Attend the Tale: Sweeney Todd and The String of Pearls 

A number of nineteenth-century literary monsters haunt the contemporary imagination. Frankenstein’s Creature, Edward Hyde, and Count Dracula have captivated generations of readers. So has Sweeney Todd, the fictional London barber who in Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 contribution to the mythos, “shaved the faces of gentlemen / Who never thereafter were heard from again.” Tod Slaughter (1936)

Todd and his resourceful pie-maker accomplice Mrs. Lovett made their first appearance in 1846 in The String of Pearls, A Romance, a novel serialized in the populist publisher Edward Lloyd’s People’s Periodical and Family Library and now conclusively attributed to James Malcolm Rymer (1814-84). The tale of Todd immediately captivated the London public. The first stage adaptation of The String of Pearls, by George Dibdin Pitt, opened in 1847, before the serial had finished its run. In 1850-1, Lloyd published an expanded edition, initially in penny parts (instalments sold for a penny each.) Upon its first appearance, this version was titled The String of Pearls, or the Sailor's Gift, a Domestic Romance. By the end of 1851, this version had gained a final title, The String of Pearls, or the Barber of Fleet Street, a Domestic Romance. 

During the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Sweeney Todd became the protagonist of a vibrant transmedial storyworld, that holistically incorporated many variations by different authors and in different media, and expected audiences to arrive knowing something of the basic story (Haugtvedt 2016). One contribution to this tradition is the film pictured at right: George King's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936), starring Tod Slaughter. ("Norman Carter Slaughter" was his birth name.)

The Salisbury Square School

Despite Sweeney Todd’s popularity, scholars have yet to canonize The String of Pearls, because, for a very long time, this text (either the serial or 1850-1 version) and its genre were not considered literature. Published at Lloyd’s premises at 12 Salisbury Square, near Fleet Street, The String of Pearls is an example of “The Salisbury Square School of Fiction,” or, cheap serialized fiction for working-class audiences written by authors employed by Lloyd. The term “Salisbury Square School” suggests the “Cockney School,” comprised of Leigh Hunt, John Keats, and other Romantic-era London poets, which was derided for its inclusion of working-class writers and its political radicalism. The Salisbury Square School received similar criticism. The Victorian writer Thomas Frost recalled, in his memoir Forty Years' Recollections: Literary and Political (1880):

In the opinion of those who would have the working-people of that day devote their evenings to the study of the physical sciences, as well as those who would fain have restricted the reading of the industrial classes to the Bible and the "Whole Duty of Man," the tales and romances of [...] the Salisbury Square school were replete with moral contamination. (6)

Frost found this response misguided and hypocritical. He judged Salisbury Square’s productions less immoral than French and English novels intended for middle- and upper-class consumption (92-3). Moreover, Lloyd and his fellow penny publishers had  democratized reading.  “The first locomotive,” Frost recalls, “was not viewed with more fear and distrust than the first [public] elementary school and the first penny periodical” (6).

Salisbury Square fiction was reviled throughout the nineteenth century. In fact, the terminology that replaced “Salisbury Square Novel” as a generic identifier reveals the genre's marginalization. Beginning circa 1870, Lloyd’s publications and generically equivalent works issued by his competitors were called “penny dreadfuls.” Later, in the twentieth century, these were termed “penny bloods,” with the original term “dreadfuls” reserved for the less bloody version of the genre that was widely produced circa 1860-1900. The changes in the genre were due in part to the 1857 Obscenity Act’s suppression of much violence in literature. Both bloods and dreadfuls were considered disreputable, and certainly not either literature or art. Copies disappeared. After all, the readers for whom they were originally produced did not tend to leave their books to university libraries. To quote Keats, the bloods and dreadfuls were, more so than his poetry, to some extent “writ on water.”

In fact, the earliest bibliographer of penny bloods, the occultist Arthur E. Waite, was drawn to them by their rarity and apparent inscrutability, an idea previously explored by Wilkie Collins and Margaret Oliphant. “For a century past at least,” Waite wrote in his bibliography The Quest for Bloods, probably sometime in the 1920s, “a multifarous literature has been circulating in England, above all in London, by its thousands and myriads, its constituents”–the bloods–“dissolving almost at their birth and leaving so few traces behind that it is comparable to a realm of hiddenness, a world almost unknown.” Waite considered himself “privilege[d] to be the one person now alive on this planet who is in a position, and is so inspired, to write thereon” (2).

Who Invented Sweeney Todd?

