A Yorkshire Lady of Renown: Celebrating Anne Lister

Anne Lister’s lesbian relationships remained hidden for nearly 150 years after her death, but today the secrets of her life are openly embraced by contemporary audiences.

By Sadie MacDonald

We often describe certain historical figures as being “ahead of their time.” For those whose secrets survive to be acknowledged by modern scholarship, celebrating them can provide a second chance at validation and acceptance. This certainly is the case with Anne Lister.

Lister was born in 1791 to the landowning family of Shibden Hall in Halifax, England. Known as an eccentric figure during her lifetime, today Lister is called “the first modern lesbian.” Throughout her life she had relationships exclusively with women such as Mariana Lawton, Isabella Norcliffe, and Ann Walker. Lister considered herself married to Walker after they took communion together during mass.

This knowledge about Lister almost remained completely obscure.

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Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, ca. 1830. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout her adulthood, Lister kept a diary, portions of which were written in a code devised by Lister herself. Nearly sixty years after her death, her relative John Lister cracked the code with the assistance of Arthur Burrell. As Helena Whitbread writes, “What they found was, to them, so disturbing that Burrell thought they ought to burn the journals immediately.” John Lister hid the diaries behind a panel in Shibden Hall, which fell into the hands of the city of Halifax after his death in 1933. Few researchers read the journals over the next several decades, and those who did concealed what the writing revealed about Anne Lister’s sexuality. We can thank scholar Helena Whitbread for making the full extent of the diaries’ lesbian content widely known to the public in 1988.

It’s fortunate that the diaries survived. Through her journals, readers can understand Lister on a deeper level of intimacy. Lister wrote about her relationships with women such as Mariana Lawton, and described how she altered her clothes to be more masculine. Many historians hesitate to ascribe LGBTQ2S identities to historical figures. There is no such debate when it comes to Anne Lister, as her writing is explicitly clear that she had romantic, sexual relationships with women.

For example, Anne frequently writes of sharing a “kiss” with various women. She ascribes sexual meaning to this term, as she once wrote about how she had “A kiss of Tib [Isabella Norcliffe], both last night & this morning… but she cannot give me much pleasure… my heart is M––’s [Mariana Lawton] & I can only feel real pleasure with her.”

Passages such as these, which prove that Lister’s relationships with women were romantic and sexual, were written in code. Lister was aware that she was unusual for her time, and understood that aspects of herself must remain hidden.

Lister’s life certainly is not hidden now. Folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow released a song about her in 2012, and in 2019 the television series Gentleman Jack premiered on HBO. Created by Sally Wainwright and starring Suranne Jones, it focuses on Lister’s life in the 1830s and her relationship with Ann Walker. Check it out if you’re in need of a binge watch these days!

The series makes frequent use of fourth wall breaks, an unusual device to see in a period drama. Anne Lister addresses the audience directly and explains her thoughts, often quoting passages from her diary. She also glances at the audience knowingly in scenes where she is making progress in her relationship with Ann Walker. We as viewers are in on the joke, and her secrets.

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Anne knows we know what’s going on. Photo: thought-i-to-myself.tumblr.com

It’s impossible to know whether Lister would have approved of her inner life being exposed in this way. She wrote in code for a reason, and in Gentleman Jack her words are openly directed at an audience. I like to think of it as though the viewers themselves are acting as her diary. For contemporary audiences, there is no need to hide the truth of Anne Lister’s life anymore.

As Sappho, another historical lesbian, once said, “Someone will remember us I say, even in another time.” Gentleman Jack shows that Anne Lister can finally exist in a time where her true self can be embraced.

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A blue plaque with a rainbow border commemorating Anne Lister. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Science in Storytelling: Interstellar and ’39

Both Queen and Christopher Nolan have used the theory of relativity as a foundation for storytelling in surprisingly similar ways. Their ventures show how science can be used to tell human stories.

