The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend

Kamilla Elliott devours many slices of a pie that has fascinated collectors and academics alike

March 6, 2008

If The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd were a meat pie and I a food critic, I would find myself torn between admiration for its immense array of ingredients and the difficulty of digesting them all. While author Robert L. Mack describes the book as a "pointedly casual survey", it is nothing of the sort: it is simultaneously insatiable and sated, voracious and cramful, not only with everything you ever wanted to know about Sweeney Todd but also with anything and everything related to it, including (but not limited to) barber shops, "the great British tradition" of meat pies, crime and punishment, cannibalism, London life, literacy, Fleet Street, the price of popular literature, theatre, melodrama, film, television, musicals, graphic novels, literacy, popular versus canonical literature, folklore, consumerism, capitalism, psychoanalysis, postcolonialism and other threads in academic criticism. All are offered as contexts through which the impressive accumulation of Sweeneybilia can be processed.

In his neo-Victorian palimpsest, Mack sets the avidity of the Victorian collector and the expansiveness of the Victorian intellectual in a postmodern ethos and framework. The book is thus an unusual blend of Victorian density and Victorian sprawl, viewed from many angles and done in many voices. Although it divides into three ostensibly traditional, (chrono)logical sections - "Contexts, themes and background"; "Text and sources"; "Visions and revisions" - its microstructures are often atemporal and associative. A section on cannibalism, for example, leaps back and forth across centuries and continents and inspires associative reflections on xenophobia, capitalism and sexual desire. While these are thoughtfully addressed, such eclectic postmodern mince runs at odds with the heavy crust of detailed research and dense prose, which can at times make even fascinating material difficult to get through. However, Mack is never dull or plodding. His narrative personae range from vivid anecdotalist to contemplative philosopher, from documentary reporter to sensationalist journalist, from detailed close reader to condenser of entire fields, from star-struck fan to sceptical critic, from historical detective to political moralist, from avid collector to measured academic.

Marketing indicates that the book targets educated general readers as well as academics, and I found myself wondering how such a reader might respond. So I asked Edward Phillips, a retired, self-educated friend, widely read in Victorian literature (including earlier tomes on Sweeney Todd), for his opinion. He was impressed with the scholarship and found the subject matter "most interesting", although too detailed at times ("like smashing a nut with a sledgehammer"). However, one pressing question for him remained unaddressed: what human flesh tastes like and why fictional pies became all the rage. While he recommends the book as "a valuable reference book for cultural historians", he doubts that it will catch on with general readers because it is structured as a reference book rather than a story, and its academic prose impedes "the narrative flow that makes for ease of reading". Nevertheless, he found much to interest him and looks forward to the possibility of "Sweeney Todd: the Ice Skating Spectacular" in the not-too-distant future.

To sum up, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd is certainly full of wonder and surprises, but it is also full to bursting and scattered. Whether it will sate the reader after a chapter or few or whether it will stimulate hunger for the entire book will depend entirely on whether the reader's appetite for all things Sweeney is as voracious as Mack's and whether the reader has enough of a postmodern palate to appreciate its numerous and diverse ingredients.

The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend

By Robert L. Mack
Continuum
400pp
£25.00
ISBN 9780826497918
Published 17 January 2008

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