~ Amanda Howell and Lucy Baker
Abstract: This paper uses the perspectives and formative obsessions of familiar figures from nineteenth century pop culture and literature—the flâneur, the explorer, the alienist and the spiritualist medium—as lenses through which to view and the means to map the interlocking narrative worlds of Penny Dreadful. Aimed at understanding how its world is shaped by remediation, by borrowing from and refashioning media of the past, it argues that the notion of the demimonde, described by Vanessa Ives as a ‘half world’ between this one and another, supernatural one, is the master metaphor of the series. Using these historical, literary, stock characters as guide and prompt, the paper surveys the series’ pervasive concern with liminality, its operational aesthetic for building an imaginary nineteenth century world in the interstices between or the collisions of the pop cultural and pop fictional texts it brings together.
mapping is a deceptively simple activity. To map is in one way or another to take the measure of a world. . . . the mappings record is not confined to the archival; it includes the remembered, the imagined, the contemplated. . . . the map is both the spatial embodiment of knowledge and a stimulus to further cognitive engagements. (Cosgrove 1-2)
Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler? A half world between what we know and what we fear. A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt. Do you believe that? (Vanessa Ives 1.01 “Nightwork”)
‘Penny dreadful’ is the pejorative term given to those cheap serial fictions aimed at newly literate working classes of the nineteenth century in Britain, a ‘monster audience of at least three millions’ (Collins 221), positioned despite its size on the edge of Victorian Britain’s leisure cultures. These fringe-dwelling narrative entertainments lend their name to Showtime’s British/American co-production, Penny Dreadful, while their pop fictional and pop cultural milieux, broadly conceived, inspire the premise and settings for the three-season series focused on supernatural adventure. Just as contemporary horror cinema reinvents the kinetic aesthetics and visceral pleasures of the ride and rollercoaster (Ndalianis), the horror television of Penny Dreadful is shaped by remediation, as it borrows from and refashions media of the past. In these terms, its London setting in particular resembles nothing so much as a historically-themed amusement park focused on sharing with both characters and audience the diverse novelties offered by Victorian leisure culture of which cheap serial fiction is only one, particularly evocative, example. From a Wild West display, to an evening’s séance, wax museum, gossima tennis (ping pong) parlour, underground rat-baiting club, a theatre devoted to gory spectacle, and a public lecture illustrated by magic lantern, the series surveys diversions with an emphasis on the exotic and adventurous, the thrilling and forbidden. Appropriate to this amusement park aesthetic, suggestive of a walking tour of the pop cultural past, each season’s action culminates in a violent confrontation in a haunted house: The Grand Guignol of Season One (transferred, miraculously, from Paris to London), the witches’ castle of Season Two, and the dockside lair of Dracula in Season Three.
The work of remediation does not stop here, however: despite the emphasis in Penny Dreadful on collecting and recreating the cheap (and not so cheap) thrills of Victorian popular culture as the basis of verisimilitude, particularly in its urban settings, the parameters of its stories are never bound by the physical world it creates. Characters, tropes, plots drawn from multiple sources in popular literature and popular culture are extended and interwoven in the course of the series, expanded through the memories of characters and open to further development still by knowing readers in the audience. In this respect, the term demimonde (reserved in the nineteenth century to describe the not-quite-respectable edges of high society) refers not just to the liminal social spaces of urban amusement, or even, as in Vanessa Ives’s recasting of the term, only to the dark realms of the supernatural. As a master metaphor for the spaces of Penny Dreadful the notion of the demimonde signals instead a more pervasive concern with the liminality that characterises the series’ operational aesthetic, its methods of shaping its world and its stories in the interstices between or the collisions of the pop cultural and pop fictional texts it brings together.
This paper addresses itself to some of the ways that the varied, in-between narrative spaces of Penny Dreadful are mapped for the audience, specifically by looking at how familiar figures from nineteenth century pop culture—the flâneur, the explorer, the alienist and the spiritualist medium—have shaped the series’ character network and in their distinctive perspectives helped to map its interlocking narrative worlds. The flâneur is that urban man of leisure, the strolling observer characterised by a roving eye and appetite for distraction, empowered to cross boundaries of class and station, his mobile gaze associated with the diverse pleasures and possibilities of emergent modernity; the explorer is associated with adventure in colonised worlds, crossing oceans and cultures to seek out the dangerous, exotic, and other; the medium and the alienist, despite being associated with what appear to be the diametrically-opposed fields of spiritualism and medical science, share the ability to cross or collapse boundaries of time and space, one by accessing the parallel world of spirits and the other by accessing the hidden world of unconscious memory through the ‘talking cure.’
These figures have the ability to survey spaces of and between this world and that, to take the measure of worlds both known and (collectively) imagined within genres of fantasy and crime, adventure and horror—the stuff of the penny dreadfuls themselves. We come to know the world Penny Dreadful creates primarily through characters drawn from an array of Victorian fictions, their perspectives shaping the series’ ‘spatial embodiment’ of the Victorian scene. Accordingly, the discussion to follow offers an overview of some of the ways Penny Dreadful maps for audiences an imaginary nineteenth century world shaped by its diverse source texts and the multiple perspectives of its ensemble cast.
