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.

Episode 101
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.

sadpoetry
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.

“The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name”

Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright known for his unmatched wit and, infamously, for his sexuality, defined what it is to be unapologetically proud.

By Serena Ypelaar

There were no Pride parades in his day, but Oscar Wilde’s openness on the streets of London arguably comprises the Victorian equivalent.

Growing up in Merrion Square in Dublin (which I just visited last month), Wilde moved to London and settled there for much of his life. He’s celebrated as a gay icon, but it’s little known that he was once in love with the woman who would become Bram Stoker’s wife, Florence Balcombe. Wilde was devastated when she chose to marry Stoker over him. He proposed to two other women before marrying Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons. It’s said that Wilde loved Constance, though of course he’s best known to have engaged in relations with numerous men. Today we’d probably call him bisexual, but Wilde considered himself “Socratic” when it came to love.

Oscar Wilde grew up in this house at 1 Merrion Square, Dublin. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Wilde was proud of his identity – and quite open with his sexuality especially by the standards of the time. Yet even he had to hide who he was to avoid persecution in the form of a criminal trial. In 1895 Wilde was convicted of gross indecency, a homophobic law in the United Kingdom which made same-sex relations illegal for men.

Wilde wasn’t officially out yet when he toured North America for his lecture series on aestheticism in the early 1880s; but as he dressed himself flamboyantly and tended to push the envelope with his sardonic and witty manner, he had cultivated a considerable reputation. The Marquess of Lorne, 9th Duke of Argyll and fourth Governor General of Canada, even declined to meet Oscar Wilde lest ongoing rumours of his own suspected homosexuality be exacerbated. All the while, Wilde had not a care in the world what people thought of his effeminacy.

In 1882 (aged 27), he watched a lacrosse match from the Lieutenant Governor’s box in Toronto, Canada, and was said to have remarked to the Toronto Globe newspaper on his great appreciation for “a tall, well-built defence man”. While Wilde had no qualms about public displays of same-sex interactions, having once kissed a waiter in a restaurant (and possibly Walt Whitman too), such actions were unforgivable in the formal courts back in England.

Oscar Wilde in 1882, by Napoleon Sarony. Photo: Wikimedia

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s most famous lover, wrote a poem titled “Two Loves” (1894), which ends with the phrase “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” The line was used against Wilde in his trial when he was charged by Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who suspected the two gentlemen’s romance and abhorred it. Queensberry demanded that Wilde cut ties with Douglas, persisting despite Wilde’s insouciance.

Queensberry: “I do not say that you are [homosexual], but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you.”

Wilde: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

An 1894 exchange between The Marquess of Queensberry and Oscar Wilde at Wilde’s residence, 16 Tite Street, London

Unwisely, Wilde pressed charges against Queensberry when the latter left a calling card at Wilde’s club reading “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]”. Incensed by what he took for a public accusation of sodomy, Wilde sued for libel, but it was this legal action which led to Queensberry’s acquittal and counter-suit against Wilde. Having procured evidence of Wilde’s liaisons with male prostitutes alongside letters to Douglas, Queensberry had cornered Wilde. Douglas’ poem was interpreted as a euphemism for sodomy, which Wilde denied, but evidence was stacking up against him. Out in society, his dandyish reputation and conflicts with Queensberry caused him little harm, but taking the feud to the courtroom proved to be Wilde’s undoing. He was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. His imprisonment from 1895 to 1897 spurred his decline, and in 1900 he died of meningitis in France – but not before being reunited with Douglas for a time.

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas with Oscar Wilde in 1894. Photo: Wikimedia

In continuing to be himself at all costs, Oscar Wilde was extraordinarily brave in the face of so much discrimination. And yet he had to resort to denying his same-sex encounters in the name of self-preservation. He was incarcerated for his defiance of society’s norms, and he fell from public regard. It wasn’t easy to be queer in the 1890s. Society may have taken strides toward equality and respect since, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy now, either.

What does Wilde’s life over 100 years ago tell us about Pride today? Namely that there are still obstacles to freedom, love, and tolerance, but that the LGBTQ2+ community deserves the right to a parade. Not just the organized Pride parades that take place around the world, but the mere act of parading down the street during day-to-day life: open, out, and free, living authentically without retribution. So-called “Straight Pride parades” happen every single day with the simple privilege of going out into the world without discrimination. The LGBTQ2+ Pride parade should happen every day too – because queer individuals have every reason to be proud.