While Waite found penny bloods intriguingly mysterious, many other critics considered their authors boring–because they needed paid work. In the Victorian era and today, Salisbury Square authors tend to be dismissed by the literary and academic elites as “hacks”: people whose writing was mercenary, formulaic, artless, and unworthy of serious study. Still, as the fan base of The String of Pearls and the Sweeney Todd mythos grew, people wanted to know who had invented the Ruffian Barber (as one American reprint of The String of Pearls called Todd.) In 1892, the notoriously unreliable journalist George Augustus Sala was suspected (or so he said) of having written The String of Pearls (when he was only eighteen!) He protested that he had not written it, but when asked again, he claimed it was written by the Lloyd regular Thomas Peckett Prest. This rumor was recycled until it became the unquestioned answer to the mystery, which, to a certain extent, it remains.

Those twenty-first century critics who have looked into the authorship question have persuasively identified the author as another member of the Salisbury Square School, James Malcolm Rymer. Born in impoverished Clerkenwell in 1814, Rymer grew up surrounded by literature. His father, an engraver, published poetry and an early Gothic novel, The Spaniard, or the Pride of Birth. Two of Malcolm Rymer’s other sons were artists. Still, James Malcolm Rymer explored various fields before finding his forte. In 1840, he patented engraved castors for furniture, then, in 1842, edited a short-lived literary-arts magazine, The Queens Magazine, from which the engraved portrait of Rymer at left derives. Within a year of the magazine’s collapse, he was writing several penny bloods at once for Lloyd. In 2002, the bibliographer Helen R. Smith compiled a list of attributions to Rymer and his various pseudonyms (Malcolm J. Errym is one; Lady Clara Cavendish another) gleaned from many advertisements published by Edward Lloyd. The standard format of Lloyd’s advertisements was to announce a new title as “by the author of” a previously or concurrently published one. Smith found that Lloyd attributed to the author of The String of Pearls many titles known to have been written by Rymer.  These works include Varney the Vampire, of which a fragment in Rymer's handwriting, discovered by the critic Louis James, has survived. Dick Collins, the final critic to argue strenuously for an alternate attribution, in his updated edition of 2010 declared Rymer without question the author. While, as Collins explains, a few chapters of The String of Pearls (1846-7 and 1850) appear authored by a substitute or secondary writer, the primary writer evidently was Rymer.

Gothic Goes to Town

Like many Salisbury Square novels, The String of Pearls participates in the Gothic mode. Originating in eighteenth-century novels such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and Matthew G. Lewis’s The Monk (1796), the Gothic mode tended to construct what critic Jerrold Hogle, in the Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (2002) calls “counterfeit medieval” worlds. The settings are “antiquated or seemingly antiquated space[s]” within which “are hidden some secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the story.” Sometimes the haunting elements are supernatural, but not always. Hogle distinguishes between “terror Gothic,” which frightens readers with “threats to life, safety, and sanity” of the characters, and “horror gothic,” which deals in “the gross violence of physical or psychological dissolution, explicitly shattering the assumed norms (including the repressions) of everyday life with revolting, consequences” (1-2). It would not do to reveal very much of the plot of The String of Pearls,  but it is both a terror Gothic and a horror Gothic. It also involves a good deal of humor.

Another way in which The String of Pearls departs from Romantic-era Gothic tradition is in its use of urban space. As the critic Robert Mighall (2003), has pointed out, the Gothic fiction of Radcliffe's era tended to take place in exotic settings, especially early modern Catholic Continental Europe. Villains were Italian, Spanish, or French. In later, Victorian Gothic novels, the location of danger and mystery moves from the British reader’s geographic periphery to that reader's center: London. Burgeoning in population and allegedly infested with crime, an anonymous space in which individuals may silently disappear, London became a location of “urban mystery.” As Richard Maxwell (1992) has shown, Victorian novelists were deeply influenced by the “urban mysteries” genre imported from France with the novels of Eugene Sue (The Mysteries of Paris, 1842-3), adapted by the penny blood author and publisher (and sometime employer of Rymer) George W. M. Reynolds (The Mysteries of London, 1844), and informed by Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), which was widely available in English translations marketed to a multitude of audiences.

The String of Pearls uses London metropolitan space in similar ways. Many of the London street addresses most frequently visited by the characters, including Sweeney Todd's shop, exist in an area of North London that nineteenth-century writers called 'Alsatia', after a long-forgotten residential population allegedly from the French/German border region of Alsace. Initially associated with the real neighborhood of Whitefriars, 'Alsatia' was infamous in the nineteenth-century imagination for criminal activity and believed to be practically a no-man's-land for law enforcement, and therefore a safe space for career criminals. A key nineteenth-century depiction of it appears in Sir Walter Scott's The Fortunes of Nigel (1822). According to Scott:

[T]he place abounded with desperadoes of every description,—bankrupt citizens, ruined gamesters, irreclaimable prodigals, desperate duellists, bravoes, homicides, and debauched profligates of every description, all leagued together to maintain the immunities of their asylum [...] It was both difficult and unsafe for the officers of the law to execute warrants emanating even from the highest authority, amongst men whose safety was inconsistent with warrants or authority of any kind. (I, 105)

In The String of Pearls, eighteenth-century Alsatia's urban space serves to hide many (though not all) of the villains' crimes. The indexical depiction of London in general makes the city seem uncanny (both unnervingly familiar and bewilderingly mysterious), which makes The String of Pearls an effective example of the urban Gothic mode and the metropolitan mystery.