Penny Dreadful as complex television
[T]here is comparatively little experimentation in terms of innovative spatial storytelling, so if we were to predict where another wave of narrative innovation might come, we might look to how serial storytelling plays with space. (Mittell 275)
In its multiple, interwoven narratives and narrative worlds, self-reflexive and historically-conscious Penny Dreadful is an example of what Jason Mittell calls “complex television,” exemplifying a contemporary tendency toward a “more self-conscious mode of storytelling than is typically found within conventional television narration” (41). As such, it offers a double layer of pleasures: engagement with the world of narrative fiction and engagement with the way that the narrative fiction is constructed. As a nod to its origins in formulaic pop and pulp fictions of the past, there is a quest that centralises action for each season: the search for Mina Murray/Harker (Olivia Llewellyn), daughter of Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) in the first season, the pursuit of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) by the Devil (represented by various actors) in season two and by his brother Dracula (Christian Carmargo) in season three. These quests are echoed by sub-plots in which the Creature re-named John Clare (Rory Kinnear) and his creator Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) both seek their bride in the female monster Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper), who, like Vanessa Ives, pursues her own quest, refusing her role as narrative object of male seekers and lovers. The quest narratives of Vanessa and Lily are very different—in the grand Manichaean schemes that characterise the series’ larger story arcs, one seeks to stop the apocalypse the other to enkindle it—but both are determined to remake themselves as subjects of their own narratives (as indeed are the witch antagonists, Evelyn and Hecate).
These interwoven quests keep the serialised narrative moving forward, but the series also has what might be better described as a multi-nodal structure, owing to the way that its varied source texts are stitched together. The most obvious and best known of these are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Jules Verne’s Vingt mille lieues sous les mers /Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). These are combined with the varied contributions from gothic tales of werewolves, penny serials like James Malcolm Rymer’s and Thomas Peckett Prest’s Varney the Vampyre (1845-47), mid-nineteenth century dime Westerns, popular tales of exploration and colonisation, and folklore such as stories of “skinwalkers” held by North American First Peoples. In the way it uses and embroiders on the stories and characters of no-longer-copyrighted literary fictions, myth, and folklore, Penny Dreadful persistently reminds the audience that the public domain is not just a negative space—a space where there are authors and inventors, but no owners—but also a space of shared memory and engagement, open to adaptation, transformation, and audaciously entrepreneurial repurposing. Positioned “always in the middle, between things, interbeing” in the manner of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome (27), Penny Dreadful functions as an intersectional text as it continues the narratives of genres and specific works that circle around each other, back and forth through time and space. We perceive, track or map them largely through those characters who serve as their representatives in Penny Dreadful, characters shaped in part by the readers’ experience, memory, perceptions of precursor texts.
These characters, remade and reworked from their originary texts, are the stuff of what Henry Jenkins, in his 2007 discussion of transmedia storytelling, describes as a type of anti-capitalist corporate folklore, each iteration adding to an ever-expanding archive created and curated over time by multiple readers and writers across diverse media. In this respect, Penny Dreadful fits the definition of what Abigail Derecho, in her theorisation of fan fiction as artistic practice, refers to as “archontic literature” (61). Relevant to the way that familiar Victorian narratives and characters are used in Penny Dreadful is Derecho’s observations concerning the way that archontic literature—the array of continuations, sequels, spinoffs, remediations, fan fictions—use the play of similitude and difference to explore “potentialities within the originary texts” (74). These ‘potentialities’ within source texts produce the series’ characteristic play of proximity and distance, the familiar and strange, in its imagining of the Victorian world—varied plateaus of understanding and engagement offering each viewer something of an individualised journey through the reimagined spaces, times, and genres. The familiar characters and tropes that are the focus of this discussion highlight the series’ use of its source texts to engage with concerns shared by its imagined Victorian world and the contemporary world of the Penny Dreadful audience: the challenges of urban modernity, family life, nationalism and colonialism, sex and gender roles.
Accordingly, in Penny Dreadful there is a diegetic emphasis on the work of interpretation and reading and mapping that mirrors the extra-diegetic activity required of the audience, as each character carries or pursues his or her story from the past, reflecting and bidding viewers to reflect on how it might be utilised in the present and perhaps reconfigured in the future. For instance, the once marginal literary figure, the bride of Frankenstein’s monster, moves from the fringes of literature to the centre of the Penny Dreadful world, both remembered and re-membered. Then there is the narrative trajectory of Dr. Frankenstein’s friend, Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif), which −once he inherits the title of Lord Hyde upon his father’s death −rests entirely within the imagination of the knowing viewer alert to possibilities offered by this allusion to and reconfiguration of the source text’s representations of monstrosity and class difference, in terms of race and Britain’s colonialist history.
