The string of pearls – Thomas Preskett Prest

I’ve never seen any of the many versions of the story of Sweeney Todd. So, I was intrigued to read the original novel when it was chosen by my 19th century bookgroup. We’re currently reading 19th century books & plays that inspired musical versions. We’ve recently read La Dame aux Camellias & now Sweeney Todd. The novel is actually called The String of Pearls & I’ve discovered through the posts of the very knowledgeable members of the group, that there have been many changes to the story in the subsequent musical versions. My copy of the book actually has Johnny Depp in the latest movie version of the Stephen Sondheim musical on the cover, but I couldn’t take a non-flaring photo of it so I used this one instead.

All I knew about Sweeney Todd was that he murdered his victims by means of an ingenious swivelling barber’s chair which dumped them in the cellar where he cut their throats & that they were made into meat pies by Mrs Lovett. What I didn’t expect was that the book would be such a great read.

The author is supposed to be Thomas Preskett Prest but even this isn’t certain. The story first appeared in Edward Lloyd’s People’s Periodical. Lloyd was renowned for ripping off famous authors of the day. Some of his other serials were Oliver Twiss & Nikelas Nickelberry. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you whose books were being plundered there! Copyright laws were practically non-existent in the early 19th century & unauthorized print & stage versions of any successful novel were commonplace.

The String of Pearls is set in the 1780s in London. Sweeney Todd has set up his barber’s shop & is murdering wealthy men with alacrity. He has cupboards & chests filled with the money, gold, jewels & walking canes of these unfortunate gentlemen & their remains are conveyed by an underground tunnel to Mrs Lovett’s pie shop where they’re made into pies by a succession of unfortunate cooks. As soon as the cooks work out where the meat is coming from, they’re made into pies as well & a new employee is sought. This is a rip roaring story with grotesque characters & not a lot of character development. We never discover how Todd & Mrs Lovett met or why they began their evil trade. Todd has a resourceful assistant, Tobias Ragg, who is shocked when he disobeys orders & searches Todd’s rooms when he’s out. He soon realises what’s going on &, after trying to escape, ends up imprisoned in an asylum.

The pearls of the title are the property of a young seaman who is presumed lost at sea. Mark Ingestrie went to sea after his love affair with the beautiful Johanna Oakley is forbidden by her parents. He is on his way home to her with the pearls when his ship is lost. The only survivor is Captain Thornhill, Mark’s friend. He has the pearls & is on his way to tell Johanna of Mark’s death when he stops for a shave at Sweeney Todd’s barber shop. That’s the last we see of Thornhill, although his faithful dog, Hector, stands guard outside the door of the shop, arousing the suspicions of his friend, Colonel Jeffrey, who is determined to find out what has happened. One of many loose ends in the story is what happens to Hector. We can only presume he ended up in a pie but his fate is uncertain. Johanna is heartbroken when she hears Jeffrey’s story & decides to get a job as barber’s assistant, dressed as a boy. A local magistrate with his own suspicions of Sweeney Todd becomes involved & the scene is set for the exciting ending.

Along the way, we see Todd trying to sell the pearls, falling in with a set of thieves & barely escaping with his life & a particularly horrible picture of an insane asylum run by rogues for the sole purpose of incarcerating forlorn heiresses & unwanted children. The story is full of macabre humour & melodrama. Todd talks to his customers of “polishing you off” but they think he means a brush & a shave & he means something altogether more sinister. The pies are described in the most luscious way,

And well did they deserve their reputation, those delicious pies; there was about them a flavour never surpassed & rarely equalled; the paste was of the most delicate construction, & impregnated with the aroma of a delicious gravy that defies description. Then the small portions of meat which they contained were so tender, & the fat & 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, wasting more than an hour, perhaps, of precious time…

The enjoyment of the young clerks & lawyers who frequent the shop is emphasized & lingered over in the most stomach-churning way as the reader knows what the eaters do not. As usual in this type of melodrama, the villains are much more interesting than the hero & heroine. This is definitely a page turner. It’s a story that could have been forgotten if its vitality & ingenuity hadn’t ensured its popularity at the time & made it the basis for the many versions of the story that have followed.

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