Continued from Part 3.
Before we examine the merits that made our three breakthrough fantasies break through, I hope you will permit me a Historical Digression:
As luck or providence would have it, the other night I saw, for the first time, Tim Burton’s magnificently lurid production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That tale has been around, in various forms, for nearly two hundred years; it is one of the hardy perennials of horror fiction – far older than Dracula, almost as old as Frankenstein, almost exactly contemporary with the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.
Mr. Todd first appeared in 1846, in a story called The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Priest – who, for that achievement alone, deserve to be ranked in the first class of Victorian novelists, but never are. For, alas, The String of Pearls was a penny dreadful. That is a term, or insult, that may need a bit of explanation for the benefit of the modern reader.
Every so often, the business of literature is turned topsy-turvy by some new technological development, and the previously unchallenged assumptions of the Grand Old Men of the business are blown to atoms and scattered widely over the waste regions of the cosmos.
At present, the electronic book, and the ingenious online retailing machine perfected by Mr. Bezos, are blowing up the assumption that books are physical objects and (as such) governed by the particular economic laws that obtain in conditions of limited supply. Electronic books are not in limited supply; electrons are far more abundant than readers, and even electronic computers are cheap and plentiful enough to stay ahead of any conceivable demand for books. The wise old publishers who built their business on controlling and restricting the limited supply of paper books, and the limited shelf space in the bookshops, are falling now like new hay before the scythe. Their whole training and temperament, which made them such able buccaneers under the old system, completely unfits them to survive in the new. They still have not seen what hit them; they are only just beginning to realize that they have been hit.
Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, while printing was relatively cheap, paper was an expensive commodity. It was made mostly from waste linen, and consequently, the quantity of paper manufactured could never exceed the quantity of linen that was thrown away. (You could make paper directly from flax fibres; but it was much cheaper to let the linen industry use the flax first, and buy up the worn-out linen afterwards.) Men and women made a decent, if undignified, living as rag-pickers – the recyclers of their time. Ragpickers scavenged all kinds of useful stuff from the rubbish-heaps of the world, but their chief stock in trade was linen rags for the paper trade: hence the name of their profession. So long as the supply of paper was limited in this way, books remained a luxury; literacy for the masses, a pipe-dream.
In the 1840s, separately but almost simultaneously, two men invented machines for turning wood into a fibrous pulp. One was a German, F. G. Keller; the other a Canadian, Charles Fenerty. This wood pulp, it turned out, could be used to make paper almost as good as linen-rag paper, and much cheaper. For a few years before this, a few small firms in London had been turning out cheap pamphlets containing lurid adventure stories for a mostly working-class audience. The new pulp paper allowed the pamphlets to be printed by the millions, and ‘pulp fiction’ was born. When The String of Pearls appeared, the usual thing was to release a novel in weekly instalments, and charge (in England) a penny for each issue. The stories were not chosen for highfalutin literary quality; they were written to please a large and not very sophisticated audience.
The English upper classes ignored the new medium. The middle classes, who feared anything that might diminish their advantages over the working class, hated it and sneered at it, dismissing all stories so told as ‘dreadful’. This was a calumny. As Theodore Sturgeon would certainly have said, nine-tenths of the penny serials were crap; but then, nine-tenths of the expensive books favoured by the middle classes were crap. The real sin of the penny dreadfuls was not that they were bad stories, but that they brought printed books within the reach of the Lower Orders.
Half a century later, a great moral crusade swept Britain like a new broom. The crusaders were filled with a high and holy desire to cleanse the culture of the (alleged) low morals and (admitted) sensationalism of the penny dreadfuls. The dreadfuls were blamed for every social evil from beer-drinking to Jack the Ripper. In much the same way, in the following century, heavy metal lyrics were blamed for juvenile delinquency and teen suicide. If this high and holy desire was mixed up with an even stronger desire to make a quick buck – well, that was a point that the crusaders liked people to overlook. In the 1890s, Alfred Harmsworth led the crusade to victory. He began by putting out clean, moral, sermonizing stories for a halfpenny; and when the public ignored these, he put out lurid and sensational stories for the same halfpenny, and made a fortune. As A. A. Milne put it, ‘Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller.’
