Revealing Sweeney Todd: Exploring a 19th Century Penny Dreadful as a Literary Classic

In 2013 the mention of the character Sweeney Todd conjures up images of Johnny Depp dressed in dramatic makeup and singing in a high budget film production; however, today’s audiences may not be aware of the villain’s extensive history in English literature and the numerous transformations that took place before the creation of the musical monster. From its origin as a serialized Penny Dreadful to an elaborated text and eventual stage play, the infamous barber Sweeney Todd has become a well- known literary character. Sweeney Todd first appeared in the Penny Dreadful titled “A String of Pearls.
A romance” published anonymously in 1846/1847. The first work was subject only to negative criticisms as a cheaply written tale for the lower classes of England. As the story has moved through time and Sweeney Todd has gained popularity, this original text deserves recognition beyond that of a simple immoral tale. The mysterious plot of the story guides readers through a suspenseful narrative laden with mystery and surprise. Much in the way that the pieces of the story are revealed, it is apparent that the 1847 “A String of Pearls. A Romance. ” be exposed as a great work in English literature.
I will examine the ways in which the story’s title misguides the reader in plot and twists the story’s overall context, ultimately robbing it of the credit it deserves. I will then look at the ways in which the story’s potential fame has been masked behind nineteenth century literary critique. Based on the title of the piece, the string of pearls would appear to be the key plot element of the story. The reader assumes that the plot will be driven forward by the stolen gems and that ultimately they will be the treasure that brings together the lost lovers at the end of the tale.

Conversely the pearls end up leading the reader astray, becoming only important in subplots of the story (Mack 120). The introduction of the string of pearls is within the first chapter when Sweeney Todd burgles them from Mark Ingestrie before murdering him in his barber shop. The pearls are the treasure Mark Ingestrie had brought back for his betrothed, Johanna Oakley and while the tale is dedicated to the strand of pearls, they are only the motivation for plot movement in two of the thirty nine chapters, appearing only when the barber tries to sell them off for profit.
The pearls misguide the reader in plot; however, it is the secondary title “A Romance” that misrepresents the gothic form of the story. Gothic literature originated in the mid eighteenth century and was targeted toward the same middle-class audience as novels (Davison 2). What separated the genre from the majority of works at this time was its focus on ghostly and mystical material and settings. Most critique of gothic works during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was centered on its immoral nature as it was claimed that the literature appealed to readers’ corrupt tastes (Davison 5).
Certain elements of literature are prescribed solely to the gothic and can easily define a work as belonging to the genre. According to Davison there are three features that can always be found within a gothic; horror, romance and mystery (7). With this description in mind and the fact that “A String of Pearls. A Romance” was a penny dreadful whose roots were founded in the gothic genre (Anglo 1), it is easy to place the story within the realm of gothic literature. Looking specifically at the three elements outlined by Davison, it is questionable as to why “A String of Pearls…” was published as a romance.
The romance in the story is typical of eighteenth century tales, where love is the cause of immense joy or upset to characters. Reactions of romantic characters of the period are expected to be over the top dramatically (Davison 58). The romantic characters in the story, Johanna Oakley and Mark Ingestrie fit this description accurately. Johanna’s love for Mark Ingestrie is unbearably strong and the reader is subject to her immense folly as she learns of his possible death. She cries “Oh, Heaven why have I lived so long as to have the capacity to listen to such fearful tidings? Lost- lost- all lost! God of Heaven!
What a wilderness the world is now to me! ” (Lloyd 28) after learning that her betrothed did not return from his trip at sea. Mark Ingestrie also shows brief moments of extreme emotion when he believes that Johanna has betrayed him for another man; he admits to himself that he is all alone as “she whom I loved is faithless” (Lloyd 61). While the two romantic characters in the story prove to be accurate portrayals of romance literature at the time, their melodramatic outbursts are rare within the story and do not pre-occupy the tale. Much more prominent in the story is the terror induced by the characters of Sweeney Todd and Mrs.
