Charles Dickens and Sweeney Todd
Yesterday, Robert Mack, the editor of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, wrote about the unknown author of Sweeney Todd. Today Mack looks at Dickens’s influence. This post first appeared on Powell’s.
The original publisher of Sweeney Todd, Edward Lloyd, in whose journal The People’s Periodical and Family Library first appeared in 1846-7, had begun his career a decade earlier, publishing plagiarisms of the hugely popular work of Charles Dickens. His products included such well-disguised works as Oliver Twiss and Nikelas Nickelberry. The author of Sweeney Todd also borrowed from Dickens, if a little more subtly than Lloyd.
The figure of Todd is reminiscent of another of his near-contemporaries in nineteenth-century fiction, Daniel Quilp, the malignant dwarf from Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. But the Dickens work with which Sweeney Todd is most clearly related is Martin Chuzzlewit. In that novel the guileless Tom Pinch is convinced that country visitors to London are regularly lured into unfamiliar quarters where they are ‘made meat pies of, or some horrible thing’. Dickens writes that Pinch is grateful that his own ‘evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many standard country legends, as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis’. In chapter 19 of Martin Chuzzlewit, the character of Poll Sweedlepipe is introduced. He is the landlord of the famous ‘Sarah Gamp’ at Kingsgate Street in High Holborn, London, who ‘was an easy shaver also, and a fashionable hair-dresser’. His premises are noted as being ‘next door but one to the celebrated mutton-pie shop, and directly opposite to the original cat’s meat warehouse; the renown of which establishments was duly heralded on their respective fronts’. One of Phiz’s illustrations for Dickens’s novel even features representations of both Sweedlepipe’s shop – with a sign advertising ‘Easy Shaving’ in the window – as well as the neighboring ‘Mutton Pie Depot’, the front of which is similarly ornamented with a signboard in the shape of a mutton pie. Who is to say that the combination of narrative traditions about a barber who cut the throats of his customers and country legends about the bodies of slaughtered neighbors being disposed of in the form of meat pies, together with Dickens’s descriptions and Phiz’s illustration, did not first inspire the story that we now know as Sweeney Todd?
Other references to Dickens can be seen in the representation of the Oakley household, the family of the <u>Sweeney Todd</u>’s heroine: the pompous and hypocritical preacher Mr Lupin, shop-boy Mr Sam, and Johanna’s protective uncle ‘Big Ben’ have clearly been inspired by Dickens’s description of the Varden family in the earliest chapters of Barnaby Rudge; many of the details of Todd’s nocturnal journey to the lapidary in Moorfields in Chapter 7, and his unintentional visit to the ‘thieves’ den’ in Chapter 8, appear to have been taken from the same novel. The central narrative that is based around Mark Ingestrie’s attempts simultaneously to impress his uncle, Mr Grant, and to win the approval of Johanna’s father by making his fortune in the East Indies, similarly bears a remarkable resemblance to the earliest descriptions of Walter Gay, Sol Gills, and Captain Cuttle that had only just been offered to readers in the first monthly part of Dombey and Son in October 1846.