One of G. K. Chesterton’s early essays was ‘A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls’, in which he declared firmly: ‘Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.’ He went on to say, with a scorn worthy of Jonathan Swift:
But instead of basing all discussion of the problem upon the common-sense recognition of this fact – that the youth of the lower orders always has had and always must have formless and endless romantic reading of some kind, and then going on to make provision for its wholesomeness – we begin, generally speaking, by fantastic abuse of this reading as a whole and indignant surprise that the errand-boys under discussion do not read The Egoist and The Master Builder.
What working-class readers, especially young boys, wanted was vicarious adventure. They liked a good ripping yarn well told; but if they had to choose between a ripping yarn badly told and a dull, insipid story well told, they would take the ripping yarn every time. Young girls were more likely to go in for vicarious love-affairs. In Victorian times, both kinds of cheap fiction, the adventure stories and the love stories, were called ‘Romantic’; but by an accident of linguistic drift, the label of ‘romance’ is now applied to the second kind only.
The penny dreadfuls were replaced as the dominant form of working-class fiction by the ‘halfpenny dreadfullers’. It was Harmsworth’s company, the Amalgamated Press, that published The Gem and The Magnet, in which most of Charles Hamilton’s school stories appeared. The paper shortage of the Second World War killed those papers, along with most of the dime pulp magazines that were their American counterparts. They in turn were replaced partly by paperback books, and partly by television; and the mass-market paperback, these last few years, has been largely replaced by electronic books.
Each of these forms, in turn, has been subjected to the same withering scorn, accompanied by the same hysterical predictions of the Downfall of Western Civilization. The ‘cultured’ middle classes, it would appear, want a monopoly of culture; the thought that the poor might have a culture, and that it might be a different culture from that of the bourgeoisie, fills them with horror and alarm. At any rate, it produces horror and alarm among the media moguls and bohemian artists who mass-produce the stuff that is sold as bourgeois culture. The actual bourgeoisie, from what I know of them, do not much care, and take their fun wherever they please.
They do not take very much of their fun by reading the stuff that the moguls and bohemians call ‘literary’. Literary Fiction is not literature; it is a publishing category, less profitable than most, but marketed with greater cynicism. The average publisher’s attitude towards Westerns or space operas or ‘nursy novels’ is roughly, ‘It’s trash, but it sells, and who am I to question that?’ But the same publisher’s attitude towards Literary Fiction is an interesting combination of fetish-worship and humbug.
Until the latter part of the nineteenth century (it is hard to imagine it now) it was impossible to get a degree in English from any university in an English-speaking country. The proper job of a university was to teach the old-fashioned liberal arts, solidly rooted in the Classics – in Greek and Latin literature. The general opinion among academics was that the English language and English literature were not difficult enough to be taught at the university level. To give a degree in English to a native English-speaker was a foolish notion; you did not get a B.A. for learning things you were supposed to know already.
Linguistics and philology, on the other hand, were considered highly suitable subjects for university study. Both those fields were fresh and fascinating then. It was only in 1786 that the philologist William Jones founded Indo-European linguistics with this shrewd observation:
The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.
If it was proper to study Latin and Greek at university, why, it must also be proper to study Sanskrit, Gothic, and other ancient languages – Old and Middle English among them. There was a surge of interest in the history of languages; in how one language changed by degrees into another, or gave birth to many daughter languages, as Latin gave birth to the Romance tongues. And what better way to study those ancient languages than to read and interpret their literature, if any survived?
So the degree program in English language was born. At Oxford, the most prestigious English-language university, that meant studying English and its literature up to the time of Chaucer – roughly the tail end of Middle English. But it was clear that the language and literature of later times were still of scholarly interest, and difficult enough (though this point was long disputed) to justify the award of an Oxford B.A. So the degree in English literature came into being: a sort of poor cousin at first, quickly growing into a bumptious nouveau riche. For the ‘English Lit’ curriculum proved hugely popular among students – partly because it was interesting to them, and partly, alas, because it was easier than fussing about with dusty old books like Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The professors of the Classics department (and ‘English Lang’ as well) shook their old grey heads in disapproval; but the thing had been done and they could not well go back.
But the professors of the new discipline keenly felt their lack of scholarly stature. If you could study Shakespeare at Oxford, why, you might study any kind of low trash – even penny dreadfuls! The new professors urgently needed some material to give their field cachet – to make it look as difficult, and therefore as important, as Latin, Greek, or Anglo-Saxon.
