Image courtesy of PBS.org

I was thinking about ways to improve the traffic on this thing we call the Floating Academy, and it struck me that I might write something about Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. Maybe we’ll get a little Johnny Depp action on here. If not Depp fans, then we might reasonably expect to pick up a few readers googling their favorite obscure Victorian villain. I would be absolutely amazed, and honestly quite impressed, if we were to acquire readers from that rare group of enthusiasts of Sweeney Todd, the relatively unknown Canadian band fronted by a 15-year-old Bryan Adams.

I’ve been fascinated by Todd for a decade now, although I can’t remember where or when I first learned of the barber most infamous for turning his customers’ mutilated bodies into tender and delicious meat pies. Most people know of Todd through Stephen Sondheim’s musical thriller, or more recently through Tim Burton’s film adaptation. My initial interest developed from a curiosity about the illustrations to some of the earliest penny bloods from the 1840s and 1850s. Back in the days before widespread digitization, I spent hours reading microfilmed copies of the Todd stories purchased from the British Library. Nowadays, literary scholars such as Robert Mack have produced excellent editions of the earliest Todd serial, The String of Pearls.

I’ve always struggled with the idea of writing about Sweeney Todd. Perhaps it’s because of the inaccessibility and scarcity of much of the nineteenth-century material, or maybe I get rather annoyed by the preoccupation with authorship and publication history that seems to plague scholarship on Victorian penny fiction. Truthfully, the material just isn’t good enough to be taken seriously on its own terms. Reading The String of Pearls with a critical eye informed by cultural analysis is like trying to find some kind of significance in a story written, at different stages, by numerous ten year old boys who only want to write about chases, acts of violence, blood, and more chases, without any sensibility to the intricacies of storytelling. Perhaps that’s part of the charm of penny fiction: it’s the Victorian equivalent of the slasher film today.  One knows going in that the story is beside the point.

In recent years, literary critics have started to take penny fiction anti-heroes like Sweeney Todd a little more seriously. Yet much of the available research out there is still scattered throughout the web, or located in obscure archives or home bookshelves of private collectors. I get melancholic at times thinking about the wealth of misinformation out there about Sweeney Todd. Who knows, perhaps Mack’s recent edition will help lend some legitimacy to the study of Victorian penny fiction. I have my doubts, though, because where one finds ephemera, one also finds Walter Benjamin’s figure of the Collector, for whom “the world is present, and indeed ordered, in each of his objects.” In contrast to the Allegorist, who dislodges things from their historical context, the Collector “brings together what belongs together” (Arcades Project Convolute H). Benjamin acknowledges that there is a little bit of allegorist in every collector, and vice versa, but herein lies the source of my melancholy — the patchwork incompleteness of the archive of Victorian penny fiction both frustrates and excites my imagination’s ability to organize ideas about the field. I want complete knowledge and mastery of the archive of Victorian penny fiction, but it will always remain a patchwork of paper ephemera (the way things always are for the Allegorist). The impossibility of mastering what is by its very nature unmasterable leaves me in a state of doubt about the usefulness of what I might have to say about Sweeney Todd should I decide to devote time to writing about the topic.

Does anyone else feel melancholic in this way when researching and writing about obscure archival materials? Perhaps you get angry, like I do, when your beloved materials of study are appropriated wrongly by the popular culture machine that is the internet? Perhaps you also get excited, like I do, by the intellectual stimulus of your own anger? Let’s talk…

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5 thoughts on “The Melancholy Problem of Sweeney Todd

  1. Frederic Jameson helps calm me down. I do get frustrated by the pillage of the past by Sondheim and Co – particularly the aesthetic sampling (have you ever noticed that the “magic worlds” of contemporary film are often just re-interpretations of the British lower-middles in the the 1930s?). Countering the veracity of the pop culture machine’s mash up of images or texts from the past won’t help us engage with the ephemera that has survived. Jameson suggests that it’s more “more appropriate to assess the new cultural production within the working hypothesis of a general modification of culture itself.” Don’t be melancholy – Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd isn’t about the 1840s, it’s about, well, now. How we recycle the past to make up the “now” is thoroughly fascinating.

    I know that trying to take solace in Jameson’s work feels a bit like being held under water while being admonished not to struggle, but it does help me relax… until I put a little more anger or frustration in the ol’ gas tank.

  2. Oh, and I’d love to know what you think the ratio of Allegorist is to Collector in Steam Punk art – I’ll keep an eye out next month.

  3. Ha, I know what you mean about Jameson. I feel that calming influence as well sometimes.

    I do think that melancholy, at least in the way the Victorians understood it, is an appropriate term for diagnosing the experiences of many literary critics and historians, especially those who work with ephemera. So, I actually prefer to be melancholic — there’s a rich affective life that comes with feeling things intensely, even when by definition the melancholic gets stuck in various aporias, causing doubt and uncertainty about the value of researching obscure fields of study.

    I’m thinking about the Allegorist/Collector dialectic as it applies to steampunk. More to come…next month…

  4. I’m irritated how research about Sweeney Todd gets treated, though pop culture isn’t my objection. It’s that it’s to the point where even if discoveries are made no one wants to publicize them! I finally had to just start publishing my own research online. I actually figured out where he and the piemaker would have lived if they were real, on the old Rue de la Harpe in Paris.

  5. I think there is a fair amount published now, and some of it is actually credible. Mack’s Introduction to his edition of Todd is quite good, and thoroughly researched.

    The story of the French barber you refer to first appeared in England in 1824, if I remember correctly, in the Tell-Tale magazine. I would be quite suspicious of any search for that barber’s real location on the Rue de la Harpe. It would be like looking for the original story of any of our own urban myths today–origins are tantalizing and seductive but never fully accessible.

    My complaint about the available research is different than yours. I think we have reached a stage where there is a fair amount published on Todd, but the problem is that much of it is not reliable. Some published works, such as Haining’s, are actually quite shocking in their skewing of the truth, in that they twist quotations around, make up sources, and generally cite fictional passages as evidence of real events.

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