In the case of Sweeney Todd, a classic literary character beloved of all ages, ascent to notoriety began in an 1846-47short story publication called A String of Pearls: A Romance. The authors of this publication purportedly have been Malcom Rhymer and Pickett Presto, two men who were well known at the time for writing these stories.
This sort of publication was geared toward the growing population of working class adolescents within the British culture, and became known as a ‘penny dreadful’ or ‘penny horrible’ for their cheap cost(similar to pulp fiction nowadays) as well as grotesquely explicit language. A String of Pearls, among other publications known by the moniker of a ‘penny dreadful’, was most influential in the literary competence of the children who read it.
This era of literacy for Great Britain’s youth coincides perfectly with the surge of books published within the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Elements such as setting, character, and plot are used by the authors to apprehend the minds of its audiences, as a means of identification for British children who read it at the time. These youth, living near the Port of London, would have encountered the settings and topics discussed on a daily basis.
London’s Fleet Street, in the year 1785, is the first setting which is encountered in the story. It houses Sweeney Todd’s barbershop, St. Dunstan’s church, and is a pathway to the den of thieves, Ms. Lovett’s pie shop, Bell yard, as well as the port for the ships at sail. This street is the main setting of the story and around this is where most of the action in the story will take place. Two secondary settings that are not connected to Fleet Street are Mr. Fogg’s asylum and the Mundel home.
A third is out at sea close to Madagascar and is used by the character Colonel Jeffrey to speak on the third party knowledge he has of the love interest of a main character Johanna Oakley. These settings are important because most are actual destinations in London and it would have resonated with the British that this was a validation that their lives and struggles mattered, especially in a literary aspect.
Johanna Oakley, as stated above, is one of the main characters in the story. She is described in the piece with phrases such as ‘a creature of the rarest grace and beauty’. She symbolizes innocence and hope, which was evident as her character persevered for love throughout the story and held steadfast in the belief that her lover was still alive amidst the knowledge of his supposed doom amongst the flames of the ship Star.
The main character is of course, Sweeney Todd, who by all odds is corrupt and cruel. He is given askew traits and stands out from other characters due to his extraordinary hair and signature laugh. His personality can be summarized within a quote in the publication ‘With all my soul’ said Sweeney Todd; ‘it’s very touching-very touching indeed “The heart that can feel for another!” and as he spoke, he emptied the glass, which he pushed toward Fogs to refill.” (Chpt. 25 Mr. Foggs Story at Madhouse)
This statement is being spoken as Todd chats with Mr. Foggs, the money hungry owner of the asylum in which Todd has placed his apprentice Tobias because the child’s knowledge of his corruption threatens his livelihood. The statement is ironic for Todd, as he only thinks of himself and will crush the lives of anyone who comes against his ‘upstanding citizen’ persona, which is obvious by his having placed another apprentice in the same madhouse. The other distinct characters in the story are Ms. Lovett who has a capitalist nature, Tobias, who is seen as vulnerable, and also Hector, a dog who is given human characteristics by his demeanor and action, and represents loyalty. These characters would have been seen by the British children as possible role-models or traits to imitate within their society.
The last elements of discussion are the main plots and the conflicts that derived from them. The story is pushed forward from the beginning with Sweeney Todd’s desire to sell expensive stolen pearls that he has acquired. This issue takes him from a jewelry shop to a thieves den, and then finally he is able to dispose of them by way of a royal loan shark.
Tobias’s conflict is fueled by his fear of Todd having his mother arrested for an alleged knowledge of her stealing items, and this fear leads him to the asylum and finally he resolves it by breaking free and speaking to a magistrate about Todd’s crimes. Mrs. Lovett and Johanna Oakley’s problems coincide when Johanna’s lost beau takes a job as a ‘cook’ in Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and discovers that her scrumptious pies are prepared with flesh from the victims of Mr. Todd. This knowledge concludes the story and could have been viewed by the readers as a dark tale of greed and the importance of choosing their life path wisely.
Like to read the story in full http://www.victorianlondon.org/mysteries/sweeney_todd-00.htm enjoy!