Penny Dreadful: exploring the cultural context

Now that it's out on disc, Michael takes a look at some of the mythology and culture behind Penny Dreadful...

‘When you see a river’ says Sir Malcolm Murray from behind his excellent Victorian beard, ‘you must follow it to its source’. Now that Penny Dreadful has arrived on disc, we have as good an opportunity as ever to do just that and explore the sources of its characters and themes. We may not be looking for the source of the Nile (located, contrary to the show’s assertion, in 1862), but there is nevertheless some treacherous terrain ahead. 

The show’s success lies in its thrilling blend of disparate figures from the nineteenth century, who have been re-purposed and stirred up into an odd Gothic soup. Comparisons with Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton family, the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Universal’s horror films are inevitable, as are charges that it is not merely derivative of earlier works, but also of works that were themselves derivative. Furthermore, certain crossovers, such as that between Frankenstein (1818) and Dracula (1898) would alarm chronological purists who may, if they wanted to be all smart-arse about it, point out that it would like trying to mix Harry Potter with Tarzan. 

But when was the last time you saw a purist kick off his shoes and settle in for a box-set weekend this entertaining? Sometimes, it’s better to suspend your disbelief all the way and forget that the creators were divided by time, class and gender and focus on the fun instead. If you can’t do that, then you might consider that the works are rather more connected than you’d first believe and that they have a shared origin and began with a rather loud noise in the east. 

The year without a summer

Of the eight ascending iterations on the Volcanic Explosiveness Index the 1815 eruption on Tambora ranks a seven. That achievement is unlocked by any blast in excess of 100 cubic kilometres of ejecta. For the convenience of the unscientific, each level of the scale is given a Beaufort-style description, which would serve to make the whole thing more cosy. Or at least it would were it not for the fact that level seven is three whole orders of magnitude above ‘cataclysmic’. 

Ad – content continues below

It was some blast. Sulphur of a volume equivalent to 25-30 Great Pyramids  was ejected into the sky above Indonesia and from there, spread around the globe. Now, you don’t fire that much helldust into the sky without a little fallout. The cold, dark months that followed were then called ‘the year without a summer’. It’s known as a volcanic winter. The term nuclear winter, while perhaps more evocative, does not even come close. 

The climatic effects were felt for years. Crops failed, rural populations starved and in 1816, it rained ‘incessantly’, creating misery for holidaymakers in Europe. For one particular group, taking a break in Geneva, there was no choice but to take refuge indoors and make their own entertainment. The well to-do set, which included Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, his wife Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley and Byron-wannabe, Dr John Polidori, decided to compete to see who could tell the spookiest stories. Polidori composed a sinister tale of an undead aristocrat while Mary Shelley, then aged seventeen, came up with an account of the misadventures of a pathologically intense medical student who stitches together a collection of cadaverous limbs and gives the resultant ‘Creature’ life. Frankenstein and his Creature swiftly became standard characters for Victorian theatre productions while Polidori’s Vampyre, inspired literarily and personally by Byron, set the template for the suave, aristocratic bloodsucker popularised by Bram Stoker.

Why were they compelled to spook one another? It’s a tempting speculation that the darkness of the sky had something to do with it. Shelley’s text refers to rain pouring ‘from a black and comfortless sky’, while in the preamble to his story. Polidori quotes Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a poem that contains romanticised descriptions of ‘phosphoric seas’ and ‘years all winter’, images that reflect the uniquely bleak darkness in the atmosphere.

The presence of vampires and, specifically, Victor Frankenstein in Penny Dreadful is testament to the pervasiveness of these horror titans in the nineteenth century. (It’s also the likeliest reason why so many Steampunk writers feel compelled to include vampires in their stories). Much of the show is knowingly accurate about these characters. The central conflict between Frankenstein and Caliban is one of parental abandonment, a theme that drove Shelley’s original work. Caliban, portrayed with a suitable awkwardness by Rory Kinnear, shifts between moments of sweet gentility and terrifying violence. His devotion to works of romantic literature and to the heart-rending separation presented in Paradise Lost is also in keeping with his initial concept. 

Egyptomania

As busy cartogrpahers can wearily attest, much of the modern world can be traced back to European rivalries in the nineteenth century. In 1801 the British Army marched into Egypt and took control of it. Not from the Egyptians, but from the French who were already there. They had pitched up on the banks of the Nile at the behest of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man whose military skirmishes across Europe would lead to some of the food shortages that were exacerbated by the Indonesian hellcloud a few years later. The Anglo-French bunfight in North African and the Levant was motivated primarily by economics but there was time for some extra-curricular activities as they went. The French forces were accompanied by representatives of the Commission des Sciences et des Arts, an organisation dedicated to scientific, archaeological and historical study. Their biggest success was the discovery of a granite stone containing a decree made by Ptolemy V a couple of hundred years before the birth of Christ. The stone contained the same text in three languages, allowing scholars to use it as the basis for deciphering hieroglyphics and opening up the world of ancient Egypt to modern eyes. As European skirmishes shifted in the British favour, the stone fell out of the hands of the Commission and was taken by the British (in the slightly cloudy circumstances that was par for the course in European African adventures). Now known to the world as the Rosetta Stone, it remains in the British Museum, the world’s foremost repository of plundered objects, where it is the most visited exhibit. 