By Sadie MacDonald

I don’t think that everyone is aware of the song “39” by Queen. This underrated gem sounds like a folksy shanty with its lyrics about ships and seas, but it’s not what it seems.

“39” was penned by Brian May, who put his astrophysics studies on hold to pursue his career as lead guitarist of Queen (as one does). With that fact in mind, the song becomes very different from what its genre initially implies it to be.

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Dr. Brian May eventually did finish his Ph.D in astrophysics thirty years after starting it! Photo: HuffPost

The song’s “ship” is a spaceship, and the “milky seas” refers to the Milky Way. The “world so newly born” is another planet that offers hope for an “old and grey” Earth. Some lyrics in the song are strange: the chorus mentions “the land that our grandchildren knew” and the narrator observes in the final verse that “so many years have gone though I’m older but a year.” He addresses someone mournfully, saying “your mother’s eyes from your eyes cry to me.”

May once explained “39” in an interview:

It’s a science fiction story. It’s the story about someone who goes away and leaves his family and because of the time dilation effect, when you go away, the people on earth have aged a lot more than he has when he comes home. He’s aged a year and they’ve aged 100 years so, instead of coming back to his wife, he comes back to his daughter and he can see his wife in his daughter, a strange story.

Essentially, “39” is about the human effects of the theory of relativity. I had too much of an arts education to explain relativity properly, but what’s important to this discussion is that time is relative; it will not pass at the same rate for all observers, and can be distorted. Some causes for extreme time dilation include black holes, which can distort the fabric of space-time itself, and light-speed travel (the closer something gets to the speed of light, the slower time will pass for it). For the traveller in “39,” only a year has gone by, but much more time has passed back on Earth, and the person who wrote him “letters in the sand” is no longer alive when he returns.

If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, this might sound a little familiar.

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Matthew McConaughey as Joseph Cooper in Interstellar. Photo: FilmGrab

To sum up (and spoil) Interstellar: the film is set in a future where the Earth is a dying dust bowl and its population is at risk of extinction. NASA sends explorers into space to find a planet to serve as a new home. Protagonist Cooper is one reluctant explorer, leaving his children in hopes of giving them a future. Near the midpoint of the film, Cooper arrives on a planet where time is so dilated that while a few hours pass for him, 23 Earth years go by, as he discovers when he returns to the ship to find recorded messages left by his aging children. By the end of the film, his daughter Murphy is an old woman, and Cooper reunites with her on her deathbed.

When I saw Interstellar’s trailers, I wondered if it was connected to “39”, and after watching the film, I felt certain of it. As far as I’m aware, though, Nolan never confirmed if “39” inspired Interstellar. There are several key similarities. Both feature explorers leaving a failing Earth in a spaceship in search of a new world. Their quest is ultimately successful, but at huge personal – and temporal – cost to the explorers and their loved ones. Time acts as a destructive force that irrevocably disrupts the natural lifespans of those involved, but it is also a precious resource for the protagonist, who gets to see his daughter in her old age.

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Cooper saying goodbye to his daughter Murphy as he leaves for his mission. Photo: FilmGrab

These stories show that science fiction can be intimately human. Both “39” and Interstellar use physics to tell stories of love, loss, and hope. Cooper realizes that his and Murphy’s love for each other is “the key” to transmitting the data that will save humanity, and the narrator of “39” promises his partner he will return to Earth. Interstellar ends optimistically, but the narrator of “39” laments that “all your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand / for my life still ahead, pity me.” Scientific discoveries and saving Earth’s population is not enough to make up for what was lost on a personal scale, but love endures nonetheless.

Science fiction, though often maligned, offers unique opportunities to explore human relationships and emotions in technologically fantastic settings. These elements have been tied to the genre since its beginnings in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and have endured up through Star Trek and Carl Sagan’s Contact. We could use more marriages between science and storytelling. As Dr. Brian May himself says, “I think we all realize ourselves best by opening up both sides of our intellect… artistic and scientific.”