This brings us down to about 1900: a time when the arts generally were in wild ferment. Painters were taking up Impressionism and Cubism; composers were flirting with atonality; the recent toy of photography, and the brand-new toy of the cinema, were claiming places as arts in their own right. Literature was no exception. East of the Atlantic, Henrik Ibsen broke with centuries of tradition by writing plays in prose, in at least an approximation of everyday language. To the west, William Dean Howells was spending fantastic sums of money to publish and promote stories about everyday life, from which every trace of wonder and adventure had carefully been expunged. These new literary movements ran together and acquired the name of Modernism. And Modernism, it turned out, was exactly what the English Lit professors wanted.
The central message of Modernist fiction is that life is empty and the best thing a man can do is go and hang himself. This is an exaggeration, of course; but it fairly describes some of the most praised Modernist stories, and it exactly explains why most of the reading public found such literature revolting and rebelled against it. This, too, was to the professors’ liking. Modernism evidently was an acquired taste, shared only by the intellectual élite; and who better to help people acquire that taste than an English Lit professor? So with almost unseemly haste, the likes of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf were recruited into the curriculum.
Before this change, ‘Literature’ (with a capital L) meant the Great Books out of the past, the books that had endured and helped to form the permanent bedrock of Western culture. But James, Wharton, and Woolf had not endured yet; they had not been subjected to the test of time. So the professors had to change the meaning of the word. This they did by a subterfuge. Most ordinary people had neither the time nor the inclination to read the Classics. Most ordinary people positively loathed the ‘highbrow’ Modernist fiction. To include them both, the professors (and their untenured allies, the literary critics) redefined ‘Literature’ to mean ‘books that uneducated people don’t like’. Greek tragedy was an acquired taste, because it was difficult to learn Greek. Chaucer was an acquired taste, because it was difficult to understand Chaucer’s English. Woolf was an acquired taste, because – well, never mind why. Most people found her work pretentious, ponderous, and dull. The English Lit students found her delightful; or rather, they found it delightful that they could gain entree to the intellectual élite merely by skimming her books and dropping her name at the right sort of parties.
A few years later, James Joyce wrote a book tailor-made for this new audience. Ulysses was deliberately written in an English as difficult as anything in Chaucer. The events of the story were deliberately made as dull and trivial as anything in Woolf. The classical allusions were as recondite as any Professor of Classics could wish for; and this, too, was deliberate. Moreover, the book was obscene in a rather joyless way, like Rabelais on downers; so it had to be published in France at first, and one had to have money and connections to get a copy into England or the U.S.A. To name-drop Ulysses (but not necessarily to have read it) became the infallible touchstone of membership in the cognoscenti.
This set a pattern for the century-long swindle of Literary Fiction. If you write about dull characters doing dull things in dull ways, if you labour over your language until every sentence glitters like pyrite and pinchbeck, why, your work is not rubbish; it is merely too good for the plebeians who don’t understand it. If, in addition, you go to the Right Schools, know the Right Sort of People, and have (this is very important) the Right Opinions about politics and art, then you may be anointed as a Great Author; your publishers will brag about your greatness, and about their own astounding acumen in ‘discovering’ you, even before your first book is published. Your book will be labelled a ‘prestige book’, which means that your publisher has no intention of making a profit from it; it is an elaborate public relations exercise designed to give that money-grubbing worthy a shining reputation as a Patron of the Arts and a Bastion of Literary Culture. And the people who care about these things will always think about them with the Capital Letters in the Right Places.
Modernism, meanwhile, went in another direction, not of the professors’ choosing. The next generation of Modernists, led by the gigantic figure of Hemingway, got out of the drawing-rooms and into the streets and the suburbs, cornfields and battlefields, boxing matches and bullfights: that is, they got as close to adventure as they could without breaking the rules of Modernism by actually making things up. They tossed aside the obscurely pretty language and worked in an elaborate pastiche of everyday speech. For a time, they achieved enormous commercial success; their tricks and techniques are still used in films and television and ‘mainstream’ fiction. Raymond Chandler became famous by writing detective stories that sounded like Hemingway instead of Agatha Christie. Robert A. Heinlein became famous by writing science fiction that sounded like Hemingway instead of H. G. Wells. Modernism conquered so completely that it ceased to be exclusive – and the professors moved on to other fashions. Chandler and Heinlein had to be sneered at: they were popular. You could not prove your intellectual superiority by teaching people to acquire tastes that they had already acquired for themselves.