The Flâneur’s Roving Eye: mobility, modernity, and the possibilities of urban space
For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world. . . . we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.. . . . He is looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call “modernity,” for want of a better term . . . . the transient, the fleeting, the contingent. (Baudelaire “The Painter of Modern Life”)
The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a FLÂNEUR, a dandy, a man of fashion. . . . Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. (Wilde, “de Profundis”)
The perspective offered on urban spaces of Penny Dreadful owes much to the nineteenth century notion of the flâneur, that mobile seeker after urban views and scenes. Chief among characters who play this role is Dorian Gray, through whom the series engages with “potentialities” of Wilde’s source text in regard to the decadent appeal Victorian London’s popular culture and more broadly still the possibilities it offers for queering the series’ view of that urban space. Everywhere and in some respects nowhere in the ensemble performances of the series, omnipresent yet distanced, Gray with his mobile gaze and sensation-seeking offers access to London entertainments both high and low. In the way Gray, like Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life,” connects diverse spaces and experiences, he reflects the flâneur’s role as a “living bodily site on which vision, movement, and sensation pre-cinematically came together” (Charney 1998, 75). But he also functions as an agent of modernity—a catalyst, sparking change in characters and storylines when he takes the role of an “urban-observer-artist who is not a detached voyeur but rather interacts with the city in what is almost a symbiotic relationship, feeding off the city that he creates from its own fragments” (Parsons 2000, 36), as he pursues his desire for sensation and diversion.
The pursuit of excitement, of decadent self-indulgence, makes Gray a conduit to the perverse, dangerous, and forbidden for other characters whose depths and desires he helps to reveal along with the possibilities of the urban scene: he meets ailing prostitute Brona Croft (Billie Piper), the mysterious heiress Vanessa Ives, and American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) in quick succession in season one and has erotic encounters with all three, sparking strong affective responses in each. He and the world-weary consumptive prostitute Brona unexpectedly revel in her imminent death when she coughs blood on him during a pornographic photo shoot (“Séance” 1.02). His rhetorical question, “I’ve never fucked a dying creature before. Do you feel things more deeply, I wonder?” speaks not just to his decadent sensation-seeking but likewise the basis of her re-creation from the tragic Brona Croft into Lily Frankenstein, whose narrative trajectory from undead bride to vengeful immortal is rooted in recollected feeling, Brona’s experience of poverty, pain, and loss. After a night of gorily flamboyant theatricals at the Grand Guignol, blood-sport, bar fighting, absinthe, and Wagner, Dorian Gray’s seductive charms bring Ethan Chandler’s inner animal that much closer to the surface in a scene that evokes troubling memories and ends in an evocative kiss (“Demimonde” 1.04). And, Vanessa Ives re-encounters her Demon when she climaxes during a sexual encounter with Gray (“What Death Can Join Together” 1.06). Bearing out the lessons of Wilde’s source text (echoed in turn, by Wilde’s own reflections in De Profundis at the end of his two-year imprisonment under the Labouchere Amendment  for “gross indecency”), encounters with Dorian Gray as the embodiment of urban modernity are never dull, but can prove dangerous to moral life.
In his more murderous proclivities, Dorian Gray recalls Wilde’s dark vision of a character whose privileged access to the varied diversions of the city and decadent appetites destroy those around him while corrupting his soul. Wilde’s prison letter De Profundis, on the other hand, offers a different vision of the flâneur as one whose desires and sensation seeking ultimately render him vulnerable. Penny Dreadful takes a certain delight in reclaiming the transgressively queer desires that landed Wilde in prison for its Dorian Gray, particularly in its characterisation of his relationship with Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp) and his dalliance with Chandler. But it also registers the potential vulnerability of the urban wanderer, according the mobile gaze of the flâneur to various characters less empowered than Gray, those whose bodily autonomy is never assured, always at risk as a consequence of their social position.
For instance, in stark contrast to Gray’s mobile gaze is that of John Clare who is also known as ‘Caliban’ or ‘the Creature’, whose jealous surveillance of first the Doctor and then Lily Frankenstein carries him through the alley-ways of the city, even as his search for employment and human comfort lands him first at the Grand Guignol (“Resurrection” 1.03), then the even more dubious entertainments of the Putney Family Waxworks (“Fresh Hell” 2.01), and causes him to seek respite in the underground dwellings of London’s homeless and impoverished where Vanessa and Sir Malcolm work in a soup kitchen (“Verbis Diablo” 2.02). Clare’s physical difference keeps him to the shadows, literally: from him we get a view of the alleyways, the back-stages, the hidden corners of the city, often alternate views of the same varied haunts frequented by Dorian Gray. Despite being himself a creature of modernity, of industrial manufacture, Clare refuses the cityscape that Gray embraces. Instead he turns inward and back in time to the ethical and aesthetic frameworks of Romantic poetry to find meaning in a world he experiences as utterly hostile, a source of continual anxiety and pain. Through Clare we have a very different perspective of London, the flip side of the flâneur overwhelmed by “the chaotic and bewildering environment of. . . rapid industrializing and growing cities of the nineteenth century” (Parsons 19). Unemployed, displaced, and monstrous, he too often finds himself not a subject of the urban scene like Gray but rather—like the prostitutes who eke out precarious livings on the street—its object.