The Longest and Most Charming Love Letter in Literature

A love letter can be one of the most intimate ways to express love and affection to another. Thankfully for us, some of the greatest writers in English literature also wrote beautiful letters, which often take on new life after the deaths of their writers and recipients.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

In 1928, Virginia Woolf published Orlando, a novel about a poet who lives for centuries and changes from man to woman. The book was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, with whom Virginia had a decades-long romance and later friendship. Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, famously described Orlando as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” The book is really an ode to Vita in all her complexities and contradictions and a testament to the power of language and story to express the most complicated human experiences. Fitting, too, that Nicolson likened Orlando to a love letter, since Vita and Virginia wrote letters to one another from their first encounter in 1922 until Virginia’s death in 1941.

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Vita Sackville-West (left) and Virginia Woolf (right). Photo: Time

In the age of Internet dating, it’s easier than ever to stay connected, but convenience has in some ways come at the expense of creativity. Somewhere along the way, sliding into your crush’s DMs became the primary mode of expressing romantic interest. Love letters, by comparison, seem like a dying art form.

There’s something strangely fascinating about reading another person’s intimate letters, like peering behind a curtain you’re not supposed to. Letters, after all, are meant to be private. Yet, our inclination to uncover the private lives of public figures persists.

Writers like John Keats, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, and Woolf, among many others, were all exceptional diarists and letter-writers as well as poets and novelists. It’s a curious thing to read the most intimate writings of our favourite writers—like realizing your professors are human beings who have entire lives outside of the academy. The letters of writers continue to be published posthumously not only because they make for interesting historical documents, but also because they offer insight into the remarkable and mundane inner lives of often exalted figures.

The love letter, in particular, reflects exactly what makes the medium of letters so special. Call me a hopeless romantic, but reading the most intimate expressions of love and desire between two people is kind of swoon-worthy. The power of reading these love letters comes from the medium itself, which is at once private and public, immediate and remote, intimate and mundane, fleeting and permanent.

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Vita and Virginia and dogs! Photo: Charleston

Vita and Virginia wrote letters to each other throughout the entirety of their complex and shifting relationship, and through those letters, we get a glimpse of just how much the two meant to each other, how much impact each left on the other’s life and art. Their letters to each other are a chronicle of human connection, captured across space and time.

In perhaps my favourite love letter of all time, Vita writes to Virginia:

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

January 1926

That’s the beauty of a letter: it’s there and then it’s gone. Here, Vita puts her feelings in the starkest of terms: simple, honest, vulnerable. But the “little gap” she talks about is present also in the form of the letter. There is always a gap in what we can know from these missives. We get only a glimpse but are unable to fully grasp all that remains unspoken and what happens between the acts. But that’s also what makes reading these letters such a unique experience: we’re only getting a part of the story. Some of it will be forever unavailable to us. And maybe that’s exactly as it should be.

Mannerisms Maketh Man

Casting choices can define the outcome of historical adaptations. When it comes to issues of appearance and performance, there’s a fine balance in achieving a convincing performance – which factors should be prioritized for authenticity?

By Daniel Rose & Serena Ypelaar

The Mindful Rambler was always going to feature dialogue posts – it was just a matter of time. And now here we are! This article was born halfway into a deep discussion the two of us were having about historical casting choices. Do actors need to look like their historical counterparts to convince an audience, or is it the performance that matters most? We each had some interesting – and mostly opposing – views, and you can read our discussion below. 

SVY: To get straight into our standpoints on this issue, I’ll come right out and say that while performance obviously matters to me, appearance matters just as much, if not more. I’m a very visual learner and I like to be fully absorbed into an adaptation – if an actor doesn’t really look like the person they’re meant to be portraying, I have trouble buying in. It places a bit of a barrier between myself and the film/show. But I know you have a fascinating and absolutely valid perspective on this topic too. 

