Posted by: turne23k | December 15, 2020

What’s next?: What to watch if you miss Victorian Lit & Visual Culture this winter

As we have learned, the resonances between Victorian and contemporary visual culture are many and often unexpected. In a departure from some of the other posts on this blog, I wanted to use my final post to end the module with a brief recommendation for one of my favorite contemporary television shows, and one which I believe fits neatly in with the other content of this course.

Find yourself missing our discussions over break? Check out this show and some others I mention, and drop back to the blog with thoughts and comments!

Penny Dreadful, created by John Logan (2014-2016)

One of the most quintessentially Victorian television programs of all time, Penny Dreadful is a Gothic horror masterpiece, set in a gloomy, Dickensian London, and populated by a cast of supernatural literary figures from 19th-century fiction. The show opens on a Dracula setup, with a twist: retired colonial African explorer Sir Malcom Murray (Timothy Dalton) and his companion, the clairvoyant and deeply haunted Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) are on the hunt for Murray’s lost daughter, Mina, captured by a creature of the night, which drinks blood and becomes something utterly, horrifically monstrous. Soon, though, they have enlisted the help of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, holed away in London conducting experiments on the human body, and Vanessa Ives becomes entangled with the sweet-faced, inscrutable Dorian Gray. Later the Wolfman, the Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and Frankenstein’s creature himself become entangled in the tale, as the band searches through the demi-monde, or shadow world, beneath the surface of London. Vampire nests sprout up in slums, Frankenstein’s creature (who has named himself Caliban) haunts a Shakespearean playhouse, and a Jack the Ripper-esque villain is tearing his bloody way through the city.

The show demonstrates a deep and intelligent engagement with Victorian culture, even down to its very name: a “penny dreadful” is the kind of lurid, blood-soaked story with which the show consistently engages. Its knowledge of Victorian superstition and supernaturalism is impressive, moving beyond surface-level Gothic spook and spectacle to reckon with the deeply racist roots of Victorian sensationalism: in this series, ancient Egyptian curses abound, and Vanessa Ives is stalked by the devil himself. It is also characterized by an understanding of its source material that is complex and deeply satisfying. Dorian Gray, often miscast as a totally callous and hedonistic rake, is here almost heartbreakingly naive, even as he degenerates into committing worse and worse misdeeds. Victor Frankenstein, the star of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel (published earlier than the rest of the series’ source material by some fifty years), speaks in flights and flurries of romantic verse, and carries around with him a copy of Wordsworth’s Lyric Ballads. At the same time, the series is delightfully and deliberately queer, a rare treat for 2014 genre television.

It’s not a perfect show, by any stretch: canceled too early, it features a rushed and in some ways difficult-to-swallow third season, and its treatment of characters of color is rather exceptionally poor. Still, it is an intelligent, slow-paced, well-written horror show, and will be fun for fans of Victorian Gothic literature to sink their teeth into.

Looking for more? Try… 

The Haunting of Bly Manor, created by Mike Flanagan (2020). Netflix’s widely anticipated follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House, Bly Manor is a loose take on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw set in the eighties and meditating on the haunting power of love and memory.

Killing Eve, created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (2018-ongoing). One of my favorite television shows of all time, Killing Eve is a dark and wickedly funny exploration of queer desire and the female gaze, as assassin Villanelle and MI-6 agent Eve become embroiled in an increasingly seductive game of cat and mouse. Dressing each other, exchanging expensive gifts, watching each other relentlessly, Eve and Villanelle circle around and around each other, violently collide, and are forever changed by the experience.

Hannibal, created by Bryan Fuller (2013-2015). Bryan Fuller’s prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal tells the bloody, baroque, and surreal love story between FBI agent Will Graham and cannibal and therapist, Hannibal Lecter. In many ways the precursor to Killing Eve, Hannibal is at once a cat-and-mouse story, a chronicle of Will’s descent into darkness, and an exploration of excess and monstrosity as Hannibal makes decadent consumption a bloody and beautiful art.

Fleabag, created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (2016-2019). Neither Gothic, nor supernatural, nor Victorian, Fleabag is nonetheless one of the most hilarious and devastating explorations of womanhood, voyeurism, and the gaze that I have ever seen. Structured by the conceit that Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) is aware of her audience, it tracks her journey through guilt, grief, and eventual redemption. Fleabag knows better than everyone how we construct and destroy each other through looking, and just how transcendent and profound it can feel to be truly seen. 


  1. I absolutely LOVE fleabag – I plan to rewatch it this week. Thank you for these suggestions! Definitely missing this class 😦

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