In time, the professors moved in on popular culture as they had moved in on popular literature, and largely in the same way. The avant-garde cinema of Bergman and Antonioni rejected story in favour of cinematography, bored the general public to tears, and so became the fashionable acquired taste of the 1960s, as Joyce had been in the 1920s. The ‘New Hollywood’ was in part an unsuccessful attempt to impose avant-garde tastes on the public. The ‘Death by Newbery’ school tried to do the same with children’s books. In each case, they merely succeeded in driving away a large part of their audience, which stayed away until a Lucas or a Rowling brought them home by giving them what they had actually wanted all along.
By the 1980s, it was becoming extremely difficult to pretend that Literary Fiction and its cousin Art Film had any technical superiority over their hated commercial counterparts. In both fields, first-rate talent followed the money. The professors could rail against this and call it the prostitution of Art; but they could not stop it from happening. The shibboleths were beginning to break down; the humbug was wearing thin. There remained one avenue of escape. If you could not prove your superiority over the despised masses by a morbid obsession with technique, you could still prove it by a morbid obsession with morbidity itself. So Bret Easton Ellis, one of the anointed darlings of the ‘Literary’ crowd, wrote a critically acclaimed (and popularly ignored) novel about an ‘American Psycho’ who liked to do things like cut off women’s breasts and eat them. So Thomas Harris wrote about Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant and cultured intellectual who made gourmet meals out of human flesh. The chase had come full circle: the self-styled literati had retreated into the ground of the old penny dreadfuls, which their own ancestors had killed stone dead a hundred years before. Only this time the monsters themselves were the heroes. The great sin was not to kill people and eat them, but to judge those enlightened and liberated souls who had outgrown the primitive tribal taboos against murder and cannibalism.
This movement, too, was quickly carried into the mainstream of the entertainment business by enthusiastic proselytizers. Some of them, I am afraid, genuinely believed that a man like Lecter was superior to a person with a functioning conscience or at least a sense of disgust. Most of them saw one more opportunity to make easy money off the old game (grown so much more difficult now) of shocking the old ladies in Brighton so that their grandchildren would spend money to see what the fuss was about. They had made it their life’s work to explore the cesspool, and now they were determined to drag popular culture into the muck with them. The moralizing crusaders of the Harmsworth type were gone – their place taken by a generation of immoralizing crusaders, just as convinced of their own utter rightness.
Critics of this ghoulish persuasion were pleased to see Tim Burton make a big-budget film of Sweeney Todd. But in fact Mr. Todd and his partner in crime, though they commit the same sins as Hannibal Lecter, are not at all like him. For they are not portrayed as heroes, or even as misunderstood.
For The String of Pearls, like the bulk of the penny dreadfuls, for all its ostentatious gore, was at bottom a moral tale; even a moralizing one. You can write moralizing stories in three different ways. There is the road of melodrama, in which the Hero triumphs over the Villain. There is the road of comedy, in which the Hero achieves a happy ending by his own good qualities, though there may be no Villain at all. And there is the road of tragedy, in which the Villain is punished for his sins – though he may appear, at first, to be a heroic figure, and it is generally better art if he does. Sweeney Todd is a tragic protagonist, like Oedipus or Macbeth; his story tells how he was tempted, fell into evil, and finally got what he deserved. This is true in the original, and in all the important adaptations of the story. It remains true in the Stephen Sondheim musical which Tim Burton used as the basis for his film.
Burton’s Sweeney Todd is more elaborate than The String of Pearls, and as I believe, the added elements make it a more satisfying story. Todd is a barber who was sentenced to transportation for a crime he did not commit, because the magistrate, Judge Turpin, lusted after Todd’s wife Lucy. We see him returning to England under his assumed name, bitter at the world and hungry for revenge; with him is a young sailor, Anthony, neither bitter nor vengeful, but moved to pity by the story of Todd’s betrayal. The villains will follow one path, and the innocent people (not heroes as such) will follow another, so that the deeds of the latter form a counterpoint to the crimes of the former, and a moral commentary which stands at the heart of the tale.
