The 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.