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.