The UWGB Edition

It remains difficult to read or teach the novel in its 1850 expanded, final version of The String of Pearls. Three print editions of the original 1846-7 serial exist, edited by Collins (2005), Robert L. Mack (2007), the latter the author of the essential study The Wonderful Adventures of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend (also 2007), and  Rohan McWilliam (2015). As for the 1850 version, in 2013, when the UWGB edition of The String of Pearls began to take form, no scholarly edition of any kind existed. That lack might have been due to a problem of access. Until very recently, only one library worldwide, the British Library, possessed a copy of the 1850 String of Pearls. It is part of the Barry Ono collection, donated after the actor and penny fiction collector Ono passed on, in the 1940s. In 2012, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, acquired another copy, and in December 2014 generously made a digital facsimile of this copy available to the global public via the open-access Internet Archive. Since 2015, the UNC facsimile has enabled students (and now alumni) of the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay (UWGB), under the auspices of the Department of Humanities program in Digital and Public Humanities, to create an annotated edition of the 1850 text. The UWGB edition will be the first edition of that text to be published since 1850, and the first complete edition with a critical apparatus ever.

For now, our edition is a work in progress. The first cohort of UWGB student editors began their work in September 2015. The edition is particularly indebted to the interface design and content management work of initial technical editors Sarah Miles and Matt McAnelly. In December 2015, a baker’s dozen chapters were ready in rough draft form. We have been adding chapters since, and now have 60 online in draft form; 1-10 are proofread and finalized. In 2018, we will continue to proofread, fill in missing notes, correct encoding and formatting errors, and add a carousel of images of the original 1850-1 engravings.  In time, we’ll have the complete 1850-1 text , with the original illustrations, available for close reading and machine-supported distant reading. We are particularly desirous to make the text accessible to the human reader via phone, e-book, digital watch, or other hand-held device, on the grounds that this is a necessary widening of access comparable to Lloyd's 1840s reading revolution.

Readers of the Collins, Robert Mack, and Rohan McWilliams’ editions of 1846-7 text may find our edition of the expansion  a useful supplement (and vice-versa.) Our edition may also provide additional contextualization for Sharon Aronofsky Weltman’s edition of the first stage adaptation. By contributing to these critics’ reconstruction of Sweeney Todd’s original texts and contexts, we aim to bring Sweeney Todd to more high school and college classrooms, theatre practitioners, and general readers.

Furthermore, the Salisbury Square edition is open access. Anyone with an internet connection and a computer or reading device can experience it, and that, I believe, is how Rymer and Lloyd would have wanted it. While Lloyd strove to provide his country’s workers and their families with news, stories, and art, Rymer reminds us that we cannot live on bread (or suspicious pies) alone. In The String of Pearls, Mrs. Lovett hires a succession of frighteningly disposable workers to operate her subterranean “pie manufactory” (58). The archaic term emphasizes that it’s a factory, not a bakery, not even an industrial kitchen. The workers are warm, housed, and fed, but without any company, dialogue, art, science, or other kind of humanistic solace, they “contemplate... suicide” (241). 

In making this distinction, Rymer was prophetic. His pie manufacturers have twenty-first century counterparts in, for instance, the laborers of the prison-industrial complex  and in many factory workers. In recent years, the Taiwanese-owned FoxConn factory in Shenzhen, China, which produces IPhones, experienced a spate of workplace suicides. And while Todd threatens his workers with dismissal, violence, or death if they dare to investigate company practice or demand more compensation than bare subsistence, an American fast-food megacorporation provided its workers with a patronizing home economics guide. Its sample budget includes a hand-to-mouth budget with no allowance for arts, entertainment, culture or leisure excepting a cable television subscription. Like Todd’s business, this modern company allows its employees to work and eat, but hardly, in any meaningful sense, to live. As for Lovett’s pie manufacturers, their despair is exacerbated by the congealing knowledge that the company’s product results from murder–a detail that no one explained to then, and that their atrophied critical thinking skills do not compel them to investigate in time.

In this plotline, one of the many moving parts of The String of Pearls, Rymer suggests that when we humans are deprived of knowledge, choice, reasoning skills, art and culture, time to think or play, and freedom to question and criticize, we risk both practical and moral death. We risk becoming unwitting murder accomplices, victims of despair, and consumers of our fellow humans. Although The String of Pearls contends that Sweeney Todd died circa 1785, his eerie laughter remains audible. I hope that you enjoy reading it, and that it gets your mental machinery whirring.

Rebecca Nesvet, General Editor
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
(c) 2014-2018


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