One of the thrusts of this series as a whole is exploring the line that separates man from beast. This is a fairly obvious theme in Season 1. It also is a main theme that runs through both the “pulp fiction” (dime novels, penny dreadfuls, and other short and lurid fictions that were popularized in the latter portion of the Victorian era) and the so-called Victorian “literature” of the age.
For me, this kind of thing actually goes back further, to the morality plays of medieval times which hoped to teach virtue to the lower classes. There has always been an attempt by authors to wish to “raise the mind of the poor from the level of beasts to the height of moral rectitude.”
Yet in the latter part of Victoria’s reign in the British Empire, it was quite obvious that the rich in those countries – especially Britain – considered anyone not like themselves to be nothing better than beasts. The pulp fiction then served as escapist entertainment, keeping the poor and the different “in their place.”
Of the main characters introduced only Dr. Victor Frankenstein comes from the early years of the 1800s. All of the others (except Vanessa, and to some points Sir Malcom – who are more of an invention for this series) come from the decade in which this series is set (the 1890s). In fact, I believe Sir Malcom to have been created as a character out of the history of British explorers that fizzled out in the 1870s. This explains why he talks about returning to exploring more of Africa, but only does so to recover the body of his son.
Along with the exploration of the duality of man (animal instinct vs. intellectual primacy), you also see another issue with which the Victorians struggled. The push for recognizing a woman’s right to control herself and her choices was intensifying as the Second Industrial Revolution ground on (mass production of steel, electricity, etc). Strangely, although the British had a Queen, she felt that the Empire did best run by men.
Many of the sufferagists in the last decade of the 1800s were considered “loose women” or “women of doubtful morality” which hypocritically meant that they somehow deserved the force feeding of hunger strikers or any other punishment that the police felt was needed. Many women died in these situations. Similar to us in the modern world, women were not considered to be able to make reasonable decisions regarding their minds or bodies. In fact, women were expected NOT to have a mind.
In the case of Penny Dreadful’s first season, we watch Vanessa emotionally flaggelate herself. She is evil, and therefore must be punished. Throughout this season, Sir Malcom joins her in that punishment, because he feels she betrayed his daughter (who – according to him at least – is still somehow pure and guileless).
What strikes me the most about season 1 is that it continues the idea that sex somehow makes a woman a beast. That in order to be above reproach, her body must only be given in certain limited ways. Vanessa sleeps with Dorian in Episode 6, but just as she is orgasming, she hears the voice of the demon. This is nothing more than the same attitude that sex somehow makes a woman dirty and evil. She runs home and tries to purify herself, but becomes “possessed” instead.
This concept runs entirely through the whole series. Woman, by nature, is evil. This is no different from the Malleus Maleficarum published in 1487, which blamed women for all the evils of mankind. The only love relationship that Vanessa should have is the supposedly “pure” one between Ethan and herself. Pure, because there is no sex and because supposedly they both sacrifice the attraction to remain “on the side of the angels.”
There is absolutely NOTHING pure about a sexless marriage. In fact, it is one of the easiest ways to destroy the self-esteem of the one who keeps trying to have that intimacy. It not only destroys the relationship, but encourages the person who is celibate to think there is something wrong with them, rather than being something wrong with the other one.
I’m no less good because I enjoy sex. I am not evil for having a sexual nature. For the first time in my life, I am fully and completely in charge of my own choices. I’m not the child who desperately wanted her father’s approval. I’m not the girlfriend or wife who has to avoid making my significant other jealous. I own my body in a way I never have before.
I had a discussion this weekend with my sister about a similar subject. She wondered if I needed my boyfriend because I need someone from whom to gain approval. I view it in the other direction. When I first started dating by boyfriend, in many ways my part of our relationship was very similar to my relationship with my ex-husband. His opinion of me was more important than my opinion of myself.
As I continue through the recovery process, I am in many ways going backwards through my life. I am dealing with many of the ways that I perceived my relationship with my father and how it affected my marriage. While I heal these issues, I am finding a better balance between myself and my boyfriend. Yes, he occasionally feels insecure, but all he has ever wanted is for me to be happy. He wants me to be fully myself, even if that makes me change into someone that may leave him behind. I don’t see that I can change that much, because I love him. But, we all have our fears.
The fact that he wants me to be me, and expects nothing less of me than to be myself is something I have rarely experienced in my life. I receive this from my sister as well. It’s love with few expectations. It’s love that is freedom, not limited. Love that allows room for growth, not requiring stagnation on the part of the loved.