Lovett. Sweeney Todd is described as maniacal in both appearance and action while the crime duo haunt the entire town, feeding their victims flesh to the population of London. The opening chapter of the story introduces the reader to Todd and from the beginning Todd gains his reputation as the story’s villain. Described as “ill- put-together…with an immense mouth and such huge hands and feet” (Lloyd 2), the barber is made to appear monstrous. His laugh is also described to the reader early on to be so terrifying that a customer comments “do you call that a laugh?
I suppose you caught it of somebody of who died of it. If that’s your way of laughing, I beg you won’t do it anymore. ” (Lloyd 4). It is not only his horrific appearance introduced in chapter one, but also Todd’s wicked personality. It can hardly be taken as a joking threat when the barber leans into his apprentice Tobias and warns “listen to me, and treasure up every word I say… I’ll cut your throat from ear to ear, if you repeat one word of what passes in this shop” (Lloyd 3). From the beginning of the tale, readers are cautioned that this character possesses the traits that will turn this tale into a terror.
Todd’s partner in crime is also subject to an introduction highlighting her villainous features. While Mrs. Lovett is described to be physically very appealing, her eyes and smile portray the evil within her. It was said that her “smile was cold and uncomfortable-that it was upon her lips, but had no place in her heart…and there was a lurking devil in her eye” (Lloyd 18). The description given of Mrs. Lovett, with the lurking devil in her eye became a favourite for gothic fiction writers, the language enabling it to evoke an eerie presence within the character (Mack 126).
Mrs. Lovett’s outward appearance as a young beautiful woman hides behind this demonic smile and veils her customers from what is in her basement and in her pies. The horror spread by the baker and the barber is that of the urban unknown. The story utilizes feasible fears created in an urban center such as London and through Todd and Lovett plays them out to their full effect. The dreadful partners tap into anxieties that are deeply rooted in people’s minds in cities with large populations and high rates of crime.
A serial killer paired with cannibalism is not far-fetched horror; it is a fear that lies as a realistic possibility within all of us (Hand 141). Hand points to the fact that while some villains such as Van Helsing, and Jekyll and Hyde have lost their scare factor; Sweeney Todd continues to fill the role in horror due to his believable terror (141). Due to the fact that Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett possess such strong horror characteristics, it is impossible for the story to remain in the realm of romance. The two characters are the driving force that make this tale so enticing.
It is these two characters alone that transform the romance into a terror (Mack 103). The attributes of horror are more prominent in the tale, as the love between Johanna Oakley and Mark Ingestrie become a subplot to the terrifying murder and cannibalism taking place. It is because of this that I believe the story is titled incorrectly. Just as the pearls are not of great significance to the plot, the romance also leads the reader astray from the true gothic element of the story. The class distinction and segregation of London in the eighteenth century shows itself prominently in the story.
Mark Ingestrie destined to be a lawyer and respectable middle class man runs away in hope of finding treasure at sea. Changing his name to Lieutenant Thornhill, his journey proves a success until his return to London and loss of treasure. He then takes his place as a working class citizen, making pies for Mrs. Lovett under the name Jarvis Williams. The character’s multiple roles in the story at different class levels, is a similar structure taken by the story “A String of Pearls…” itself. The first time “A String of Pearls. A Romance. was published in 1846 it was in Edward Lloyd’s weekly magazine People’s Periodical and Family Library. The serialized story ran for eighteen weeks and had a total of thirty nine chapters (Weltman 1). Lloyd’s publication was considered to be a Penny Dreadful, aimed at middle class London readership (Anglo 46). Penny Dreadfuls were serialized literature that provided cheap and entertaining reading for the English working class in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. They rose in popularity as the rates of urbanization and literacy increased in country.
The demand created for affordable literature was met with a transition from chapbooks to Penny Dreadfuls (James and Smith xi). Penny Dreadfuls have their roots in gothic literature, as they tended to take commonly known tales from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and embellish them with details of crime and gore (Anglo 10-11). The first Penny Dreadful tales were aimed at an audience of all ages and sexes and were known commonly as “bloods”, however, by 1860, the serialized pieces were enjoyed predominantly by young boys (Anglo 12).
Due to their cheap and quick production, Penny Dreadfuls were subject to much criticism (Dunae 134). In a severe critique made in by the evangelical society of London in the nineteenth century, Penny Dreadfuls were said to be “devoid of every element of sweetness and light and are filled instead with blood and revenge, of passion and cruelty, as improbable and almost impossible in plot as they are contemptible in literary execution” (Dunae 135).
