Victorian Popular Fictions 1.2 article 5

Sweeney Todd’s Indian Empire:

Mapping the East India Company in The String of Pearls

 Rebecca Nesvet

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The myth of Sweeney Todd emerged from Victorian popular fiction, first appearing in the 1846–7 serial The String of Pearls, A Romance, now generally attributed to James Malcolm Rymer. By 1970, when Christopher G. Bond’s Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street premiered at the avant-garde Theatre-Royal Stratford East, Sweeney Todd was firmly established as an urban legend. Modern adaptations of this myth are uniformly set in an ahistorically insular “Dickensian” London, while modern scholarship tends to focus on metropolitan cultural concerns. However, Maisha Wester (2015) demonstrates that The String of Pearls exploits fears of England’s transformation by colonial outsiders by featuring exotic colonial locations and transposing the apocryphal Scottish villain Sawney Beane, spectre of xenophobia, to London. Building upon this reading, I argue that The String of Pearls depicts, in cartographically imaginable terms, the aftermath of the Anglo–Mysore Wars, which the private army of the British East India Company (EIC) fought against two successive rulers of the Indian kingdom of Mysore. Rymer’s allusion to this conflict facilitates a critique of the EIC’s practices that Rymer assumes his predominantly working-class reading audience will recognise and that evidently unnerved later adaptors and critics.


Key words

Sweeney Todd; James Malcolm Rymer; The String of Pearls; Tipu Sultan; Mysore; India; East India Company; imperialism; war; cartography; mapping.

Date of Acceptance: 23 December 2019

Date of Publication: 31 December 2019

Double Blind Peer Reviewed

Recommended Citation:

Nesvet, Rebecca. 2019. “Sweeney Todd’s Indian Empire: Mapping the East India Company in The String of Pearls.” Victorian Popular Fictions, 1.2: 75-90. ISSN: 2632-4253.  DOI:

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