The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer

The last sentence of this novel is bizarre: “Johanna and Mark lived long and happily together, enjoying all the comforts of an independent existence; but they never forgot the strange and eventful circumstances connected with the string of pearls” (347). Thomas Preskett Prest is known as a “hack writer,” so I guess I don’t have to worry about the lack of psychological depth that that last sentence displays–after all the trauma Johanna and Mark have been through, how can they possibly not remember the “strange and eventful circumstances connected with the string of pearls”???? Why would their forgetfulness even be a question?

But what really intrigues me here is that the novel ends with the string of pearls–which shouldn’t be weird, given its title. But for me, this string of pearls is exactly what makes the object-relations in this 1846 novel different from those of the novels in the sensation decade. Basically, nobody in The String of Pearls really cares that much about this string of pearls. (Compare this to the pearls in Foul Play, which represent so many things and have so much affective weight…) Also, nobody really seems to know where these titular pearls come from. Colonel Jeffery tells Johanna that Mark Ingestrie got the pearls somewhere in his colonial adventures, but he hears this second-hand, from Mark’s friend Thornhill. During a shipwreck, Mark gives the pearls to Thornhill, thinking that he won’t survive, and wanting Johanna to have them as a token of his love. Here’s the part where, in a sensation novel, these pearls would have enormous emotional significance. In fact, Magdalen Vanstone and Frank have a similar relationship, and Magdalen treasures every trace of Frank she has in her possession. But here in The String of Pearls, Thornhill loses the pearls, and his life, to Sweeney Todd, and Johanna dismisses their affective significance altogether:

but what are pearls to me? Oh! would that they had sunk to the bottom of that Indian sea, from whence they had been plucked. Alas, alas! it has been their thirst for gain that has produced all these evils. (58)

And she later reiterates:

‘I do, indeed, care little for them,’ said Johanna, ‘so little, that it might be said to amount to nothing.’ (82)

So… we aren’t really encouraged to care about the pearls finding their way back to their rightful owner–which is a much different relationship than we have to, say, Magdalen’s inheritance, for example.

In fact, once Sweeney Todd gets ahold of them, hijinks ensue, and it’s hard to tell whose cause we should root for. At first it seems like Sweeney Todd is the wrongful owner of the pearls, but then a gang of thieves tries to steal them from him, and the narrator starts editorializing:

There is something awful in seeing a human being thus hunted by his fellows; and although we can have no sympathy with a man such as Sweeney Todd, because, from all that has happened, we begin to have some very horrible suspicions concerning him, still, as a general principle, it does no decrease the fact that it is a dreadful thing to see a human being hunted through the streets. (65)

So… now we kinda want Sweeney Todd to get away with the pearls?! And he does. And the pearls continue to circulate throughout the novel. And they eventually end up back with Mark and Johanna, as the novel’s final sentence indicates. But who cares? Nobody. The pearls are more of a plot device.

These matter-of-fact object-relations distinguish The String of Pearls from the account Lynn M. Voskuil gives of sensation drama, for example. Voskuil uses Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism to explain the “talismanic properties of commodities,” which “were precisely a function of their familiarity, their status as everyday, usable items” (78). Marx’s account of commodities, according to Voskuil, goes something like this:

Products are transformed into commodities, he says, when they begin to circulate in the marketplace and, in the act of exchange, appear to develop social lives of their own, independent of the producers who made them. What is more, commodities seem to have social lives their makers lack, for as private individuals working independently, the producers do not interact with each other directly–only their products do. (77)

In this sense, the string of pearls seems like a fetishized commodity, since it does develop a social life of its own through the act of exchange, and it does circulate independent of its producers (who are completely effaced).

