Today I’m delighted to welcome Leanna Renee Hieber! Her debut novel, the enjoyable Prism-Award-winning The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, was recently reissued as Strangely Beautiful, a single volume containing revised editions of the first two novels in this saga. She is also the author of the Magic Most Foul trilogy beginning with Darker Still, and the second book in her Eterna Files series, Eterna and Omega, was just released earlier this month.
Penny Dreadful’s Betrayal and the Complexity of Feminism in the Gothic Tradition
Hello friends, this is the topic for a graduate thesis, not a blog post, so strap in.
Anyone who has seen my presentations at workshops and conventions across the country knows how passionate I am about Gothic fiction. As the author of ten Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy novels, now with Tor, beginning with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker back in 2009 to its recent revised reissue as Strangely Beautiful and my current Eterna Files series, I’ve made a career of writing characters that could have been mere victims or plot devices in a traditional Gothic plot and instead I let them live full lives of agency and developed, meaningful choices. My focus study in college was the Victorian era, so I do come at this from both an academic and professional level.
When a modern Gothic show, such as Penny Dreadful, while set in the Victorian Era, shuns some Victorian conventions but in effect reinforces some of the same, and the most harmful old stereotypes and violences against women who had proven so strong and capable from the start, this is not only a betrayal of the character, but a harmful replay of the Victorian paradox of women being unable to win due to constant double-standards, and being not even considered fully human; vessels for punishment and sacrifice.
The 19th century was a time of unprecedented change in terms of the Industrial Revolution, the shift from rural to urban populations, the creation of the middle class, rampant global colonialism and in the US, relocation and genocide of the native population. It was also a time of great innovation and the birth of many human and animal rights causes. But full rights were a long way off for most women and the vote wouldn’t come until 20 years into the next century. Laws about a woman’s ability to own property or keep what had belonged to her family or husband, as well as domestic abuse laws, didn’t begin until the mid-1800s, women being the property of fathers or husbands.
The 19th century dangerously misunderstood women’s holistic health and sexuality. Through a variety of male-dominated pseudo-sciences, women were found not to be sexual beings and those who did express desire often found themselves harshly corrected if not sent to an asylum. Binary gender roles were violently strict for men and women, and both found themselves victims of the paradox of not being “enough” either way, too limited to be able to express full emotional, physical and psychological humanity.
The tradition of Gothic fiction focuses on extremes. Rooted in psychological perspective, dread and tension, rather than an all-out descent into horror, the Gothic hangs you on a precipice. It leaves a lot to imagination, indulges in wild, often paranormal scenarios, lush if not purple prose, sometimes boasting unreliable narrators and questionable perspectives. The Gothic has always been titillating, as themes of possession, psychosis, physical drives, conditions and general sexuality were things Victorians didn’t dare talk about on the surface. The Gothic tells repressed truths in exaggerated metaphors.
A reader must approach the Gothic with both the willingness to sit back and enjoy the ride, giving over to the razor-thin, perilous edge between beauty and terror, but also be willing to understand the societal pressures, paralysis, obsessions, fetishes, prisons and contradictions from whence the stories come.
The Gothic tends to have a revival in times of great change and/or societal fear. In this day and age where the discourse of politics has devolved into orange tantrums and unprecedented, unfiltered antagonism, it is no wonder that there’s been an upsurge in the Gothic, as artists are tapping into the world’s fear of “the other,” just like Stoker’s subliminal themes in Dracula.
Many female writers, following a trail emblazoned by writers like Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and the Brontë sisters to name just a few, were writing Gothic novels, ghost stories and “Sensational” novels like Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Gothic styled ghost stories through the century, all of which either overtly or subtly talk of the limited options for women at the time. In a stifling, limiting, often tragic era, writers examined the double standards of the ‘angel versus whore’ dilemma, and the various prisons of half the population, across all classes. For a number of Gothic tales, It Does Not End Well, and the sacrifices for women are enormous, if not deadly.
In our modern day and age, we can subvert this trope and move it forward as laws, societal mores and science has broadened our view of the world to allow for more understanding, choice, freedom and equality, though the fight continues to be fought across many social fronts, only with different vernacular and conditions.
The reason I’m here is Kristen noticed my impassioned Twitter rant about the Gothic, Victorian-set supernatural drama Penny Dreadful after having been a devoted fan of the series until the end. Let me be very clear that I’m only angry because I care. Deeply. I loved (almost all) of the characters in Penny Dreadful. It is the most mainstream embodiment of the genre I’ve spent my entire career in. I not only wanted it to be great, I needed it to be, as I knew I’d be called upon to discuss the series due to my expertise in similar-styled fiction. But if it had been me, I’d have made very different choices for the sake of the really wonderful characters the show had once championed.
