Victorian Horror Stories


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Victorian Horror Stories

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Modificato: Ago 3, 2012, 10:04 pm

The string of pearls
Finished reading: 21 June 2012

The string of pearls or Sweeney Todd is a very entertaining, gruesome Victorian horror story.

The story is set in 1785, and the opening chapter quickly introduces the main characters and the leads of the story that will be developed over the about 400-page length novel: Lieutenant Thornhill is on shore-leave carrying a valuable string of pearls, which he is to deliver to Johanna Oakley, the lover of Mark Ingestrie who is supposedly reported as lost at sea. Thornhill never reaches Johanna and the trail leads to his mysterious disappearance from Sweeney Todd's barber's shop. The opening chapter strongly points out Todd as an evil personage, characterised by a disagreeable, mirthful, hyena-like laugh. He is described as an ill-fitted, ugly and weird person having a most terrific head of hair - "like a thickset hedge, in which a quantity of small wire had got entangled"- keeping all his combs in it, and some said his scissors as well. There is a strong suggestion that something must be going on at the shop in Fleet street, as we are told rents the whole building but only uses the first floor. He is extremely secretive, and utters the most violent threats at the address of his assistant, Tobias Ragg. When Tobias replies that he "won't say anything {as} I wish, sir, I may be made into veal pies at Lovett's in Bell Yard if I as much as say a word" this is an oddly ambiguous statement, which seems to refer to urban legend or suggests that Tobias already knows exactly what is going on.

Despite the fact that the reader realizes so early what the gruesome secret is, the reader is not aware of the details, the characters in the novel do not, and the story leads up to this horrific discovery, revealing one disgusting detail after another, and as the truth comes out (to the novel's characters) the revelation is still a gruesome climax to the reader.

Each strand of the story is cleverly and extensively developed to its fullest potential. The personal and business relation between Sweeney and Mrs Lovett, which is dominated by Todd's incredibly evil genius. The ingenuity of Todd's scheme and the connection between the shop in Fleet Street, Saint Duncan's Church and Mrs Lovett's pie shop in Bell-Yard. The hazards of selling the string of pearls. The involvement of Johanna, who dresses up as a boy to gain access to Todd's shop and the danger to which she exposes herself snooping around at the barber shop trying to discover Todd's secrets.

Sweeney Todd or The string of pearls also publshed under the title Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an extremely entertaining story that deploys various story telling devices of the adventurous Victorian novel. There are only one or two chapters of digression from the story, causing attention to slack a bit, but most of the time the story is adventurous and engaging. The characters bear various traits of characters from Victorian literature, such as the chivalrous Colonel Jeffrey, but the characters are nonetheless real enough, as even Colonel Jeffrey admits to acting out of more than just chivalry, as he develops feelings for Johanna, which, however, he controls.

Tobias Ragg is a somewhat Dickensian character, reminiscent of Oliver Twist, and his experiences at the hands of Watson and Mr Fogg, the keepers at the madhouse belong to the best parts of the book.

Much of the fun in reading Sweeney Todd or The string of pearls is in the eating of Mrs Lovett's pies. The reader knows what is going on, almost right from Chapter 1, so each time a meat pie is eaten you get goose pimples and shivers along your spine.

Their fame had spread even to great distances, and many persons carried them to the suburbs of the city as quite a treat to friends and relations there residing. And well did they deserve their reputation, those delicious pies; there was about them a flavour never surpassed, and rarely equalled; the paste was of the most delicate construction, and impregnated with the aroma of a delicious gravy that defies description. Then the small portions of meat which they contained were so tender, and the fat and the lean so artistically mixed up, that to eat one of Lovett's pies was such a provocative to eat another, that many persons who came to lunch stayed to dine (p.36)

While many people have heard of Sweeney Todd or The string of pearls , very few people seem to have read it, and the book is owned by less than 150 people on LibraryThing. Possibly this is caused by the fact that for the longest time the book was published anonymously, and still authorship of Sweeney Todd or The string of pearls is disputed.

The 2011 Penguin edition ascribes Sweeney Todd or The string of pearls to Thomas Peckett Prest a Victorian hack writer of whom little is known (not even date of birth and death are certain), who parodied Charles Dickens publishing novels with titles such as he Life and Adventures of Oliver Twiss, the Workhouse Boy, David Copperful and Nickelas Nicklebery beside another 14-odd novels. However, there is a considerable number of scholars who suggest that the real author of Sweeney Todd or The string of pearls was James Malcolm Rymer, another Victorian writer of "penny dreadfuls". Scholarship supports that Thomas Peckett Prest and James Malcolm Rymer jointly wrote Sweeney Todd or The string of pearls, authoring alternating chapters, originally published serialized over eight weeks. Such mixed or unclear authorship may be the reason why the novel is little read. On LibraryThing, various editions are listed by the name of their respective editors, while the novels are not combined.

Excellent stuff!

Ago 3, 2012, 2:42 pm

Fascinating Edwin. You're right, not enough people have this, myself among them. I shall endeavour to correct that for late summer reading!