The String of Pearls: The Original Sweeney Todd by Thomas Peckett Prest

The_String_of_Pearls-_A_Romance_-_The_Original_Sweeney_ToddThe gruesome story of Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett’s pies is so famous that despite never seeing the musical or film I still knew the basic elements of the plot. However this story still managed to hook me from start to finish with unexpected twists and lurid writing.

The story centres first on Joanna Oakley and her search for her lover Mark who seems to have been lost at sea, leaving his friend Lieutenant Thornhill to bring her the news and a string of pearls. He never reaches her and she eventually discovers he was last seen entering Sweeney Todd’s barber shop.

Although I like Victorian novels my experience of them has sometimes been long winded and I wasn’t expecting such a brisk opening but I should have expected one seeing as this was serialed as a Penny Dreadful in 1846. Penny Dreadfuls were cheap sensational literature focusing on gothic thrillers or famous criminals and mostly aimed at the young working class.I found the story fun to read with unexpected black humour like the commotion Thornhill’s dog causes outside Sweeney Todd’s shop and Joanna’s put down of Mr Lupin. The characters are interesting although two dimensional. Joanna had less of a main part to play than I assumed she would but I found the misadventures of Tobias Ragg, Sweeney’s tormented young assistant page-turning. The story dragged when it followed Sweeney Todd’s exploits in a thieves den and his attempts to be rid of the string of pearls but overall Prest succeeded in creating a suspenseful and thrilling narrative studded with thrilling moments:

“Very good,” said the barber, “that’s all a matter of taste. And now, Tobias, I desire that you look cheerful and smile, for a gentleman is outside feeling his chin with his hand, and thinking he may as well come in and be shaved. I may want you, Tobias, to go to Billingsgate, and bring me a pennyworth of shrimps.”

“Yes,” thought Tobias with a groan – “yes, while you murder him.”

This book isn’t subtle at all and lacks any kind of depth but I found it enjoyable to read like a macabre fairytale with a satisfyingly depraved villain.

This is part of a series Penguin released focusing on sensational Victorian books like Lady Audley’s Secret and The Mysteries of Udolpho. I may give the others a go since I find their promises of highwaymen and haunted castles very appealing.


North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

nsNorth and South, Elizabeth Gaskell, Penguin Classics, 1995

Before reading this book I saw the BBC adaptation of it which is one of my favourite historical dramas. I finally got around to reading the original story and was enthralled by how dark and intelligent and sensory it was.

The heroine Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable family home in the Southern Countryside when her father, a vicar, moves them all to the fictional northern town of Milton, an industrial town. The changes this brings to her character and values as the poverty she sees around her awakens a passionate social justice is the golden thread running through this story.

Also significant is the clash of ideals between Margaret and the local wealthy manufacturer, John Thornton, and the simmering attraction between them. The prejudice Margaret holds for so called “shoppy” people extends to him but we find that he is also dismissive of the factory workers intelligence by referring to them as “hands.” The wrongness of this, Margaret feels, that it refers to the idea of the Masters having heads as well as hands while the workers have only hands.

I loved so many things about this book. There are so many different facets of the story. Nothing about any of the characters is clear. The Hale family who Mr Thornton sees as holding an elegant middle class lifestyle are actually just as dysfunctional as any family in Milton. The comforting and pretty sitting room hides the shabbiness, the dangerous secret they are keeping about one of their number, the weakness of the family and the pressure on Margaret Hale as the support for her parents.

Margaret Hale is a wonderful heroine for this book. Although she comes to Milton with set middle class snobbery she starts adapting as soon as she finds a “human interest.” Not a charity case but actual friends among the working class like the Higgins family. Her mother is shocked when Margaret starts picking up factory slang and this is in direct contrast to the ladies of Milton who try and put as much distance between themselves and the poor as possible. Margaret’s interest in the injustice she sees in society despite her privileged lifestyle is a theme that is still just as powerful in the modern day.

“How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?”

Another endearing quality of Margaret’s is her constant questioning of herself as a human being not as a person who is seen by others. Mrs Thornton mentions to her disdainfully how she would deal in a crisis and it weighs on her mind; the question many of us ask ourselves; in a dangerous situation would I be brave or a coward?

Elizabeth Gaskell is a wonderful writer and I love North and South. Not only because it is intelligent and has a likeable heroine who strives to step out of her class and even her sex in Victorian society for social justice but also because I had fun reading this book.

Review: A Study In Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

sherlock1“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

I have only read one Sherlock Holmes book, a few years ago, but I have seen so many adaptations of it that I feel like I know the characters very well.

The first version I grew up with was with Basil Rathbone who I automatically pictured in my head when I went to read the Hound of the Baskervilles. I’ve seen bits of the version with Jeremy Brett and the action thriller version by Guy Ritchie. Sherlock, the modern-day adaptation, by Moffat and Gatiss is my favourite. I like the way they’ve basically made it with the same attitude behind the Rathbone version but for our time.

A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock adventure and begins with Doctor John Watson returning from Afghanistan and meeting his soon to be best friend Sherlock Holmes. Through Watson’s eyes the reader learns more about the man, his profession and the criminal world of London. The story revolves around Holmes but because we never see things from his perspective we are constantly guessing at his motives and thoughts just as Watson is.

It is written in first person and although I am normally not a fan of this I can’t imagine the book written any other way. The immediacy we get to the characters is such that can only be achieved with this technique. The story distances itself in the second half as we go into a character’s back story which involves Mormans, survival, love and America. For a second I thought the novel had ended and this was a separate short story; I had to flick through to make sure. Despite this abruptness Doyle still drew me into the narrative and I did come to be interested in the story of these temporary characters.

Overall the Sherlock Holmes history is fascinating. I can see how this would inspire countless adaptations like Rathbone’s and Jeremy Brett’s and now with Sherlock all building on each other a delving deeper and deeper into the psychology of the characters and illustrating them for a modern audience. Despite my love for these I still want to read the originals not just because I feel I should but because I genuinely do enjoy reading about the adventures in the original world of Sherlock Holmes.