DR: For the longest time, I shared the belief that actors should physically resemble the historic figures they have been cast to play. This changed with Frank Langella’s fantastic performance as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008). Even though Langella did not particularly look like Nixon, his uncanny portrayal of Nixon’s mannerisms and way of speaking was astonishingly accurate. As a viewer, I felt transported to 1977, with Langella’s performance pulling back the curtain on a person and period that I did not live through. To me, an actor’s ability to convey the intricacies of a figure’s mindset and historical context is just as important as “looking” the part when it comes to selling the viewer on an historic piece.  

Frank Langella (left) as Richard Nixon (right) in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Pinterest

SVY: For sure, I agree that without mannerisms and attention to detail, so much of the person’s essence is lost. I think it’s a fine balance – if an actor doesn’t already look like their subject, makeup is now so sophisticated that a lack of resemblance can be easily remedied. For instance, Christian Bale was transformed completely into Dick Cheney in VICE (2018). Some say heavy prosthetics hamper performance, and the same can be said for screenwriting: if a screenplay does a feeble job of interpreting a real-life person’s temperament, it might not always translate on-screen depending on what the actor has to work with. For instance, I previously wrote about Zac Efron’s uncanny casting as serial killer Ted Bundy; Efron’s performance was excellent but the script was weak. With many variables in historical adaptation and the complexity of human personalities, it’s challenging to get right. But viewing is a passive activity, so it can help when much of the interpretive work is done for me. How do you look past outward appearances when you’re watching things? 

Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in VICE. Photo: Through the Silver Screen

DR: I think you raise some good points – Bale’s transformation in VICE was astonishing, I’ll admit. That said, when I watch a movie about a real-life figure, or even any old period piece, I consider more than just how one character looks. Ideally, the setting and costumes paint a picture (pun intended) of the aesthetic of a time period. By including tiny details such as fashion choices and products that have since been discontinued, films draw on memories and shared experiences on a subconscious level. By creating an environment that “feels” familiar, the viewer is transported into a world that does not reflect the current era. A great example is the film First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling. The camera spends a great deal of time showcasing “space age” technology, including analog dials on flat steel machines, alongside more mainstream 1960’s design choices, such as wood panelling and garish wallpaper. I could almost feel some of the costumes through the screen, as actors eschewed polyester blend for scratchy wool and one-hundred percent cotton. I honestly could not tell you if any of the actors resembled the real-life Apollo 11 crew – but I was utterly convinced by how the film framed them. 

Colin Firth (left) and Jared Harris (right) respectively, both as King George VI. Photo: Slate

SVY: That’s worth noting too. Our familiarity with the figure being portrayed will influence our convictions in terms of whether the likeness and portrayal seems authentic. I’ll now bring in an example of a key struggle I face when I’ve seen a lot of pictures and/or constructed an aura of a historical figure in my mind. There have been a couple of portrayals of King George VI lately, in The King’s Speech (2010) and television series The Crown (2016-). Both actors, Colin Firth and Jared Harris respectively, look nothing like the late British monarch. Both conveyed aspects of his character through their performance, but to me their visual appearance separates me from complete absorption in the portrayal because I know irrevocably how Bertie actually looked. Similarly, I’ve delved so far into Jane Austen’s biography and world that seeing Anne Hathaway play her in Becoming Jane (2007) seemed a bit beyond belief. I can definitely still enjoy a production on these occasions, but I just can’t fully embrace the actor as a true embodiment of the figure. Perhaps it’s because I’m a highly visual learner, but something holds me back!

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane. Photo: Film Affinity

DR: I think we’ve identified some ways in which an actor looking or not looking like an historic figure can either help or hinder an audience member’s engagement with the subject matter. Regarding my stance, I want to echo the sentiments of Chernobyl (2019) stars Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård. Flummoxed that they were cast to play figures they bore no resemblance to, both actors concluded that stripping the focus away from physical similarities allowed director Johan Renck to hire performers whose talents could help construct a portrait of life as it was in the Soviet Union. The success of the series changed my entire perspective, and allowed me to re-evaluate how other historic films draw the viewer into the paradigm on display. All that said, as someone who agreed with you until recently, Serena, I respect your position!