That Clare is always in danger of becoming an urban spectacle himself is confirmed by the gruesome end to his brief career at Putney’s. Clare’s role recalls the unhappy travels of the monster in Shelley’s source text but also provides an opportunity for the series to explore its interest in othering Victorian England, made explicitly queer in regard to the gregarious and cosmopolitan Egyptologist Professor Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) who provides another alternative view of its urban space, giving entry to the secret and inaccessible corners of the British Museum when he and Ethan Chandler stage a ‘heist’(“Verbis Diablo” 2.02), having previously shared his particular corner of society with Sir Malcolm and Vanessa (“Séance” 1.02). Being both secretly Jewish and a closeted homosexual who performs heterosexual Christianity in order to protect himself, he is yet another figure in which the urbanity and mobility of the flâneur is wedded inextricably to vulnerability at a time when the penalty for sodomy was life in prison.
As is made clear by Gray’s involvement with both Angelique and Brona/Lily, similarly vulnerable and challenging is the prostitute who, like the flâneur, is a quintessentially urban, mobile figure. She is at once an object of desire, offering visual pleasure, a commodity in a burgeoning culture of leisure-time diversion. But she is also a threat to male authority, the challenging public spectacle of undomesticated female sexuality: in “the same moment that prostitutes reaffirmed the privilege and power of the flâneur” by offering the possibility of commodified sex on demand ‘the mobility of prostitutes provided cause for concern’ (Hubbard 324-25). In this respect, the prostitute has the potential to reshape the experience of the urban space she moves through, a potential explored and exploited most fully by Lily Frankenstein. Significantly, once Lily begins in earnest to retaliate against male dominance of the streets, remaking the prostitute’s role as a challenging but quintessentially vulnerable urban wanderer by turning the tables on male sexual violence, Gray all but withdraws from his peripatetic ways, even as his home is transformed from a site of reclusive decadence into a bright haven for mistreated women. When confronted concerning his altered attitude to the social experiment he initially supported, Dorian Gray explains to Lily Frankenstein that, once again, he is bored:
I’ve lived through so many revolutions, you see, it’s all so familiar to me. The wild eyes and zealous ardour, the irresponsibility, and the clatter. The noise of it all, Lily. From the tumbrils on the way to the guillotine to the roaring mobs sacking the temples of Byzantium. So much noise in anarchy. And in the end it’s all so disappointing. (“The Ebb Tide” 3.07)
As season three progresses, in fact, Gray appears increasingly static. His engagement with modernity is for his own amusement, one disrupted by Lily’s transformative tendencies and aims. At the end, his gaze is no longer that of restless modernity but instead that of a “perfect, unchanging portrait” of himself, finally appearing as just another beautiful addition to the blue gallery (Dorian Gray in “Blessed Dark” 3.09). He rejects Lily’s vision of a transformed urban modernity when its novelty gives way to sameness in the eyes of the urban wanderer who is also a jaded immortal. But even—or perhaps especially— in his fickleness, he personifies the modern sensation- and entertainment-seeking public.
Explorers: paternalism, colonialism, tales of adventure
Most of the local natives have been run off, or captured by the Germans and the Belgians for the rubber and ivory trade, for slaves in all but name. What romance I saw in Africa is done for me, the land is tainted now beyond repair, and I want to be quit of the filthy place. What then? Are there no fresh wonders left? No worlds yet to conquer? (Sir Malcolm Murray “The Day Tennyson Died” 3.01)
In the first two seasons of Penny Dreadful, an oversized map of the Nile dominates the main parlour of the London residence of Sir Malcolm Murray, reminder of his past as an explorer and adventurer. The world whose measure it takes offers an apt metaphor for the series itself, being as it is poised on the edge of history and fantasy: it is an archival record based on eyewitness accounts of mid nineteenth century expeditions to discover the source of the Nile by the likes of Henry Morton Stanley, David Livingstone and Richard Burton, but also one that evokes the adventure genre more broadly, one of the favourites of cheap fiction.
In the way that it uses explorers and the trope of exploration to build and expand its narrative worlds, Penny Dreadful engages with the concerns of the subgenre of late Victorian fiction scholars have labelled “Imperial Gothic” (Warwick; Brantlinger). A key figure in exploring these concerns in the series is Sir Malcolm Murray whose narrative is dominated by his journeys into Africa, the stories of adventure interwoven with revelations of his myriad failures as a father and husband. The horrors of his domestic dereliction, neglect, and abuse are highlighted at the climaxes of both Seasons One and Two, even as the map overlooks the scene of a new family of sorts, which forms and reforms itself to pursue his daughter Mina, then later to save his illegitimate daughter Vanessa, then to save Sir Malcolm himself. Sir Malcolm’s rather ignominious, sometimes strikingly anti-heroic history illustrates a key concern of Imperial Gothic, that there has been a “diminution of opportunities for adventure and heroism” (Warwick 338). And, through the changing figure of Sir Malcolm Murray-as-explorer, Penny Dreadful addresses what Stephen Arata points out as one of the key cultural contexts of horror in Stoker’s Dracula, a sense of the “decline of Britain as a world power” and how “the increasing unrest in British colonies and possessions” all “combined to erode Victorian confidence in the inevitability of British progress and hegemony” (622). More pervasively, Penny Dreadful confirms in its varied engagements with the figure of the explorer the link that Patrick Brantlinger observes in Imperial Gothic between the lure of the primitive and exotic on the one hand and the appeal of the occult on the other (Arata 624; Brantlinger 228-29).