The discovery of the stone, unleashed a phenomenon of ‘Egyptomania’ that would last well into the twentieth century (the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 would revive it). For the Victorians, Egypt offered a world of wonders that reflected their own heady times. In their self-regarding worldview, it represented the ‘Britain of the ancient world’, a glorious centre of a wider civilisation. Quite flattering, when you put it like that. The iconography of Egypt informed museum exhibitions art, literature and fashion. A knowledge of aspects of Egyptiana was a desirable trait in some circles, and one of the most famous Victorian Egyptomaniacs was Oscar Wilde, whose poem The Sphinx (1894), draws heavily on the language of the archaic Nilesiders. Wilde, of course, was the creator of that other Penny Dreadful and increasing staple of modern popular culture, Dorian Gray.

Ad – content continues below

Egypt also represented exoticism, as it does in Penny Dreadful, in which the  deliciously camp Mr. Lyle, of the Department for Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities (at, yes, the British Museum), acts as a learned guide to the wonders and horrors of the ancient. For Penny Dreadful, as for the Victorians themselves, the ancient Egyptians represented something that was at once glorious and terrifying; the source of spirit and wonder, of magic and curses.

The Scramble for Africa

Africa, a content rich in mineral resources, was also a source of wonders of a more mundane sort. Sir Malcolm, a figure who recalls both H Rider Haggard and his adventurous characters, represents that curious European attitude to Africa that mixes the respect of awe with a bloodthirsty desire for plunder. For Sir Malcolm, the continent was simultaneously the source of his fortune and his ruin. In Penny Dreadful, the genuinely supernatural is never far from view, but there was enough danger in Africa; from its animals, its insects, its other Europeans, that such ‘conquests’ were fine fodder for readers and exhibition visitors back in Britain. 

Tarot and the occult

Prior to the nineteenth century, there was a misconception, spread gleefully by practitioners, that Tarot cards originated in Egyptian mythology, and that they spread thorough Europe in the hands of ‘Gypsies’, whose name also reveals a misattribution to that North African country. 

Even once ancient Egypt had been made available for empirical study, enabling the learned debunking of some of these claims, Tarot enjoyed a surge in popularity. Ironically enough, the growth of evidence-based scientific enquiry may have had something to do with this as, once the work of fossil hunters and Charles Darwin was able to offer alternative explanations for how we got here, people felt able to question other elements of Christian doctrine. For some, this meant exchanging one set of supernatural beliefs for another and exploring the hidden mysteries of the occult. This coincided with the development of spiritualism, a belief that the living could communicate with the dead through the means of seances, such as those conducted by Vanessa Ives. 

In reality, as in television, many spiritualist mediums were female, playing on the belief that women were closer to the spirit-world and, by extension, less rational than men. This misogynistic attitude prompted a revolt and many female spiritualists, as well as their male confederates, became agitators for the woman question.  

That is not to say that men were completely excluded from the pursuit. Indeed, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of one of fiction’s most famous rationalists, was a noted adherent of spiritualism and, while there are no deerstalkers in Penny Dreadful, a slight homage is paid when Ives runs Ethan Chandler through one of Holmes’ patented Sherlock Scans. 

Ad – content continues below

Wild West Shows

The fascination with exciting things from the East and the South furnish Penny Dreadful with much of its material. Some of it was decidedly western. Wild Western. We first meet Ethan Chandler working as a sharp-shooter at a Wild West Show in London. Such shows were popular from the 1880s when the cowboy impresario Buffalo Bill Cody took his Wild West circus on the road to entertain audiences with displays of frontier fieldcraft, tales from beyond the Rockies and staged battles between ‘Cowboys and Indians’, some of whom hailed from the decidedly un-frontierlike New York. Cody’s shows, like those of his many imitators (including these days, Disneyland), thrived on the concept of the west being an untamed land of danger and earthy mystique, a partially fictional idea that they helped to create. Of all the exotic terrain explored by Penny Dreadful, the wild west shows were the most obviously artificial, the perfect hiding place for a man, like Chandler, who is, as Ives points out, a man much more complicated than he likes to appear. 

Penny Dreadful wears this collection of Victorian obsessions like an elaborate gown, every glittering thread perfectly woven among the others. It fosters a supernatural recreation of the dark and glamorous subculture that serves as the flip-side of the orthodox Victorian world, a demimonde, hidden in plain sight. If it is derivative, it is justifiably so; the creations of popular culture that were conjured on that rainswept Geneva evening are the most enduring of the modern age. Penny Dreadful, like so much else that features on these pages temains in the shadow of that sulphuric fall two hundred years ago.

We are all living in the shadow of Tambora.

Read more about Penny Dreadful on Den Of Geek, here.