There have been a couple of excellent scholarly editions of Sweeney Todd in recent years. Wordsworth Editions recently published its 3rd edition of the text with a new introduction by Penny Bloods expert, Dick Collins, and Robert L. Mack edited the Oxford University Press edition in 2007.
Sweeney first appeared in The String of Pearls: A Romance, which was serialised in Edward Lloyd's The People's Periodical and Family Library in 18 weekly parts in 1846-7. A much expanded version was published in book form in 1850 by Lloyd and subtitled 'The Barber of Fleet Street. A Domestic Romance'. Charles Fox published a celebrated version as Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in about 1880, which was much reprinted. Above is an ad for it in Fox's Boy's Leisure Hour from 1888.
Melbourne book dealer John P. Quaine, who I've mentioned several times before, was a Sweeney expert, and, according to his obituary, owned several copies of the Fox version. He also wrote a radio play version in 1935 which was published in The Collector's Miscellany between May and December 1935.
The following article appeared in the Melbourne Argus on Saturday 8 July 1950, and was clearly influenced by Quaine, incorporating a couple of his inventions such as Sawney Bean, The Man-eater of Midlothian. Recent research has shown that James Malcolm Rymer, not Thomas Peckett Prest, was responsible for The String of Pearls.
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street!
By John Drake
By John Drake
Devaluation of the pound and demands from American book collectors, have turned the shilling shockers of the 19th century into prized possessions of 20th century bibliophiles.
In the last year British book dealers have watched with delight while the price of a bound Sweeney Todd, in good condition, has risen from about £25 to over £35.
Destruction of many 19th century blood and thunder magazines by people ignorant of their rarity, and the activities of collectors with a nostalgic yearning for the full-blooded fiction of the Victorian era, have all combined to force up the prices.
Sweeney Todd, Springheel Jack, The Blue Dwarf, and a hundred other characters, first appeared in weekly and bi-weekly instalments known as "penny parts" or "penny bloods." Periodically they were issued in collected form as "shilling shockers."
The 19th century shockers were created to satisfy the desires of the huge new reading public which sprang to life with the spread of literacy through England at the beginning of the century.
First story form to appear was the Gothic shocker.
Based on the framework constructed in such pure Gothic shockers as Horace Walpole's "Castle of Otranto" and Ann Radcliffe's "Mysteries of Udolpho," all Gothic shockers were set in huge castles and monasteries of the architectural style whose name they took.
These huge buildings almost invariably possessed a wing which, although closed down and never used by the owners, teemed with strange and dreadful life after dark. In the cobwebbed, dusty halls, the great organs played wild and terrible music on stormy nights, and behind the tattered curtains burnt flickering red lights.
And just as invariably the hero of the Gothic shocker entered the closed down wing to chase a pet dog, or track down the sounds of a child's weeping, and spent the rest of the novel heartily regretting his curiosity.
Typical of Gothic shockers were "Geralda the Nun," "The Black Monk," "Varney the Vampire," or "The Feast of Blood," "The Ranger of the Tomb," and "The Secret of the Grey Turrets."
One of the earliest breakaways from the rigid style of the Gothic shocker was "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street."
Sweeney's line of business, of course, was supplying human flesh for the manufacture of veal pies, and he was the most successful of all the characters ever created in popular thriller literature.
From his first appearance in a novel with so mild a title as "A String of Pearls" in 1840, until the shocker's popularity began to wane around 1900, Sweeney appeared again and again in stories based on cannibalism.
For half a century theatrical companies played Sweeney Todd to packed houses, and for half a century no stage carpenter thought himself a master of his craft unless he could make a barber's chair fitted to drop through the floor of the stage.
It is possible that Sweeney Todd was modelled on Sawney Bean, who was tried and executed for cannibalism in Scotland in the 13th century. Sawney Bean's exploits were retailed at one time in a shocker titled "Sawney Bean, the Man-Eater of Midlothian."
