19th Century England, 19th Century Europe, Ethan Chandler, Eva Green, Ferdinand Lyle, Homosexuality, Joan Clayton, Josh Hartnett, Larry Talbot, Lycanthropy, Patti Lupone, Penny Dreadful, Polari, Simon Russell Beale, The Wolfman, Victorian England, Witchcraft
For the past couple of posts, I’ve been covering Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. There were a couple of other small points that I couldn’t really develop into full posts, so I thought I’d just put them together in one quick post.
- Penny Dreadful riffs on Victorian science-fiction, occult, and horror stories. At least it does in theory. It’s got Frankenstein and his monster, Mina Harker from Dracula, Dorian Gray, and Josh Hartnett’s Wolfman. But as I’ve already pointed out, Frankenstein isn’t a Victorian character; he’s from the Regency period a full two decades prior to the Victorian era. And the Wolfman isn’t a particularly Victorian character either. Although there were a handful of short stories published about lycanthropes in the 19th century, the major Wolfman stories are 20th century. The earliest novel on this theme (that I know of, at least) is 1933’s The Werewolf of Paris. The character in this novel, set in the 1870s, is not a wolfman, but a classic werewolf (he turns totally into a wolf, rather than a wolf/human hybrid). But the novel helped inspire the 1935 horror film, The Werewolf of London, whose protagonist, played by Harry Hill, is the first Wolfman. Werewolf established two of the key tropes of such films, namely that lycanthropy is spread by bites and that transformation into a werewolf is governed by the moon. That in turn helped inspire 1941’s The Wolf Man, with Lon Chaney Jr. as the unfortunate title character. Maybe if we average out the Regency era Frankenstein with the Depression era Wolf Man, we get the late Victorian era. (Incidentally, Josh Hartnett’s character is eventually revealed to be named Ethan Lawrence Talbot, Lawrence Talbot being Lon Chaney Jr’s character in The Wolf Man.)
- Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) watches her witch mentor Joan Clayton (Patti Lupone) burned to death sometime in the 1880s. In reality, the last person executed in the British Isles for witchcraft was the elderly Scottish woman Janet Horne, who was sentenced to detain Scotland, along with her daughter, in 1727. Her daughter managed to escape custody, but Janet was smeared with pitch, paraded through town, and burned alive. Laws decreeing the death penalty for witches were repealed a few years later, so the idea that a group of angry townspeople would burn Joan to death in the 1880s is pretty far-fetched.
- Simon Russell Beale’s flamboyant homosexual Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle was one of the great charms of season 2. But he has a rather 20th century sense of self. In the last episode he refers to himself as a ‘queen’, using what so far as I know is a term that only emerged in the 1950s.He also describes himself as belonging to a ‘tribe’, but I’m not sure that a 19th century gay man would have thought of himself in those terms. If the show had been more interested in an historically accurate portrayal of homosexuality, it should have had Lyle using polari, a wide-spread British slang system used by homosexual men (among others) in the 19th and 20th century. Polari was a complex mixture of Italian, Romani, London English, rhyming slang, back slang, sailor slang, and thieves’ cant that was employed by gay men to covertly signal their homosexuality to other men and have discrete conversations about sexual activity. For example, “Vada the dolly dish, shame about her naff riah” means “Look at the attractive man, shame about his bad hair.” Although some words (like ‘naff’ in the above example) have become common British slang, polari sadly began to die out as homosexuality won a wider social acceptance in the late 20th century. If you’re interested in polari, check out this short film in which two men have a conversation in it. (Ignore the number 4–I can’t get the auto-numbering to turn off)
Correction: In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly wrote that Claude Rains played the Wolf Man in the 1941 movie. While Rains was in the film, it was of course Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role.