Sweeney Todd’s London Atlas
When reading a text, how often do you think about whether or not the author has stayed true to the physical representation of his or her choice in setting? In all honesty, it’s one of the last things I consider when sitting down to indulge in a story. When I first read The String of Pearls, or The Barber of Fleet Street: A Domestic Romance, I enjoyed the fact that the anonymous author used street names when describing the ways in which the city of London was laid out in relation to the story’s villain, but didn’t even consider whether or not the city was being described in an authentic way. This past week, our Literary Eras class contributed to the creation of Sweeney Todd’s London Atlas, and as a result, my understanding of the text has transformed. The String of Pearls is a story in which the physical and cultural spaces of London are represented, and by doing so, new and exciting rhetorical ends are created.
The String of Pearls is an accurate depiction of London as a physical space; by analyzing historical maps, and mapping places that appear in the text, readers are able to see how the story is a true physical representation of the city. Sweeney Todd’s barber shop is located on Fleet-street, and as the text indicates, it is located near significant establishments: “It was so handy for the young students in the Temple to pop over to Sweeney Todd’s to get their chins new rasped; so that from morning to night he drove a good business, and was evidently a thriving man” (3). His shop is located near the “Temple,” which is indicated on the 1767 map of London that classmates marked-up. This establishment is located near the River Thames, which allows readers to infer that Sweeney Todd’s shop is frequented by both citizens of London and visitors to the city. The barber’s first victim – that readers are aware of – is a stranger to London: “There was a small crowd collected opposite the church, for the figures were about to strike three-quarters past six; and among that crowd was one man who gazed with as much curiosity as anybody at the exhibition” (4). Sweeney Todd’s shop is located within viewing distance of St. Dunstan’s clock. The story is set in 1785, but was published in 1850; the clock was rebuilt in 1831, and as discussed in class, it wasn’t even there when the story was written. The clock is described as a landmark in the text, and as a result of the location of the barber shop, Sweeney Todd is able to pick out his victims by observing the ways in which they admire the clock. The more a person stares at the landmark, the more likely he or she is a tourist. Ultimately, the layout of the city is critical to the text’s narrative. As a physical space, the story stays true to the physical representation of London in 1785.
As a cultural place, The String of Pearls represents the ways in which London catered mostly to those able to afford its luxuries during the late 18th century. Mrs. Lovett – Sweeney Todd’s accomplice – owns a pie shop located near what is known as the Inns of Court: “And mostly from Lincoln’s-inn do these persons, young and old, but most certainly a majority of the former, come bustling and striving, although from the neighboring legal establishments likewise there came not a few; the Temple contributes its numbers, and from the more distant Gray’s-inn there came a goodly lot” (17). The pie shop is located near law offices and, as the text showcases, many of these workers flock to Mrs. Lovett’s establishment for their lunch. When considering Henry Mayhew’s representation of costermongers and consumers in Chapter 9, “Of the Street-Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables,” from his work, London Labour and the London Poor, Volume 1, many of his observations match those made in The String of Pearls. Mayhew writes, “Men and women, and most especially boys, purchase their meals day after day in the streets” (159). Purchasing food in the streets, or in a pie shop, was part of the culture in London during this time in history. The food culture was so engrained in London’s society that the majority of people preferred to eat from street shops or carts. In The String of Pearls, Lovett’s pie shop attracts all income levels: “High and low, rich and poor, resorted to it” (17). The meat pies are irresistible and worth every penny. Mayhew, in his work, also observes this borderline addiction where men prefer to spend their money on “solids”: “Men whose lives, as I have stated before, are alterations of starvation and surfeit, love some easily-swallowed and comfortable food, better than the most approved substantiality of a dinner-table” (159-160). A person would rather starve for a few days, just so that he or she could have a few extra pennies to put towards street food. The culture of London, at least during the late 17th century and early-to-mid 18th century, was centered on food and commerce. Lovett’s pie shop is a clear representation of London as a cultural place.
The process of reading the characters’ journeys. versus following them in our atlas, creates entirely new possibilities regarding the story’s rhetorical ends. Both Sweeney Todd’s barber shop and Lovett’s pie shop are surrounded by offices of the legal profession. The 1844 map created by classmates allows one to see a visual representation of the precariousness of Sweeney Todd’s and Mrs. Lovett’s situation: the monsters of the story are situated at the heart of the story’s setting. They are engaging in criminal activity practically in front of those who can legally condemn them to a life of imprisonment, or possibly death. When considering the physical placement of the story’s villains, could the author be making a critique of London’s legal system, indicating that it is flawed?
This past week, my partner Melissa and I studied the 1844 map and made a list of places not indicated in the text, but that appeared on the map. Two streets I found rather interesting were Skinner Street and Farringdon Street. As discussed in class, streets were often named after the profession that originally resided there. A “skinner” most likely skinned animals and sold their hides as leather. It may be a stretch, but perhaps the street name of Farringdon represents the profession of a farrier, whose job was to shoe horses. The author knew the street names of London – specifically, the ones surrounding the two shops – so it is possible that he or she was inspired to use people in a similar way as to how animals were historically used in London. While Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett do not skin people, they do use their “meat” to make money. Sweeney Todd also appears to treat humans in a humane way by cutting their hair, just as farriers treated horses in a humane way by fixing their shoes. Was the author thinking about London’s past industries of commerce and blending it with Victorian modes? Without creating an atlas, I may never have considered some of the author’s rhetorical intentions.
Sweeney Todd’s London Atlas is a tool that can help readers visualize the city of London. It may change the ways in which one interprets the text and even bring readers closer to the author’s own experience when he or she wrote the story. From simply reading the text, I was not aware of how centrally located our villains were because I often think of monsters hiding away at the edges of a story’s setting. As a result of mapping the characters’ locations, I came away with new ideas regarding what the author may have been trying say about the city of London; he or she may have written the story as a way to criticize London’s legal profession, or possibly imply monsters exist at the heart of a city. The author of the String of Pearls stays true to the physical and cultural representation of London in many visible and text-supported ways. This method means that the rhetorical end intended for the story’s audience may also be chillingly true: there is something corrupt going on in the center of London.
The String of Pearls, or The Barber of Fleet Street: A Domestic Romance. London: Edward Lloyd, 1850. Print.