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Showtime’s Penny Dreadful is set in the late Victorian era, specifically the early 1890s, and features a cast suggested by Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Both Frankenstein and his Monster, called Caliban and later John Clare, are prominent characters in the story, which takes place in London. But the series’ version of Frankenstein represents a pretty sharp deviation from Shelley’s character.

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Although popular imagination views both Dracula and Frankenstein as Victorian works of literature, they come from opposite ends of the 19th century, and in fact Frankenstein is not a Victorian novel at all, having been published in 1818, just under two decades before Victoria became queen. Frankenstein is roughly contemporary, not with Dracula, which was published in 1897, but with the novels of Jane Austen, all of which were published in the 1810s. And the events of Shelley’s novel are set at an unspecified period in the 18th century, meaning that Frankenstein probably created his creature around the period of the French Revolution at the latest. So Penny Dreadful’s Frankenstein is a long way from his proper context.

Frankenstein is usually seen as one of the greatest examples of Romantic literature (as well as one of the first works of Science Fiction). The Romantic movement was a reaction against the rationality of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. While the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment sought to use science and human reason to explain all the mysteries of nature, Romantic artists and authors were much more attracted to the grandeur, power, and mysteriousness of nature. Romantic painters loved depicting shadowy moonlight landscapes, medieval buildings ruined by the passage of time, and a contrast between the immensity of the landscape and the smallness of humanity.

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Mary Shelley

Whereas the Enlightenment favored the power of reason to explain things, Romantic authors and artists favored the internal experience of their own emotions, which they struggled to express in painting, music, poetry, and prose. The content of their creativity was supposed to emerge from the artist’s own imagination, and to express their inward reality more than the objective external reality. Shelley’s inspiration for her novel was reportedly a waking dream she had. Because Romantics sought to express their own interior feelings, another major theme in Romanticism was the isolation of the individual, both within nature and within society. Romantic characters in novels struggle to convey their feelings to those around them, find themselves overwhelmed by their emotions, and, overcome by a sense of isolation and the inability to communicate with others on a deep level, often commit suicide.

Shelley’s novel explores many of these themes. In her novel, Frankenstein is a brilliant scientist who discovers how to create life. In other words, he uses the tools of science to usurp one of the most mysterious facts of nature, the power of life and death. In doing this, he is transgressing the limits of nature and exploring What Man is Not Meant To Know; Shelley practically created this now-clichéd theme in Science Fiction. Thus from a Romantic point of view, Frankenstein is doing something foolish, and demonstrating the errors of the Enlightenment. The novel describes the process by which he learns the error of his ways.

He creates his Monster through an unnamed process, literally putting together an enormous human body and reanimating it. Both the modern idea of the Monster as being stitched together and the idea of electricity as the tool for its reanimation are later cinematic additions to the story. But the Monster is hideous, and unable to exist in human society, because Frankenstein is not truly the master of life and cannot replicate the beauty of nature, only crudely imitate it.

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The Monster is never quite given a name, but there are several references to it as Adam, so that’s what I’ll call it. In contrast to the arrogant Frankenstein, who foolishly blunders into things he doesn’t understand, Adam is the Romantic hero. He is a deeply sensitive man who simply wants to fit into society and find friends, but is unable to do so because of his monstrous appearance. Tormented by his isolation, Adam demands that Frankenstein create a mate for him, but Frankenstein is disgusted by his own efforts and destroyed her, which drives Adam into seeking revenge by killing Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth.

Although Adam is ugly on the outside, he is human on the inside. Frankenstein is just the opposite. Although to outward appearances he is a great and wise man, inwardly he is a sort of monster: selfish, arrogant, obsessed with discovering the secrets of nature and keeping them for himself. He steals corpses to cobble together Adam’s body. He is gradually consumed by his hatred of his creation.

Finally, Adam flees northward into the arctic, pursued by the increasingly weak Frankenstein. Discovered by a ship’s captain, Frankenstein relates his tale. He is wracked by guilt and has came to realize his folly. But he dies before he can destroy his creation. Adam appears to mourn his creator and then declares his intention to commit suicide. He is last seen on an ice floe, drifting into the darkness, still alone in the vastness of nature.

 

Penny Dreadful’s Frankenstein

The series’ Frankenstein (Henry Treadaway) is a far cry from Shelley’s character. Both men are scientists, and Treadaway’s character occasionally voices skeptical, if not atheist viewpoints. But he’s not the moral monster of the novel. He’s quite sensitive and loves Romantic poetry by figures like Wordsworth and Keats, as well as Shakespeare, whereas Shelley’s character is primarily interested in science. Only when he smothers Brona (Billie Piper) in the season 1 finale does he demonstrate any of the arrogant assertion of the power of life and death that so characterizes Frankenstein in the novel, and even then, his act can be viewed as trying to make amends for failing Caliban (Rory Kinnear).

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Treadaway as Frankenstein

The biggest issue, for me at least, is a moment in the third episode of season 1 when Caliban explicitly tells Frankenstein “you are a Romantic.” But Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t a Romantic. He’s too arrogantly obsessed with understanding the secrets of nature to be a Romantic. In fact, he’s the anti-Romantic. The whole point of the novel is that Frankenstein’s lack of appreciation for the power of nature causes much sorrow.

The series does a better job of depicting Caliban as a Romantic figure. He too likes poetry, and in the second season takes his name from the Romantic poet John Clare. Like his creator, he is a sensitive soul, and what he wants most of all is what Adam wants, a mate. He demands that Frankenstein reanimate a woman for him, and threatens to kill Frankenstein’s friends until he does so, thus driving Frankenstein to eventually murder Rose Tyler Brona.

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Kinnear as Caliban

(One nice thing the series does in the second season is to collapse Frankenstein’s beloved, Elizabeth, with the ‘bride’ he starts to make for Adam in the person of Brona/Lily Frankenstein. That creates an interesting love triangle for Frankenstein and his creation to grapple with. Actually, ‘triangle’ isn’t the right word, because Dorian and Ethan are also interested in her, but Ethan thinks she’s dead. I think the correct term for this geometric shape is a ‘clusterfuck’.)

Overall, the series loves Romanticism. Malcolm Murray quotes Keats’ Ode to a Nightengale, for example. In fact, the series’ creator, John Logan, has admitted that the series’ ultimate origin was Wordsworth’s poetry. Wordsworth led him to read Percy Bysshe Shelley, which led to Frankenstein, which led to Dracula.

For a show set in the 1890s, it’s perhaps not unreasonable that the well-educated characters would enjoy the poetry of half a century before. But why don’t any of them read poets closer to their own day, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Matthew Arnold, or Algernon Swinburne? Why don’t any of them quote Gilbert and Sullivan? Why doesn’t the Bohemian Dorian Gray read the works of the Bohemian Oscar Wilde? That’s such an obviously meta thing for the show to do, I’m a bit sad they didn’t think of it.

And while we’re talking about the late 19th century, would it kill Dorian to wear a fucking tie occasionally? For a show set in the high society of late Victorian London, he’s rather absurdly louche. The whole point of Wilde’s Gray is that the man appears reputable on the outside but is corrupt on the inside. The trope doesn’t work very well if he dresses in a way that rejects social convention.

 

Want to Know More?

Penny Dreadful is available at Amazon.

You have read Shelley’s Frankenstein, haven’t you?

If you want to know more about Romanticism, a good place to start would be Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction.


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