However, Voskuil goes on:

Noteworthy in Marx’s account is the paradoxical doubleness that commodity fetishism promotes. How can real, everyday items becomes [sic] spectacles? How does their down-to-earth familiarity come to seem fantastic? Marx answers those questions by suggesting that we habitually engage in a complex suspension of disbelief. (77)

This applies neatly to sensation drama, as Voskuil shows, because mundane items become exoticized onstage. However, does this doubleness exist in the string of pearls? Is it both an everyday item and a fantastic spectacle? I don’t think so. At least, not compared to the objects that drive subsequent sensation plots. The string of pearls is merely an exchange-value… although, I guess in Marx that leads right into commodity fetishism…. But what I mean is that, given its “exotic” origins, the string of pearls is curiously un-exotic, relative to the objects in sensation literature. Johanna rejects it as a fetishistic object, and despite the last sentence’s connection of it with memories of “strange and eventful circumstances,” it seems strangely devoid of any emotional significance. It’s like an afterthought that reminds Johanna and Mark of their eventful past, whenever they happen to glance at it for a second.

Character List:

Sweeney Todd: The demon barber of Fleet Street. He has a special shaving chair that’s attached to a trap door, so that when he leaves the room to “get a sharper blade” he pulls the lever that drops his unfortunate client 20 feet below, onto a stone-floored basement. They usually die on impact, so that he can send their meat to Mrs. Lovett to bake into her famous pies and keep their money and/or valuables for himself. He employs apprentices, who he sends on errands while he’s killing people, but once the apprentices start suspecting something fishy, he has them committed to a madhouse and later killed. Johanna Oakley and a magistrate (Sir Richard) eventually catch him in the act and he gets hanged.

Tobias Ragg: Sweeney Todd’s apprentice, who starts suspecting mischief early on in his apprenticeship. He’s terrified of Sweeney Tood because Todd tells him that he once caught Tobias’s mother stealing from a wealthy family in whose service she was employed. Todd says he will accuse Tobias’s mother and get her hanged if Tobias doesn’t cooperate submissively with everything he says. But it’s not long before Tobias begins to suspect that Sweeney Todd is killing his customers, so, wracked by guilt, he decides to act upon his suspicions and search Sweeney Todd’s house. He finds huge caches of jewels and other valuables (including tons of hats). After this discovery, he heads to his mother’s house to say goodbye, intending to escape to sea. However, Sweeney Todd shows up and convinces Tobias’s mother (who is actually not guilty of any theft at all) that he is insane and needs to be committed to a madhouse. He eventually escapes with the help of a fellow madwoman (who’s not really mad).

Johanna Oakley: She’s in love with Mark Ingestrie, but Mark has no money, so he goes off to sea to make his fortune. He sets a date by when he should meet her and ask her to marry him, but when he doesn’t show up by the date, Johanna assumes the worst. She believes he is dead, and her fears are partially confirmed by Colonel Jeffery, who has never met Mark, but has heard Mark’s story from Mark’s friend, Thornhill. After Thornhill goes to be shaved and never returns (surprise, surprise), Colonel Jeffery investigates and shares his findings with Johanna (who he also falls in love with). After discussing her situation with her best friend, the romantic Arabella Wilmot, Johanna decides that Mark may have met his end at Sweeney Todd’s establishment, so she goes undercover dressed as a boy and becomes Sweeney Todd’s new apprentice. In this role, she displays much more poise, clear-headedness, and control over her emotions than poor Tobias, and becomes partially responsible for bringing Sweeney Todd to justice. She gets reunited with Mark, and they live happily ever after.

Mark Ingestrie: He’s in love with Johanna Oakley, but decides to seek his fortune abroad so that he can make enough money to marry her (and also have adventures, of course). After surviving a shipwreck in the Indian ocean, he gives a valuable string of pearls to his friend Thornhill, asking him to give the pearls to Johanna Oakley, since Mark thinks he will die at sea. He doesn’t die, however. Through a series of events that the novel doesn’t ever narrate, Mark makes it back to England, but he’s completely destitute when he gets there. He gets a job at Lovett’s bakery, only later finding out that the only way you can quit that job is to die. He bakes the pies, which is great at first, because he’s starving. But after he gets tired of only eating meat pies, he subsists on baked flour and makes a desperate attempt to escape. The desperate attempt leads him to break into a secret chamber, which presumably reveals that the meat pies he’s been making for several months are actually made of human meat. He escapes by flattening himself under a tray of pies and being hauled up in the pie elevator from his bakery prison cell. He denounces Mrs. Lovett, who promptly dies of poison (with which Sweeney Todd tainted her brandy).


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Filed under Primary literature (novels)

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