More probably he was based on a French barber in whose cellars 300 skulls were found shortly after the French Revolution. After the discovery of the skulls neighbours realised that, although the barber's next door neighbour made the finest veal pies in Paris, nobody had ever seen meat delivered to his door.
Sweeney was the creation, on his first appearance, of one Thomas Peckett Prest, who had already won fame among penny blood readers for his stories "The Maniac Father," "The Victims of Seduction," "Vice and its Victims," and "Phoebe the Peasant's Daughter."
Sweeney 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 such a head of hair as Sweeney Todd's. We know not what to compare it to; probably it came close to what one may suppose to be the appearance of a thick-set hedge in which a quantity of small wire had got entangled."
Sweeney also had a laugh which was so horrible that "people had been known to look up to the ceiling, then on the floor and all around them, to know from whence it had come, scarcely supposing it possible that it proceeded from mortal lips."
Sweeney's shop was in Fleet Street, by St. Dunstan's Church. On the other side of the church "was Mrs. Lovett's pie shop, which could be reached from Sweeney's cellars by means of underground passages.
Mr. Lovett's pies were famed for miles around, and were particularly esteemed by members of the legal profession.
"There was about them a flavour never surpassed and rarely equalled; the paste was of the most delicate construction and impregnated with the aroma of a delicious gravy that defied description. Then the small portions of meat which they contained were so tender, and the fat and 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, and endangering (who knows to the contrary?) the success of some law suit thereby."
But while Mrs. Lovett's customers slavered over her supreme pies, industrial unrest was brewing below stairs.
The pieman who worked in her underground bakehouse was becoming dissatisfied with his working conditions. He was allowed to eat as many pies as he wanted, and he was housed and clothed, but he was never permitted to leave his dungeon. Nor did he ever see the supplies for his piemaking arrive. While he slept fresh supplies of meat mysteriously appeared in the room.
One morning he found a sheet of paper on the floor. On it was written: "You are getting dissatisfied, and therefore it becomes necessary to explain to you your real position, which is simply this: you arc a prisoner, and were such from the first moment that you set foot where you now are ... it is sufficient to inform you that so long as you continue to make pies you will be safe, but if you refuse, then the first time you arc caught sleeping your throat will be cut."
As he finished reading the threatening note a trapdoor above his head opened and Sweeney Todd's face appeared.
"Make pies,"advised Sweeney Todd. "Eat them and be happy. How many a man would envy your position - withdrawn from the struggles of existence, amply provided with board and lodging, and engaged in a pleasant and delightful occupation; it is astonishing how you can be dissatisfied."
But, not the slightest bit cowed by Sweeney's menaces, the pieman broke through a barred door at the back of the bakehouse, and in an instant discovered the source of the piemeat in an adjoining cellar.
The climax of the story finds Mrs. Lovett laboriously winding a fresh batch of pies up on a service lift from her underground kitchen, spurning offers of assistance, but tiring rapidly with the labour of hauling up an unusually heavy batch of pies.
"How the waggish young lawyers' clerks laughed as they smacked their lips and sucked in all the golopshious gravy of the pies, which; by the way, appeared to be all delicious: veal that time, and Mrs. Lovett worked the handle of the machine all the more vigorously that she was a little angered with the officious stranger. What an unusual trouble it seemed to be to wind up those forthcoming hundred pies! How she toiled and how the people waited, but at length there came up the savoury steam, and then the tops of the pie's were visible."
On top of the pics, of course, was sitting the young cook from the cellar.
In the midst of dead silence from the astounded crowd he announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, I fear that what I am going to say will spoil your appetites; but truth is beautiful ¡it all times, and I have to state that Mrs. Lovett's pies are made of human flesh!"
"How the throng of persons recoiled! What a roar of agony and dismay there was! How frightfully sick about 40 lawyers' clerks became all at once . . .!"
Mrs. Lovett collapsed and died of shock, and of the effects of poison which Sweeney, who had made his pile and wanted to get out of the business, had put in her brandy.
Sweeney himself was arrested and later hanged.