I’ve been binge-watching the television program, Penny Dreadful—a show set in 1891, the latter end of the Victorian era. For those who have been living under a rock, the Victorian era, one that has long suffered harsh judgement, has returned with a vengeance into fashion. Nowadays, we see hip young men with waxed moustaches and tweed waistcoats upon which dangle gold watch fobs at all the juice bars across this fair nation. Penny Dreadful is eye candy, if you’re into that kind of thing—the illegitimate love child of Guy Ricci’s take on Sherlock Holmes.
The show follows a motley crew of occultists as they embark upon a quest to find that most typical of Victorian quest-figures: a young fair-haired woman, Mina, who is abducted by the evil forces of the dark side. Mina is the daughter of a famous Victorian explorer, Sir Malcolm Murray, who has charted deepest darkest Africa—a virile old patriarch played by a former James Bond, Timothy Dalton. He is joined by Mina’s childhood friend, Vanessa Ives—a woman dressed perpetually in black who is gifted with occult powers: tarot, clairvoyance, curses, hexes, spells. The backdrop of the show is smart: the late Victorian era was as much consumed by advances in science as it was fascinated with the occult.
As we wend through this labyrinthine world of Victoriana, we encounter the greatest hits of the period—hits both literary and historical—that would make any English major feel that their accumulation of useless knowledge is worth it. Dr. Frankenstein is recruited to become one of the crew. Later, we meet Dr. Jeckyll who is rewritten as an Anglo-Indian from the colonies. Dorian Grey is a fellow traveler. We encounter Dracula. There is even a werewolf, played by the long lanky Josh Hartnett who has aged well over the years.
The attention to historical specificity is both the shows making and unmaking. If you love the Romantic poets, you may feel smugly superior in catching all the references to Wordsworth and Blake and Keats. They are everywhere. And the show attempts to lodge itself in specific historical moments like the death of the great poet, Tennyson–a smart narrative device. There is also an intelligence in the way the show methodically works through all the obsessions of the Victorian era—obsessions like Egyptology, theosophy, taxidermy. For someone trained as a literary critic, binge-watching this was brain candy.
But for a literary critic, there are many gaffs, too, that come as a result of the shows commitment to historical accuracy. For instance, the show opens up at a traveling Wild West show in London where we encounter the sharpshooter, Josh Hartnett. The show tells us that the date is 1891 but any literary historian can tell you this is well-nigh impossible. 1893 is the year that the American frontier closes, according to the anthropologist Victor Turner. He made this declaration at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, across from the Wild West display with its assembled spectacle of Indians and Cowboys. It was only after the Columbian Exposition of 1893 that these shows would pack up and rove across Europe. And so when we encounter Josh Hartnett, it is in all likelihood no earlier than 1895…if we take into account the time lag of travel.
But the genius of the show is that it takes into account these historical inaccuracies by the central metaphor that is embedded into the title: Penny Dreadful. The Penny Dreadfuls were broadsides that were sold cheaply to a mass audience. They were descendants of the novel, which were a popular form that had risen into bourgeois respectability and out of the reach of the beggar’d masses. Penny Dreadfuls were the precursors of comic books and reveled in elements of the sensationalistic and lurid: murders, suicides, supernaturalism. They often cribbed from other sources, anthologizing, digesting and skewing the material for mass consumption. And they made no claim to any accuracy.