This twinned fascination with the primitive/exotic and with the occult shapes the season three courtship by and characterisation of zoologist Dr. Sweet (Christian Camargo), who is ultimately revealed to be the most recent persona of Dracula. His characterisation makes clear the link between colonial exploration, death and destruction, his courtship of Vanessa Ives turning on his interest in collecting dangerous beings and his longing to explore dark and dangerous places abroad—and the intimation that he regards her as both of these things. In this way, Dr. Sweet, as would-be explorer, taps into key tropes of the Imperial Gothic, just as Sir Malcolm does, wherein the danger and excitement of that exploration is gendered: the dark, ‘feminine’, ‘non-rational’ space of Africa is presented as “one of the last mysterious places left on earth” (Warwick 340), a formulation that will be echoed in turn by Sigmund Freud’s characterisation of female sexuality as “the dark continent.” Vanessa Ives appears intrigued by Dr. Sweet’s implicit acceptance of her otherness, her kinship, for instance, to the Omdurman or Death Stalker scorpion. After bonding over a shared interest in dangerous creatures, death and taxidermy, the consummation of their affair surrounded by corpses and relics, aestheticised death on display in the Natural History Museum of London, echoes Vanessa’s teenaged seduction of Mina’s fiancé, closing the circle, linking her past and present, the beginning and end of the series.
Ultimately Dracula/Sweet, with his growing army of Night Creatures, offers his own zoological spin on what Stephen Arata identifies in Dracula as a fear of “reverse colonisation” (623-24) engaging fears of degeneration and decadence that are part of the Imperial Gothic in his characterisation of those ‘night creatures”’ on display in his museum and those awaiting his command in the dockside lair, with their common claim on sympathy. As Alexandra Warwick observes in regard to this notion of reverse colonisation,
During the course of the nineteenth century, the very poor and socially marginal had become increasingly gothicized. Their world is a mysterious labyrinth that exists alongside the life of middle class, its effects leaking out in uncontainable ways. By the end of the nineteenth century anthropology provided ways of seeing the underclass as belonging almost to a separate and more primitive form of existence. The philanthropist William Booth’s nonfictional text In Darkest London (1890) demonstrates this in clearest of ways…with the East End sharing all the “othered” qualities of its distant territories. (340-41).
The street people who are also Dracula’s night creatures, those “broken and shunned creatures” figure the Imperial Gothic fear of the primitive and the regressed. Ultimately they carry the ability to other, to regress, all of London once the poison fog descends at the end of season three, when humans are animalised, reduced to carcasses to be bled dry in “The Blessed Dark” (3.09).
While Vanessa Ives and Dr. Sweet explore their shared fascination with the exotic and dangerous, Sir Malcolm first disavows his ties to Africa—replaying a disgust with corporatized exploitation of its mineral wealth which has stripped away any romance it once held—only to have his wanderlust rekindled. When Kaetenay (Wes Studi), a “Chiricahua Apache by birth and rite” rescues him in the East African settlement of Zanzibar, he sets Sir Malcolm off on another journey, to save the wayward werewolf Ethan Chandler (“The Day Tennyson Died” 3.01). Thus the imaginary frontier of Africa is replaced by an equally fantastic representation of America. Kaetenay, as native informant and guide offers, like the flâneur, a mobile perspective on the West, while like Vanessa he also serves as a spiritualist medium for visions. Figuring in this respect another sort of connection between the exotic/primitive/colonised portions of the world and the occult/supernatural, Kaetenay propels the narrative from the urban slums of the repeatedly-colonised Zanzibar in Africa to the open spaces and sparse cities of the Wild West, back again to London, reasserting through his visions that London is no longer primarily an industrial or urban space but a space of transformation, a spiritual realm. Like Vanessa Ives and her mentor Joan Clayton (Patti LuPone), Kaetenay is an explorer of the spiritual landscape beneath the physical one. And, for Kaetenay like Clayton this is signalled by a privileged relationship with nature. Different in this respect from colonisers like Murray—or even a collector like Sweet—nature is not intimidating, nor is it to be conquered, nor captured as a trophy, only understood and cohabitated with. In his mystery and mobility, Kaetenay is both guide for the resolutely unmagical Sir Malcolm and supernatural father for Ethan Chandler. And, as the last of a tribe systematically extinguished by America’s conquering of its frontier, he is a relic of a different sort of apocalypse than that faced by Londoners, a link between that experience of genocidal violence and that which threatens darkest London at the conclusion of the series.
