Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

A Source for Sweeney Todd

Scholars agree that there was no historical basis for the story of Sweeney Todd, ‘the demon barber of Fleet Street’, whose establishment was fitted with a trap door through which he dropped his luckless clients, having cut their throats, down to where his partner-in-crime Mrs Lovett baked their bodies into meat pies which they afterwards sold. It’s a very famous story of course, Sondheimed into a musical in 1979, which production was in turn Burtoned into a movie-film in 2007.

Sweeney first appeared in The String of Pearls: A Domestic Romance (1846–47) a popular penny dreadful of uncertain authorship, which may have been written by James Malcolm Rymer. Critics have not identified a specific source for its story (I tried to track down the claim in this old Guardian article, and repeated in the Wikipedia entry for the novel, that ‘Sweeney Todd’s story does appear in the Newgate Calendar’, but without luck). It’s likely of course that there was an urban legend about dubious pie-fillings: in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44), Tom Pinch, expresses his relief that ‘an evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis.’ But that’s pretty general.

Anyway: this afternoon I happened to be reading Maria Edgeworth’s intriguing, philosemitic novel Harrington (1817). A Jewish fan of Edgeworth’s had written complaining that her fiction very often traded in anti-Semitic stereotypes, so she wrote Harrington by way of representational recompense. The narrator is a young English gentleman whose anti-Semitic prejudice is challenged and then overturned by meeting a beautiful and wealthy young Jewish woman, with whom he falls in love. As an example of the prejudice that initially shaped young Harrington, he recalls his childhood terror of the ‘Old Clothes Man’ Simon who walked the streets outside his family’s London house, and then says this (‘she’, here, is Harrington’s nanny):

Source

I can’t be certain this is the first iteration of the ‘Sweeney Todd’ mythos in print. Indeed, I’m pretty sure it’s not (it has, doesn’t it, the feel of an updated Grimms’ tale) but it is a clear antecedent, by three decades, of James Malcolm Rymer’s novel. What interests me is the way this particular version of the ‘Blood Libel’, so notoriously and infamously attached to Jewish populations down the centuries, gets shifted sideways, as it were, into Sweeney Todd. Sweeney, after all, is an Irish name, and Sweeney in Rymer’s novel embodies a number of racist Irish stereotypical traits: ‘he was a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow, with an immense mouth, and such huge hands and feet, that he was, in his way, quite a natural curiosity; and, what was more wonderful, considering his trade, there never was seen such a head of hair as Sweeney Todd’s. We know not what to compare it to; probably it came nearest to what one might suppose to be the appearance of a thick-set hedge.’ It would, I think, be fascinating to look more into this: the evolution of the Libel, and its migration into other widespread English racist prejudices across the nineteenth-century.

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Various jottings and thoughts.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.

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