Criticisms such as this were common during the publication of Penny Dreadfuls as they threatened the didactic and moral literature children were preferred to have indulged in. The upper classes looked down on the works as immoral and sensationalized crime stories (Dunae 140). According to Dunae, much of the controversy surrounding Penny Dreadfuls was in reality caused by class issues in the time period, not by the content (147). Groups attacked the publications as they were a threat to the upper classes.
Working men and children were thought to be empowered by reading of lower class heroes and crime (Dunae 147). Much as Sweeney Todd himself is judged by his appearance as a lower class criminal, the story he appears in, is heavily critiqued based on its low form as a Penny Dreadful. If the story were to have been published originally in a form other than a Penny Dreadful, I believe it would be considered a greater piece of literature.
Lloyd’s publishing company, like many others at the time was made up of numerous authors who were said to pass stories around, so it is believed to be unclear as to who was the original author of the Sweeney Todd tale (Jackson). Dunae proposes that the quality of writing in “A String of Pearls…” is of higher quality than most Penny Dreadfuls and believes he has traced the original author to be James Malcolm Rymer; a more well-known Penny Dreadful author with significant works such as “Varney the Vampire” (136).
It is not only the writing that makes this story stand out from the rest. While most Penny Dreadfuls are predictable with diffuse and predictable plots (James and Smith xiii), “A String of Pearls…” takes numerous plot turns that are unexpected and shocking to the reader. More contemporary literary critics have discussed the story in a more positive light. Anglo makes the claim that “A String of Pearls…” is the best known Penny Dreadful (15) and that the character of Sweeney Todd is the most dreadful and famous villain from any of the tales published in the period (49).
There has been one critique of the work that went as far to claim it has offered “some of the best horror writing ever written” (Jackson) and can easily be seen as the inspiration to later horror works such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula (Jackson). While “A String of Pearls…” may be gaining some recognition as an inspiration for other works, Mack points to elements of the story that stem from recognized classic literature that aid in pushing the work into a the category itself.
Sweeney Todd, as villainous as he may be possesses an immense depth of intricate and confused humanity. His loneliness, regret and fear allow the reader to sympathize for the evil character in times of trouble (Mack 127). Mack claims that this is similar to villains created in Dickens works. The Sweeney Todd story is also inspired by other great works such as the Odyssey (Mack 116), as the story mimics the basic outline of a man returning from sea and falling prey to cannibalistic murder.
The connections Mack is able to make to between the Penny Dreadful tale and classic literature allow the story to stand out in plot, influence and writing, all of which attribute it to be a greater work than originally labeled. The original story published by Lloyd in 1847 gained popularity quite quickly and before the final three installments had been printed, George Dibdin Pitt adapted it into a stage play and opened it March 1st 1847 at the Brittania theatre (Weltman 1). Since then, the story has been adapted numerous times for stage, film and literature (Weltman 20).
In this way, it has made its way through different classes as it becomes exposed to more people through different mediums. “A String of Pearls…” has influenced a remarkable amount of literature since its creation (Mack 197). Sweeney Todd characters along with his cannibal pie making accomplice continue to appear in children’s literature to current day, including Terry Pratchett’s Where’s My Cow? Their popularity and horror has spread across the world in an array of works (Hand 141).
The story’s survival is only more proof that it deserves the recognition of a great classic within English Literature. The story of “A String of Pearls. A Romance” brings to light the ways in which a publication’s format and title can affect its success as a piece of literary work. The story’s origin as a serialized Penny Dreadful published in 1846/ 1847 confined its critique to a cheap and immoral tale meant only for the enjoyment of lower class readers. The format along with its title as a romance ignored the tale’s true identity as a great work of gothic literature.
Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett’s characters embody horror by dominating the plot with a terror that can seem all too realistic for any reader. Their murderous and cannibalistic narrative overshadows the romance advertised to readers. It is their horrific and suspenseful narrative that has carried through the past two centuries popularizing Sweeney Todd in literary works to this day. The nineteenth century characters’ ability to inspire terror in modern audiences deems this story the right to be called a classic.

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