By season three, we’ve heard or been shown a thousand times that “everyone is a monster,” but there’s still ways to be clever about “monstrosity” and not be doubly, hypocritically monstrous towards women. Female sexuality was monstrous to the Victorians and in Penny Dreadful it is also used as such. The dire, violent consequences of sex for the characters in Penny Dreadful were disproportionately heaped upon the female characters without a balancing force anywhere else in the series. I’m no prude and I’m not adverse to tragedy, but it has to be fair and balanced.
The only character with a seemingly healthy sense of her sexuality, the trans character Angelique, is murdered in season 2. Double trope foul there, reinforcing yet another violent narrative for queer characters. I kept waiting for a counterpoint to Angelique’s murder to offset that red-flag foul, and all we got at the end of season 2 was the murder of the one prominent person of color. Triple trope foul.
I know the point of Penny Dreadful is monstrous tragedy. I’ve no issue with that. The show’s title comes from 19th century sensationalist stories and ‘tabloid fiction,’ the dime-store novel if you will, called penny dreadfuls, and none of it ended well or happily.
Eva Green’s performance as the central character, Vanessa Ives, was breathtaking. Spectacular. She was the root by which I grounded myself in that wild world. There were some great and clever, bold things this show did for female and female identifying characters. Vanessa was her own woman for most of the show, and called her own shots, for better or for worse. But any ground gained was ruined by the finale.
Vanessa is to Penny Dreadful as Mina was to Stoker’s Dracula. Many of Penny Dreadful’s characters are taken and twisted around from Stoker’s classic 1897 novel. The show used many visual and storytelling parallels. To set Vanessa up as Mina-strong and then give her the Lucy treatment at the end, right down to the parallel of 3 sad white dudes staring down at her grave, was an uncharacteristic and poorly timed reversal of what had been set up from the beginning.
Far more independent, savvy, worldly and aware of darkness and danger than Stoker’s Mina, Vanessa had, until this peculiar end, not needed rescuing, claiming, or fighting over, and was no ordinary damsel in distress. The ending made her seem as though there was nothing but darkness left, all her capacity and fight vanished. I didn’t recognize the woman in the last episode of her own show. It isn’t the death I minded. It was the ‘mercy killing’ by a male hand to serve more character arcs of that same pain. I don’t mind earned tragedy, I understand tales of horror where ‘everyone dies.’ I am a fan of melancholy. Poe is my favorite, most beloved author. But deaths have to be earned for their own reasons and preferably not out of feminine weakness, please.
The finale was glaringly imbalanced. None of the other main characters died. She was the only sacrifice, when it was utterly improbable that all other characters would have lived through the battle. Frankenstein couldn’t even hold his gun. Frankenstein should have been dead a season ago.
This is tip-of-the-iceberg stuff and I have far more to say about the other characters and scenes, but I’ve got to get back to my own book deadlines. I try to offer my readers a rollicking Gothic supernatural saga and I try never to revisit the imbalanced tropes questioned here; instead I play broadly in this incredible genre where anything is possible and the paranormal can be an empowering force for all involved, and once empowered characters remain so. I don’t toy with agency. I wield it. That’s what feminism in the Gothic can be, allowing women their own choices by their own hand, their own agency to act for themselves, destroy themselves or get themselves out of situations. Not without help, none of us can go our whole lives alone, but there are ways to make sure the audience is aware that the character is making her own choices of her own mind and free will, not just a victim of circumstance or pawn of fate, her death interchangeable with her life.
For a perfect example of a film doing EVERYTHING right by what the genre is capable of, please watch Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak. Please take note how amazing Del Toro’s characters are and what he does with them. All of them are powerful and intriguing in their own right and all of them making choices with agency, for better or worse, acting not as one-dimensional victims or plot devices but as characters surpassing trope, all within a very trope-heavy environment. It’s full of tragedy and passion, beauty and terror and that dizzying whirl that makes the Gothic so delectable. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted for the genre. So it does exist.
Let’s celebrate the great representations and when something really misses the mark, let’s call it out as dreadful indeed.
Leanna Renee Hieber
Photo Credit: C. Johnstone
|LEANNA RENEE HIEBER’S first novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, is a foundation work of gaslamp fantasy and the winner of two Prism Awards. Hieber has been a finalist for the Daphne Du Maurier Award. Her travel schedule and other news can be found at Leannareneehieber.com.|