SVY: Same to you, Dan! It’s been fun bandying about, and I can definitely say that while I’m attached to the idea of resemblance, I do agree that poor acting is by no means a satisfactory trade-off for the elusive goal of physical likeness. In terms of historical interpretation, I’m looking forward to seeing what Hollywood does next so we can keep discussing these principles.

Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Last week Bretton and Serena attended an advanced screening of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. Your friendly neighbourhood Ramblers discuss their impressions of the film below.

By Bretton Weir & Serena Ypelaar

Bretton

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) isn’t just a biopic of one of the greatest personalities of many of our childhoods, but a continued learning opportunity, especially for those of us who grew up with the show, to reflect on how times have changed, how we have changed, and the transcendence of kindness, compassion, forgiveness and understanding. True to its source content, the delightful, formative and accessible children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the film tackles questions around family and relationships — and how we manage relationships as they become more complex — into our adulthoods. 

Released in the wake of the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which chronicles the trials and triumphs of the real-life Mister Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes a different narrative approach. Focusing instead on writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) as he struggles to write a magazine profile about Mister Rogers, Lloyd must also deal with personal relational baggage that comes with being an adult. True to form, Mister Rogers acts as a guiding force and helps Lloyd embrace his inner demons and become a better human being.

Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers was a delightful homage to the kind and caring personality that is Mister Rogers. Hanks’ vocal cadence was masterful. He had the listless soothing quality that Mister Rogers came by so naturally.

What could have been a very standard, cookie cutter biographical feature film proved to be an exciting and, at times, surreal ride. The story isn’t about Mister Rogers, proper, but the universality and long-lasting effect Mister Rogers, his program, and his life-lessons have on us all these years later.

Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). Photo: Lacey Terrell

Serena

“If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.”

One of the most memorable lines from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood also comes from the real Mister Rogers himself and still holds relevance today. Societal conventions seem almost to promote the suppression of emotions, but Mister Rogers proves that it’s possible to be both rational and emotional — at the same time. Tom Hanks’ Rogers drives that point home through his calm affirmations and bald statements of fact, which he delivers during moments of earnest emotional reflection.

The film is not what I expected. In place of a syrupy timeline of Mister Rogers’ rise to popularity, we instead glimpse the career of an established Mister Rogers and his effect on those around him. The best quality of the film is its simplicity — it doesn’t ask for anything except our undivided attention, which is what the real Fred Rogers always had to offer. The result of this ever-present mindfulness is that the viewer must turn inward to their own experiences and emotions, just like Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel. When was the last time we felt angry? What did we do about it? In those moments of honesty we become Lloyd, and it feels like we are being counselled by Hanks-as-Rogers.

Given the subject matter, it’s fitting that we saw the film on International Kindness Day. The script excels in that it doesn’t try to be over the top; its message is quiet but marked by conviction. There were moments when I could hear a pin drop in the cinema, as well as moments when I couldn’t help but shed tears. The fact that my expectations were so divergent from what we actually got was a highlight; it felt almost like a raw therapy session. “The most important thing to me in the world right now is my conversation with Lloyd Vogel,” Hanks-as-Rogers says in one scene where the two are on a phone call. That statement captured the essence of Mister Rogers so well that it sparked memories of why we found (and continue to find) his show so comforting. He accepts us as we are.

While certainly comforting, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood dives deeper than nostalgia. It celebrates the legacy of a caring and understanding man while promoting the emotional intelligence that is healthy for people of any age.

You Just Know When a Song is ‘Peaky’

Soundtracks are integral to the overall feel of a television series. The music in BBC’s Peaky Blinders has left such an impression on viewers that it even spawned a music festival earlier this year, demonstrating how stylistic details convey mood in storytelling.

By Serena Ypelaar

Warning: this article contains minor plot details from Seasons 1 to 4 of Peaky Blinders. However, it does not include spoilers from the recently aired Season 5.

