The Placement of Fleet Street
While reading about the characters’ journeys throughout The String of Peals, there was definitely a lack of visualization when it came to picturing the locations of the various shops on Fleet Street, and indeed the placement of Fleet Street in London. Obviously, reading about the places in the story gives way to description and imagery. Looking over the map, however, gives me a different impression, as you can actually see the placement of the characters to each other and how this had an impact on the story as a whole. After all, the location of the characters to each other would influence each and virtually every event taking place.
Upon viewing the 1844 map of London, the first thing that pops out at me is Fleet Street, located right in the center of the page. Fleet Street is significant in many ways, most notably that Sweeney Todd is immediately introduced as the “the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” With such a title right from the start, it was easy to assume that the majority of the action would indeed take place on Fleet Street, and have the largest effect on multiple characters throughout the entire story. Something that is not quite accessible to just reading the story on its own, however, is the length and size of Fleet Street. While reading the story, I imagined it as a cut-off and far-removed street in London, one that was rather small and not easily noticeable, after all, if you were murdering so many people every week, you would think the ideal spot would be on a street that doesn’t draw the eye or attract a lot of visitors. But when I viewed the map of London in 1840 I was surprised to see how large Fleet Street actually was. Several city blocks merged into it, and visually, it seems to dominate a notable section of the page. When following the characters in the atlas, simply being able to see the street where so much takes place has a significant effect on the story itself. With the shop being on a main street, not a side street or a selective corner of London, it gives the team of Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd even more credit. Perhaps operating something so sinister on a main street was actually an extremely clever decision on their part, because all of this went on right underneath the citizens’ noses. Sweeney himself may have put people on edge with his laugh and demeanor (Mr. Todd was disgusted by Sweeney Todd’s animalistic laugh, telling him to his face, “You call that a laugh? I suppose you caught it of somebody who died of it” (4)). Sweeney Todd is also described on the same page as an “odd looking barber”, but amazingly, “for all that he did a most thriving business, and was considered by his neighbors to be a very well-to-do sort of man, and decidedly, in city phraseology, warm” (3). Thriving businesses are the ones that are placed front and center on important streets, and to place a shop devoted to deception and death on a main street was definitely no accident on the author’s part. I gave the placement of their shops little to no thought while reading the story, but seeing firsthand the strategic placement of where this shop would have actually been on Fleet Street made me rethink many aspects of their entire operation. After all, with Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop located further away, not immediately next door to the barber shop, but accessible through other means, who would ever even suspect the connection between these two characters?
Many men were attracted to Mrs. Lovett and her charming smile that she pulled out whenever necessary, but like Sweeney Todd, she too gave off a vibe that might make someone think twice about her true motives on a daily basis. She is described by her non-admirers as having a smile that “was cold and uncomfortable—that it was upon her lips, but had no place in her heart—that it was the set smile of a ballet dancer…” (18). With two characters that can so easily put people on edge, one being unnatural and the other looking monstrous, it helps their “cause” to have The Bell Yard and Fleet Street connected, but not too close to arouse suspicion. Seeing on the map their relation to each other definitely made me really be able to see how they might have been able to pull this off for so very long. By going about their business in a “normal” way, in sight but still under the radar, they were able to keep people almost at an arm’s length to suit their end goals and ambitions for an extraordinarily long time.
The String of Peals represents London as an almost perilous space, because Fleet Street is so pronounced and easily visible, instantly recognizable to every reader. Once you know that the innocent barber shop located on this street isn’t so innocent after all, and is instead connected to the Bell Yard in an extremely terrible way, it changes the way you view their entire operation. I, for one, began to understand how they could do what they did in broad daylight. They assumed the personas of simple workers offering products and services to the general public, and they did this so well it would be crazy to even guess at what was really going on. If anything, having the barber shop on a main street instead of the pie shop also raises some interesting questions. How different would it have been if Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop was the one located on Fleet Street instead? They may have disappeared in Sweeney Todd’s place of business, but they reappeared in hers. Having hers a bit more removed, but more appealing (especially to a large portion of the male population) makes it even more threatening, because so many people could vanish in such a well-populated place. It makes the reader wonder what other things could be going on behind closed doors, which I’m certain, was a goal of the author while reading this tale of evil happenings in everyday habitats.
John Cross, Guide to London. London: Cross, 1844. (c) David Hale / Mapco 2006-14.
THE STRING OF PEARLS (London: Edward Lloyd, 1850).