy.  This is exactly the position of Adam Smith (1723-1790), often regarded as the apologist, theorist and High Priest of free trade. Some have seen him as the theorist of profit for profit’s sake, but in fact his position was much more sympathetic. His two most famous books, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, when read together (as they should be), make exactly the point that the drive for profit needs to be balanced against feeling and sympathy for our fellow creatures.

Our discussion of space was almost as complicated — and because this blog is already very long indeed, I’ll postpone discussion of that to the next instalment.