“They’re still not playing it,” I grumble as the opening credits take up the screen.

It’s a Sunday night and I’m watching the Season 5 finale of Peaky Blinders with my siblings. In this case, the “it” refers to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ brooding “Red Right Hand”, the theme song for the BBC television show starring Cillian Murphy and Helen McCrory.

An example of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand” in the opening sequence of Peaky Blinders.

It seems my indignation is here to stay, as the show producers seem to have abandoned the use of “Red Right Hand” altogether in the later seasons. In Season 1, I could always depend on the track’s clipped tones to signal my absorption back into early 20th century Birmingham. By Season 3, however, we started getting covers of the song instead of the original. And now in Season 5, we’ve lost the Red Right Hand altogether. It’s become so strongly associated with the show that it feels disorienting not to hear it at the start of each episode, which is a testament to one aspect of Peaky Blinders I can never stop thinking about: the music.

The curation of a soundtrack, especially during montages and in the opening and closing credits of a television show, can drastically transform how a story comes across. Through music we receive guidance on how to feel when watching: the selected songs convey emotion, which in turn sets the tone for a scene. I’m sure I’m biased because my music taste consists primarily of rock music, but I’ve always felt that Peaky Blinders nails it on the music front. Tracks are hard-hitting when they need to be in order to illustrate the gritty underbelly of Birmingham in the 1910s, 20s, and now 30s.

Take this scene, for example, in which Tommy Shelby (played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy) attempts to carry out a murder, set to “Bad Habits” by The Last Shadow Puppets.

It’s almost like someone plugged my Spotify into the show, as so many scenes feature my favourite bands and artists!

Today, an official Peaky Blinders soundtrack is being released, with music spanning the series’ five-season run so far. Musicians such as Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys, Royal Blood, Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, The White Stripes, David Bowie, Radiohead, Anna Calvi, and Black Sabbath have been featured on the show and likewise on the soundtrack. The series balances edgy hard rock with softer, more languid choices to illustrate vulnerability; the result is endearingly human.

“The Peaky Blinders story and the music we use are twins, born at the same time. It would be difficult to imagine most of the pivotal moments without the soundtrack.”

Steven Knight, Creator

In many instances, the music drives the action forward in Peaky Blinders. It’s often used to drown out the rest of the sound, building suspense and capturing the tone of any given scene. The tracks are well-selected as tools of characterization, such as Arthur Shelby’s attack on Luca Changretta’s men in Season 4. Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes’ “Devil Inside of Me” is overpoweringly apt, but we also know Arthur isn’t unilaterally bad – his internal struggles are laid bare with the help of the soundtrack.

Watford-based Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes pound out the showdown between Arthur Shelby and Luca Changretta’s men. Warning: scene contains profanity and violence.

As if that weren’t enough, this past September saw a music festival crop up as another means of hyping the new season: The Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival. A lineup of artists whose music was played in the television series was (flat)capped off with secret special guest Liam Gallagher of Oasis fame (or rather, notoriety). Fans dressed up in their best tweeds and three-piecers to attend the festival in none other than Birmingham.

“You just know when a song is ‘Peaky’. The artists are outsiders. They have resisted the tyranny of the mainstream, shall we say?”

Cillian Murphy

If you’d told me that a television series had enough weight behind it to justify an immersive music festival, I’d never have believed it, but it really did happen, with cast members present. The organizers even hired hundreds of actors to start brawls onsite amidst the live performances of musicians who had one thing in common – being on Peaky Blinders.

John Shelby (Joe Cole), Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) are the Peaky Blinders triumvirate (with Polly Gray, not pictured, as their Queen, of course). Photo: Esquire

I’m not sure what this tells us about how people in the United Kingdom and beyond have adopted the Peaky Blinders as part of popular culture today. But I sure am glad that a real-life history has been reanimated and acknowledged with such vigor through artistic interpretation, and aided by a killer soundtrack. Yes, the Peaky Blinders were a real gang, and a terrifying one at that. Yet the television series and its corresponding music has put the story on the radar in a strangely favourable way – by order of the Peaky Blinders.