The connection between the exotic and the supernatural that underpins those anxieties animating the Imperial Gothic is tied to difference more generally in Penny Dreadful. Like Professor Lyle and Lily/Brona, Vanessa, Dr Sweet and Kaetenay all confirm the series’ investment in seeing the Victorian era differently—or more precisely, for using its richly detailed setting and its familiar narratives of adventure and horror and mystery for a spectacular staging of difference, whether it’s the queering of urban culture or the critical reassessment of the Victorian cult of domesticity/true womanhood. It is an aesthetic and narrative investment that is, in some respects, strikingly at odds with—at the same time that it is also enabled by – the frame-story’s dualist insistence on good and evil, light and dark, so typical of the formulaic narrative worlds of the penny dreadful, also colonialist narratives of dark continents and dangerous primitives. The series’ stagings of difference qualify the purity of evil and good, emphasizing instead the mixed composition of characters. Their difference sets them apart from the mainstream within the series’ Victorian milieu and is fundamental to their appeal and authority as narrative agents.
Given its investment in difference, Penny Dreadful is, in some respects, metatextually subversive in its engagement with familiar genres of discovery and colonialism. However, in spite of this impulse toward subversion, it is ultimately the core group of men from the main character group who survive at the end of season three. Vanessa Ives, despite her importance as an explorer of psychological and spiritual landscapes makes a final sacrifice of her death. Spiritualist counterparts Kaetenay and Joan are both dead by the end, while Lily/Brona is disempowered and abandoned. While Dr Seward and Catriona Hartdegen survive, the alienist and the vampire hunting thanatologist are returned to unobserved sites of origin. The resplendently othered and individualised Professor Lyle has left for warmer and more hospitable climes, while Mina has long since been laid to rest. And so, the series finishes with what could appear to be an affirmation of paternity and colonialist masculinity in the survival of Sir Malcolm and his adopted son Ethan. They have the last word, their final conversation an epilogue of sorts to the series:
Sir Malcolm: Never have I so wanted to run away. On some hunt or expedition to Africa, India. Anywhere but here.
Ethan: Will you?
Sir Malcolm: No. I must find my life without her. Miss Ives was the last link to who I was. I must find out who I am yet going to be. Oh, I will miss her to my bones. Will you stay, Ethan?
Ethan: You’re my family.
(both recline against the wall in Vanessa’s previous bedroom, staring at her bed in the dusklight) (“The Blessed Dark” 3.08)
There is the hint here of perhaps further adventures to be undertaken by the adoptive father (though he denies it) and son, bound in grief and loss. That said, the scene also emphasises the importance of death, both real and metaphorical, to the series in the way that it is represented through key characters as a liminal space of alterity and possibility. In this way the series explores the ongoing potential and appeal of the undead offered by Stoker’s source text and its many adaptations. Thus the spaces of the museum—both public and private—with their displays of exotic corpses are not just a testament to the achievements of explorers like Sir Malcolm but are privileged and eroticised as gateways to the supernatural, to other stories and other worlds, while being linked more generally to the potentialities of death-as-transformation that persist as point of fascination Penny Dreadful shares with its gothic source texts.
The alienist and the spiritualist medium: talking cures, visions, and stories across time and space
. . . . like spirits, spinsters were culturally perceived as threatening and transitional, moving across borders and hovering between worlds, liminal bodies existing on the fringes of a society they threatened with their very liminality. The circumvention of Victorian heteronormative sexuality is performed by [Georgiana] Houghton through her role as spinster, which enables her to engage in reproductivities outside of those of the Victorian marriage contract, as she birthed spirits through her séances . . . . (Williams 10-11)
hysterics suffer for the most part from reminiscences (Breuer and Freud)
From the mid nineteenth century onward, the spiritualist movement was a part of popular Victorian culture, particularly attractive to women—like well-known medium and artist Georgiana Houghton—perhaps because it offered “possibilities for attention, opportunity, and status denied elsewhere” also “a means of circumventing rigid nineteenth-century class and gender norms” (Owen 4). Penny Dreadful engages with spiritualism especially through the character of Vanessa Ives, whose abilities as seer make her an agent of focalisation and conduit to other worlds and times, first vividly in evidence when she upstages Madame Kali (Helen McRory) at an evening salon in home of Professor Lyle (“Séance,” 1.02). Although the scene is set for Kali’s spiritualist performance, Ives, suddenly possessed, engages with the past of adventurer Sir Malcolm Murray, channelling the voice of his son who died during their expedition in Africa, also relaying secret knowledges in the voice of a vengeful spirit who berates the famous adventurer for his sexual escapades. The scene connects London to darkest Africa, the salon’s exotic supernatural spectacle to less salubrious images of colonial exploration, all insects and dysentery, Sir Malcolm’s failures as father and husband twinned with colonial exploration as a summary portrait of male privilege abused. In the spectacle that Vanessa Ives makes of herself, the scene registers the appeal and disruptive potential of the female medium in the Victorian and Edwardian era spiritualist movement as one who could “invade and upturn the domestic havens of respectable gentlemen and their obedient wives through the subversive and often highly-sexualised séances” (Williams 9). Spaces of the past and present, public and private, sacred and profane throughout the series continue to clash in the performances of Vanessa Ives.
