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The String of Pearls

March 11th, 2008 (02:36 am)

Oxford University Press have published Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in a new paperback edition to tie in with the Tim Burton film. I have no idea how large the original print run of the OUP edition was, but the copy I bought in Borders in Oxford the other week was the sixth impression, so has probably done better than expected for OUP.

As the introduction by Todd scholar Robert L. Mack makes clear, the novel's proper name is The String of Pearls under which title it was published in The People's Periodical and Family Library between 21 November 1846 and 20 March 1847. This title was forgotten early in its career of adaptations and fleshings-out; the character about whom readers wanted to know more was Sweeney Todd. In the early chapters Todd is a background figure, but the nature of serial publication meant that the chapter-book could be replanned, and so the initiatives of Johanna Oakley and her admirer Colonel Jeffrey, set up as the main strand early on, fade into the background about half-way through. Johanna's lover Mark Ingestrie had failed to return from the East Indies, and Jeffrey shares with the missing Ingestrie a mutual friend in Lieutenant Thornhill, to whom Ingestrie had entrusted a string of pearls intended for Johanna. Unfortunately Thornhill's desire to make himself presentable before meeting Johanna and breaking the news of her fiancé's presumed death brings him into Sweeney Todd's barber shop for a shave; and while it's always obvious to long-term readers that Todd has killed Thornhill and made off with the pearls, until the penultimate chapter it's not precisely clear how the murder - part of a series - is perpetrated.

It might be surprising how little is seen of Mrs Lovett in the novel. She appears first in chapter four, 'The Pie-shop in Bell-yard', and is set up as a cold and cruel character who hides behind a mask of bonhomie which, together with her famous pies (usually described as veal ones, but on at least one occasion as pork) have given her celebrity status in the City of London, particularly among the young law-clerks and pupils of the Inns of Court. In the early chapters, as Johanna's family and friends are explored, it seems possible that the latticework of acquaintance might have been used to reach Mrs Lovett, but this is never used, and instead the narrative becomes more interested in Todd's apprentice Tobias Ragg, and the efforts of Colonel Jeffrey and another friend, Captain Rathbone, who eventually resort to authority in the shape of magistrate Sir Richard Blunt. This is a late twist in the tale, helps abbreviate Johanna's own cross-dressing detective work, and is a little at odds with the novel's general celebration of hard-working tradespeople endeavouring not to be misled by canting flattery - as Mrs Oakley, Johanna's mother, is by the obsequious and self-righteous evangelical clergyman, Mr Lupin, who has designs on Johanna - or by avarice, like Todd. Ingestrie's decision to go to sea and make his fortune is risky but might prove him more virtuous than the safer path of becoming a lawyer as wished by his uncle. The spectacle of law-clerks feeding on pies made of human flesh is returned to time and time again. This is not the subtlest of satires. Nonetheless, there are a number of good devices used well. Sweeney Todd's visit to the mad-house at Peckham Rye, where Tobias, who has seen too much, is to be imprisoned, brings the reader the spectacle of two mass murderers, Todd and the asylum-keeper Fogg, conversing in circumlocutions, but each quite aware of what the other man's business involves. Later, Fogg and his henchman Watson conduct a stilted conversation about how Fogg manages the asylum's medical inspections. First of all, it's straightforward info-dumping, but it isn't crude because the reader is put in the position of Tobias in his cell, and his keepers are taunting and humiliating him because they enjoy seeing their victim suffer before (over the course of a few days) killing him. The young woman who plans a joint escape with Tobias falls during the climb over the wall, and Tobias is so glad to be free that he thinks no more of her, and as good as tells the reader that utility demands they should forget too.

Christopher Bond's play treated the novel with more respect than I'd realised in reworking the plot into a revenge tragedy. Practically everything that appears in the play, the musical, and the Burton film is derived from something in The String of Pearls. The revenge tragedy structure allows characters to be collapsed wholesale; all very economical. The original Todd would have appreciated it. While the door is open, explicitly at one stage, to Todd's motive being revenge in the book, a wish to become very rich, very quickly, predominates. There's some audience-pleasing humour in the scene where Todd visits John Mundel, a Dutch merchant and high-end moneylender, at his house on the Uxbridge Road, and Mundel fails to see through Todd's disguise (Todd having ordered a suit from a West End tailor, or 'artist' as he prefers to be known) assuming that he is a duke sent by the queen to raise £8000 against royal pearls. Clothes, manners and money are all that makes nobility in Todd's world. Sir Richard restores order at the end, Mrs Lovett is dead before she can justify herself to anybody, Mark Ingestrie turns out to have been present for most of the novel (including a curious section of the narrative where Todd, supernaturally, seems to be in two places at once) and the reader is told that "space and opportunity will not permit us to chronicle in these pages" Mark and Johanna's wedding or the entertainment provided by her comical uncle, Big Ben the beefeater from the Tower of London. (London is a character too, as is the imagined recent past of 1785 when the novel is set; but the author knows both patchily. Evidence, perhaps, that the main author of The String of Pearls was a Scottish incomer to London, James Malcolm Rymer, or just that, like later television hack writers, the contributors to The People's Periodical and Family Library had very little time to do their research.)