Kindness Among the Unkind: Penny Dreadful and the Art of Adaptation

Showtime’s short-lived horror drama Penny Dreadful embodied the very best of Victorian Gothic. The show’s investment in literature proves that the best adaptations are unafraid to honour their origins. 

By Adriana Wiszniewska

As we discussed earlier this month, the Victorians were much more than their stodgy reputation leads us to believe. Victorian society was slippery and grey, invested as much in the supernatural as the natural. It was, after all, a time of great upheaval. And out of that shadowy underlife emerged some of the most iconic Gothic monsters.

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?

Penny Dreadful, “Night Work” (1×01)

While Gothic literature had its heyday in the late eighteenth century, the genre underwent a massive resurgence in the Victorian era. The old forms of eighteenth-century Gothic were updated to reflect the anxieties of a society teetering on the edge of modernity. It’s remarkable just how many Gothic novels were published in the final decades of the nineteenth century, including classics like Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Among this slew of new horror fiction were penny dreadfuls, cheap, sensational, serialized stories that were looked down upon not just for their lurid subject matter but also for their mass popularity. Which brings me to Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), a TV series that took its inspiration from all of the above.

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Eva Green is mesmerizing as Penny Dreadful‘s Vanessa Ives. If there’s one reason for you to watch this show, it’s Eva Green. Photo: IMDb

Written and created by John Logan (who also wrote the play Red), Penny Dreadful takes the monster-parts of classic Gothic literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and stitches them together into one exquisite tapestry of postmodern beauty and terror, blurring the edge between the lurid grotesque of pop culture and the high-minded literary aspirations of high art.

Penny Dreadful wears its literary influences on its puffy Victorian sleeve, shamelessly flaunting its literariness at every step. While most obviously shaped by nineteenth-century Gothic, the show is also knee-deep in Romantic poetry.

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She’s not wrong. Sad monsters too, apparently. Photo: Tumblr

In Penny Dreadful, two strangers can casually recite the same poem to each other from memory like it’s nothing. Victor Frankenstein, in seeking a name for his creation, reaches not for the Bible but for Shakespeare, because “theological connotations aren’t very ‘us’, are they?”

The same could be said of Penny Dreadful. In a world of vampires, werewolves, and witches—a world of senseless death and cruelty—existence seems devoid of the divinity and order that the Romantics saw in nature. As Frankenstein’s monster puts it:

I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil?

Penny Dreadful, “Resurrection” (1×03)

The Gothic is the dark underside of Romanticism, anticipating the bloody monstrous mechanized world that Penny Dreadful knows has already arrived and still haunts us to this day. But the show’s investment in poetry, in beauty and love and kindness among the unkind, shows that there are ways to hold back the dark, even if just for a moment.

That’s why all monsters in Penny Dreadful are secretly poets, the Creature perhaps most of all. Just as his creator reached for Shakespeare, the Creature renames himself John Clare after the poet of the same name  in an attempt to shed his monstrous past. And in the cavernous dark beneath London (a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt), Clare finds kinship with Vanessa Ives, another damaged person who dwells in the halfway place between light and dark (Vanessa, notably an original creation, is the glue that holds the show together). She looks at his scarred face with warmth and the two trade soft words and lines of poetry:

The characters of Penny Dreadful speak in and through literature, finding solace in poetry when the world offers them only pain and loss and darkness. This is a story about monsters—the scary, bloodsucking, evil monsters, of course. But also the sad, lonely, misunderstood monsters—the broken things—the kind of monsters that shed light on what it means to be human and, conversely, what it means to be cast out from humanity.

Stories make up Penny Dreadful‘s blood and bones. Its characters use literary texts to define themselves, to narrate their lives, to make sense of the world around them. They themselves are texts, living and breathing and endlessly generative. That’s what makes literature so powerful to begin with, and Penny Dreadful understands that better than any show on television.