Positioned between multiple narrative worlds, Ives reveals and gives access to—via memories accessed through hypnosis and letter writing, also through her native emotional acuity and acquired knowledge demonic language—the spatial, temporal, and thematic connections between stories and story worlds. She is both a spiritualist medium and also a conduit for the mediumistic work of the alienist in Season Three. Specifically, Mina Murray and much of Stoker’s Dracula exist in an alternate dimension that in season one is accessed almost entirely through her visions (“Resurrection” 1.03; “Closer than Sisters” 1.05) and tarot reading (“What Death Can Join Together” 1.06). In Season Two, we only come to understand the work of the three witches through Vanessa Ives’s own memories of her retreat to the rural remoteness of Ballentree Moor where she studies with Joan Clayton (“Nightcomers” 2.03). In season three Dracula enters the diegesis in the guise of charming zoologist, Dr. Sweet, but we only discover his backstory, when Ives, on the advice of Professor Lyle, seeks the help of an American alienist, Dr. Seward (Patti Lupone), to deal with her deep depression following the departures of Ethan Chandler and Sir Malcolm Murray at the end of season two. Her hypnotic state allows her to access not just memories of her struggle with Victorian treatments for mental illness during her incarceration at the Banning Clinic (“A Blade of Grass” 3.04 ), but also her contact with the supernatural, the contest between brothers Lucifer and Dracula (Rory Kinnear). Seward, like Clayton is represented as an empowering figure for Vanessa Ives, one who illuminates a potentially dangerous path to greater knowledge, through dark magic and the scarcely less harrowing possibilities of the unconscious mind. Through the backstory of the clinic we see Ives’s similarities to Lily Frankenstein, the connections between their stories as characters who struggle against the normalising spectre of womanhood, a struggle inflected by but surpassing class difference. Ives’s experiences in the clinic—like Lily’s in Dr. Jekyll’s lab where Dr. Frankenstein plans to restore his beloved to a Victorian feminine ideal by removing much of what makes her herself— expose the institutional and technological control of bodies and minds by medical and scientific establishments, control to which Victorian women are shown to be particularly vulnerable.
The recollected space of the Banning Clinic is punctured by Dr Seward’s hypnosis of Vanessa Ives in a way that links the work of the medium to that of the alienist, both having the power to recur to a troubled past, to explore and reveal secret histories of a ‘dark continent’. By exposing the Clinic’s abusive treatment of an unruly woman—torture and persecution in the guise of care with the aim of restoring normalcy—and by changing Dr. Seward’s gender from its originary text in Dracula, the series undertakes an explicitly feminist intervention into the all-male environment of the Victorian medical establishment. And along the way, it dramatically alters the gendered dynamic of early experiments with the talking cure like those recorded by Breuer and Freud in Studies in Hysteria. As a restaging of these late nineteenth century histories of psychoanalytic exploration, Seward’s theraputic sessions with Ives are linked to the series’ ongoing interest in offering counter-narratives of Victorian culture, even as they valorise those qualities in Vanessa Ives punished at the Banning Clinic. Just as Professor Lyle attests to recovering his sense of identity, of being offered by Dr Seward the opportunity become “resplendently himself,” Seward similarly offers Ives a greater sense of purpose and self, effectively attempting through the talking cure effectively to change her story. The Doctor attempts reformulate her self-representation as the object of demonic possession into more nuanced notion of complex psychology, to replace evil with illness. The Creature, Clare, whose past as an orderly and Ives’s guard in the Clinic attempts a similar reformulation, his monstrous unhappiness contextualised by the story of his kindness and humanity to Ives and the family he left behind.
The use of the same actress to portray both Joan Clayton, cut-wife – witch and midwife, abortionist and healer—and her descendant Dr Seward explicitly links their functions within the Penny Dreadful universe. Both the witch and the alienist through their ministrations to women offer alternative perspectives on the worlds of the series, attempting (with mixed results) to help the women to challenge their social restrictions, offering freedom from reproductive coercion and the psychological manifestations of control—thus the opportunity to change women’s place in and the trajectory of narrowly proscribed gendered narratives. As the cut-wife/ abortionist, Joan Clayton works to offer women options within the gendered limitations of Victorian culture, to change their stories by allowing those regarded as fallen women to reclaim their place in the home. As the healer and the witch Clayton also forces the universe to bend to her will; like her descendent Seward, she reshapes space and time, not by tapping into unconscious memory through hypnosis but instead through witchcraft. Dr. Seward works through the new science of psychoanalysis, but that said she is not beyond weaponising her skills, for instance against Renfield, her assistant, after he becomes a victim/acolyte of Dracula, provoking guilt and shame to draw out of him the strange tale of Dracula, information crucial to their fight. In Professor Lyle’s salon, Vanessa uses her role as medium and her sensational account of the Sir Malcolm’s past as an active condemnation of masculine entitlement and wrong-doing. Similarly, Dr Seward’s role as alienist, her delving into Vanessa’s past, is used to condemn the doctors of Banning Clinic, also Renfield’s weakness of character, while supporting her patient’s intuition and experience by accessing hidden spaces of her traumatic memory.