The villains: Todd returns to his old shop in London, upstairs from the shop where Mrs. Lovett sells ‘the worst pies in London’. Mrs. Lovett informs him that his beloved Lucy is dead by suicide, having been raped by Judge Turpin, and his daughter has been brought up as Turpin’s ward. Todd plots his revenge: he will go back into business, establish a reputation as the best barber in London, win Turpin as a customer – and cut his throat. The scheme miscarries; Turpin escapes. It is at this point that Todd becomes a definite villain. He decides to take his vengeance on the whole human race, slitting the throat of every man that he can lure into his barber’s chair. Downstairs, Mrs. Lovett will dispose of the bodies by making them into meat pies; and so they will make their fortune. In the climax, Todd murders Turpin, but finds out that Lucy survived – that she is the beggar woman whom he has just killed to protect his secrets. Mrs. Lovett was lying to him and using him all along. He flings Mrs. Lovett into the bakehouse furnace and kneels to cradle his dead wife in his arms.
The innocents: Anthony sees Todd’s daughter, Johanna, looking out of her window at Turpin’s house and pining for freedom. He falls in love with her, but Turpin forbids him to see her. Anthony takes Todd into his confidence, and after various stratagems and schemes, he sets Johanna free. In the end, they both pass through the horrors of Todd and Turpin’s feud without becoming involved in either man’s crimes. We are left to assume that they marry and live happily ever after; but this is not actually shown.
There is a third strain, of sins atoned and wickedness redeemed. Young Toby Ragg is a juvenile delinquent straight out of Oliver Twist, the shill for a mountebank who calls himself Adolfo Pirelli and sells a miracle hair tonic. Pirelli is actually Todd’s old apprentice, who knows too much about his past and tries to blackmail him – only to become fresh meat for Mrs. Lovett’s pies. Toby goes to work at the pie shop, never suspecting what horrors are going on in the bakehouse. When he does find out, Mrs. Lovett tries to kill him; he escapes by hiding in the sewers. At the end, it is Toby who plays the role of Nemesis, slitting Todd’s throat with his own razor as Todd holds dead Lucy in his arms; and we come out feeling that this killing, at least, is both just and merciful.
At no time are we meant to approve of Todd’s vengefulness, though we never feel as if Turpin’s death would be any loss. When Todd begins to kill strangers, we see at once that he has crossed what is sometimes called the moral event horizon: he is now a villain pure and simple. The battle lines are drawn, and the rest of the story merely brings that battle to its necessary conclusion. Virtue is not exactly rewarded, but Anthony and Johanna at least escape; vice is amply punished. The only people who don’t get exactly what they deserve are the customers at Todd’s barbershop and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop; and it is precisely for their crimes against them that Todd and Lovett must die.
While Sweeney Todd is a moral story, it is far from being a great story; perhaps not even a very good one. It relies too heavily on cheap sensationalism and obvious gross-outs. The evil is too theatrical to ring true. One would imagine that a barbershop where scores of customers walk in, and nobody ever comes out again, would draw unfavourable attention to itself even in Fleet Street. And a woman who makes ‘the worst pies in London’ out of ordinary butcher’s meat is not, I should think, the best candidate to make a profitable gourmet dish out of human flesh. In Sondheim’s musical and Burton’s film, these faults are cheerfully handwaved away; we come along for the grisly ride, as with any good B-grade horror movie, and leave our brains at the door (where they will doubtless be served up to the audience at the next show). It is a celebration of the mere dreadfulness of the penny dreadful. Still, Rymer and Priest’s tale survived and was retold for over a century before Sondheim wrote his musical; and that alone confers a distinction upon it that thousands of serious and skilful novels missed.
Before I launched upon this digression, I asked what elements made the three breakthrough fantasies so much more popular, so much better attuned to the tastes and needs of the big public, than any of their rivals. I believe that the enduring success of Sweeney Todd, in spite of its obvious flaws, can give us the key to that riddle. Let us now see if the key fits; let us try and open the lock.
Concluded in Part 5, which appears in Superversive: Recovering the Tao of Fantasy. Oh, the humanity!