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The Gothic ideology and Mrs. Lovett`s Meat pies: A Work in Progress, by Wendy Fall(26 Apr 2016)
Most of us know the Stephen Sondheim Sweeney Todd, or perhaps the 2007 Tim Burton film version. It's a story about a barber who murders people in his chair and his neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, who grinds them up and serves them to the public in pies. That's absurd, of course, but it strikes me as particularly gothic in flavor, so I dug up the original penny dreadful String of Pearls, or the Sailor's Gift, which is the earliest published version of the tale. This particular penny dreadful was a smash success. It spawned contemporary melodramas and printed imitations, was reissued in multiple editions, and became a popular source for innumerable adaptations in musical theatre, puppet shows, opera, ballet, and film. What's surprising to me about the original String of Pearls is that it is a product of Fleet Street in 1846, and so solidly rooted in that time and place. Although the classic Gothic novels usually portrayed the horrors of distant times and places, String of Pearls suggests a Sweeney Todd who could be a barber down the street, and a meat pie contemporary readers could have easily eaten for lunch. With this immediacy comes a tangible connection with the materiality of London, which is reinforced throughout the penny dreadful in various ways.
This type of material emphasis makes a strange companion to a surreal, sensational, tale of multiple throat-cuttings, which makes me think something else must be going on. I'm experimenting now with String of Pearls by using some ideas from Diane Long Hoeveler's recent book, The Gothic Ideology. I won't sum up the book's major arguments here, but suffice it to say that I adopted some of her methods, which involve looking for discursive links between a Gothic story and other contemporary evidence, which can be gathered from among a variety of forms. By placing the text within a context of other publications, I hope to understand its ideological stances more clearly. Since the midcentury press was a constant and thundering machine, there are endless possibilities for this practice. So far, I've focused on periodicals and other cheap household publications from the decade surrounding The String of Pearls which were sold at a similar price point and in nearby locations, and therefore would likely have reached similar audiences. When these sources have pointed me to other types of evidence (and sometimes they have) I incorporated that, too. Among these sources, I have been looking for possible connections with the ideas and topics presented in String of Pearls.
A few examples of (possibly) linked discourse which resonate with String of Pearls are:
- Alexis Soyer’s 1855 book A Shilling Cookery for the People, in which Soyer presents meat pies as an English heritage: “From childhood we eat pies – from girlhood and boyhood we eat pies – from middle age to old age we eat pies – in fact, meat pies in England may be considered as one of our best companions du voyage through life. It is we who leave them behind, not they who leave us; for our children and grandchildren will be as fond of pies as we have been."
- Contemporary "Jack Tar" sailor songs, stories, ads, and other propaganda which encouraged patriotic young men to seek their fortunes at sea. Mark Ingestrie, the long-lost hero of the String of Pearls, sets all the story's events in motion because he is lost in a shipwreck after sending the necklace home to his love.
- Real life crime stories from the mid-century sensationalist press, found in the Illustrated London News and Hue and Cry Police Gazette. Don't worry, no one was cooked in a pie, but a lot of people were definitely worried about crime, what was going on in their neighborhoods.
- Concerns about the disposal of bodies, body-snatchers and resurrection men, which culminated in a report to the House of Commons in 1842, which is a rather disturbing read. It's possible Mrs. Lovett's meat pies are an exaggerated version of a real market for human corpses.
- Dickens' writing on crime, police competence, and the pursuit of justice in London, as reflected in Household Words, and in a couple of his serial novels.
As far as I have thus far gathered, the ideology of the original Sweeney Todd tale in String of Pearls seems peculiarly intent on convincing the reader of a very specific happy ending. Sure, London of 1846 may seem crowded and full of crime, but the riches of empire and the justice of the city's courts will reward residents with the fortitude and resolve to be good English citizens. Although Mark Ingestrie was almost killed at sea and by Sweeney Todd, he wasn't, and instead gets to live happily ever after with his sweetheart Joanna. The story's nationalist and imperialist messages are closely tied with its setting in place and time. By the 1924 melodrama version performed in New York, the cultural connections which had allowed the Gothic ideology of String of Pearls to operate had already been lost, and it had taken on a new anti-British satirical flavor. Moving Sweeney Todd forward to a new audience in a new location causes each future adaptation to resonate with a new discourse network, and modify its ideological bent accordingly.
Hoeveler, Diane Long. The Gothic Ideology. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014. Print.
Unknown. String of Pearls: Featuring Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. London: Edward Lloyd, 1846. Web. September 19, 2015.