While a number of minor characters are new creations, Vanessa is the only major character not obviously based upon a previous work. That said, she is clearly inspired by both the challenging female sexualities of Dracula (his hungry, lustful brides) and its varied engagements with that figure of gendered promise and threat, the New Woman (figured especially in what Stoker’s novel, unlike Penny Dreadful, represents as a rather stoic and resourceful figure of Mina Harker). Vanessa’s dramatic shifts between sacred and profane, blessed and cursed, make her in some respects the personification of the bifurcated roles allotted to and the limited scope of Victorian femininity evident in Stoker’s work, as she is both the fallen woman and the angel in the home. In her role as narrative conduit, Vanessa emphasises the way that promising and problematic femininity, once held in thrall by the supernatural seductions of Dracula, is viewed by Stoker in terms of both supernatural empowerment and also mental and moral illness. More broadly, as a single woman—the defiantly unconventional spinster heiress, Miss Ives—Vanessa represents a figure that, like the prostitute, troubles the Victorian model of female heteronormative sexuality bound to the home (Logan 198-99; Krandis 199, 3). She is a figure that, at the same time she enables multiple narratives and connects multiple narrative spaces, also, like Brona Croft/Lily Frankenstein, works against the narrative trajectories which situate the woman solely as the object of male desire, of male quest. Vanessa is pursued but resists pursuit, and in the end chooses her own path of destruction to thwart Dracula’s plans.
In the remediated world of Penny Dreadful, popular fictions of the Victorian era are repurposed, compositing a new reality from multiple texts. Tapping into both the original texts and their potentialities, it is a world where the remembered and the imagined, the actual and the desired, are given narrative and spatial representation. The viewer, prompted to draw on memory and knowledge of the same texts, extends the stories and their spaces further still. By way of surveying this complex world, this discussion has focused specifically on how figures drawn from Victorian popular culture—the flâneur, the explorer, the alienist and the spiritualist medium—have shaped the series’ character network and through their work of focalisation, also its narratives and spaces.
Through remediation and multi-perspectival narration, Penny Dreadful offers an example of complex television, a variation on the multi-dimensional world. It is not as extreme in this respect as, say, Lost which plays with alternate realities; but it is clearly an experiment in “spatial storytelling” (Mittel 275). In the way that it narrativizes and spatializes the relationship between one text and another—one form of amusement and another—the series can be usefully understood in terms of the contemporary trend of transmedia storytelling. The source texts of the series, like the myriad public amusements that make up the London setting of the series, are imagined as spaces that extend beyond the screen, each a site of nascent storylines in the manner of transmedia franchise properties where each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. One could watch and comprehend Penny Dreadful without having read the works by Shelley, Stevenson, Wilde, Verne, and Stoker—but it would be a limited comprehension of only part of The Penny Dreadful universe, which we understand both to reinvent but also to co-exist alongside these originary texts.
Our discussion has focused on how popular, familiar character types anchor this hermeneutic project. Penny Dreadful pays homage to the dominant narratives with the typical aspirational world views conjured by the most celebratory accounts of the flâneur-as-observer, the conquests of the explorer, the other-worldly sensitivities of the spiritualist medium, and the scientific certainties of the alienist. Each offers a way of reading the world and access to the new, strange, wonderful, and unseen. But the series also offers counter-narratives related to the urban, exotic, supernatural and psychological adventures conjured by these figures, using its interest in socially marginalised characters and the liminal spaces—including the intersectional spaces when different genres are brought together—to variously queer and critique those dominant narratives. Self-reflexive and historically-conscious in the way it uses its recursive fictions and remediative aesthetic to replay and reframe the enduring pleasures of nineteenth century popular culture and fictions, Penny Dreadful extends the scope of its interwoven narrative worlds through both the character network of its ensemble cast and through its imaginative challenges to its audience. An innovative example of cable programming-as-archontic literature in these terms, it is appropriate, then, that the series would achieve its own sort of immortality, transcending through transformation the deathblow of cancellation, reanimated as comic series written by the series scriptwriters and published through Titan Books (which has already published a prequel), set six months after the television finale. The persistent appeal of the familiar narratives and the durability of the Penny Dreadful characters confirmed, they begin a new life expanded into other transmedia properties.
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Dr Amanda Howell, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University, Australia, is a screen scholar especially interested in gender, race, and “body” genres: action, war, horror, and the musical. Her most recent major publication is A Different Tune—Popular Film Music and Masculinity in Action (Routledge 2015). Her other publications have appeared in journals such as Camera Obscura, Screening the Past, Genders, and Continuum. She is currently developing a book-length project focused on contemporary art house horror.
Lucy Baker is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences at Griffith University Australia, where she also teaches in cultural and media studies. Her research focuses primarily on the representations of gender in fanworks and adaptations. She is the author of “Girl!Version: The Feminist Framework for Regendered Characters” in the Journal of Fandom Studies (2016), book chapters on the television series Elementary, and has a forthcoming chapter about vampires and domesticity.