[Opinion] - 6 Public Domain Victorian Characters (And 1 Real Guy) I'd Like To See Turn Up In Penny Dreadful

Courtesy of Neal Street Productions
Season one of Penny Dreadful has finished, and by my reckoning, it was a smashing success. It was certainly well received critically, and got a second season pick up, which in television is pretty much the only metric for success that means anything. Before it premiered, I mentioned that I was predisposed to giving the series the benefit of the doubt, as it promised to be a blend of many of my favourite forms of fiction. Despite the fact that they are usually crass and exploitative, I'm a sucker for portmanteau fiction, where public domain characters pal around with each other (it explains why I've stuck with the Thursday Next series this long). It's a Victorian period piece, which I believe I've established as being my favourite historical period, on either side of the ocean. And it utilizes hands down my favourite period of literary history: the Victorian Gothics, and the birth of genre fiction.

Happily, the series was a character obsessed visual treat, so I didn't have to spend the duration of the series making excuses for it's failures. It wasn't a perfect eight episodes, but the faults were vastly outnumbered by it's successes. And one of the most unexpected of those successes was in how John Logan treated the public domain characters. With the exception of young Dr. Frankenstein, all of the principle cast were original creations, though certainly all built on the archetypes of characters and Victorian tropes well established. The public domain was reserved for the secondary characters, and only lightly sprinkled. The likes of Dorian Gray, Mina Harker and Prof. Van Helsing all appear, and the season arc is a loose adaptation of the events of Stoker's Dracula, but Logan was never slave to the source, and chose to adapt freely.

With the world established and the original characters in place, as the series prepares to move into a second year it presents an excellent opportunity for Logan to dip his toes into the pool of the public domain yet again. Because season one was very focused on these six characters, with only a few recurring satellites. The breadth of literary canon offers multitudes of characters who don't necessarily deserve regular occurrence, but from whom a guest appearance wouldn't be unappreciated.

Hit the jump for the list, which includes spoilers for all of season one of Penny Dreadful.

As I usually do with these lists, I set myself some rules when making my selections. First, I tried to avoid the stock characters that are reused and abused every time an author churns out one of these blendings of fiction. Essentially, this means avoiding the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen characters, many of which Logan already hit on. In his selection of Frankenstein and Dracula to draw the primary plot from, he made new use of the two most over used of all fictional characters (had he included Sherlock Homes, he would have bagged all three in one go). So, when I was looking for characters I thought worthy of inhabiting the reality of Penny Dreadful, I was conscious of prior use.

I was also keenly aware of the character's original depiction of intent, and how their original behaviours and experiences would play in the Dreadful environment. You should only add a character if they will contribute something of worth (something that this season's Dorian strained throughout the season). I was less concerned by the character's native time. Some of the original works state that they take place in a specific time. If not, the date of publication is usually assumed to be their arena of existence. The series though has disregarded this concept, placing a mid-to-late twenty year old Victor Frankenstein in 1891, when his original 1818 publication would suggest that he should be more a chronic contemporary of Van Helsing. So, if I felt that a character worked for the show, I picked them regardless of when they are from.

Phileas Fogg

Originates from: Around The World In Eighty Days, by Jules Verne (1873)

It amazes me that Fogg is often forgotten about when the walls of fiction collapse and the Victorians run amok with one another. As presented in text, in 1872 he tranversed the world by a variety of means in the titular eighty days. At a time when adventurism and discovery was highly regarded, his successful return would have made Fogg an international celebrity. He barely ventured off the established map, but the sheer audacity of his attempt, and the might of British ingenuity in accomplishing it would have given him at least a momentary celebrity in the public consciousness.

I would see his role as being similar to how the show treated Van Helsing this season (though preferably without the neck snapping). Perhaps encountered after giving a lecture on his travels, he could provide a timely exposition dump for one of the characters, Chandler perhaps, since his lycanthropy is likely to be a big part of next season's arc. Some knowledge Fogg picked up while traveling through India, or the South Pacific, might be of use. Delving deeper into the ancient and eastern origins of the traditional monsters (as vampires were given an unexpected Egyptian flavour this year) might be a logical direction for the show to take. And it might also give Sir Malcolm a character to look down upon. Explorers of the time were notorious divas, and a Great White Hunter like Murray would most likely think little of a "tourist" like Fogg.

Lord John Roxton

Originates from: The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)

With Lord Roxton, we could have entirely the opposite relationship with Sir Malcom. Based in equal parts on Doyle's friends Roger Casement and Percy Harrison Fawcett, Roxton was the Edwardian reflection of the Great White Hunter archetype set down by H. Rider Haggerd. Instead of hungry for glory and the adrenaline thrill of the hunt, Roxton was a more humanitarian and scientifically minded person (while still living for the thrill of discovery). And while the abusive George Challenger or the skeptical Professor Summerlee are both solid choices to extradite from the pages of the Lost World to include in the series, Roxton provides more flexibility in his role.

First off, if we for moment adhere to publication dates, his appearance in Dreadful could conceivably predate his South American excursion, perhaps at a time when he was still Sir John. I would envision him as a former fellow explorer of Sir Malcolm's, perhaps a member of the party that accompanied him to find the source of the Nile, when Peter Murray died. This would provide him with a relationship to bring him organically into the group, and an established trust. Being an active explorer would explain why Sir Malcolm turned to Chandler in his time of crisis rather than a trusted friend: he was off adventuring in some dark part of the map. If they continue to explore The Master and his African roots, or if attention instead turned towards Chandler and his nocturnal activities, Roxton could provide assistance and experience. And, because character dynamics are what drive the series, he would act as a corollary and antagonist to Chandler, in pretty much every way.

Violet Hunter

Originates from: The Adventure of the Copper Beeches by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

If there was one area where the Victorians fell over, it was in their depictions of women, if in fact there even were any. One of the earliest lines in Haggard's King Solomon's Mines is "I can safely say that there is not a petticoat in the whole history," and that is pretty indicative of the literary period, unless you are looking at the Brontes, Austin or Dickens. Of course, it was a cultural thing at the time and not done out of malice, just an institutional male chauvinism. That being said, there are notable exceptions, and Ms. Hunter is one of them. I've spoken of the character's strength and potential before, and my opinion goes unchanged: if in need of an established female character, Violet's the choice pick.

Her soul appearance in canon is in one of the original Holmes stories set in 1890, during which time she spent two weeks as a governess when she discovered that her employer was keeping his first wife locked in the attic. She pretty much solves the whole case herself, seeking out Holmes and Watson to confirm her suspicions, and to get them to shoot a dog in the head. Watson's postscript says that she went on to become a successful principal at a girl's school. I'll be honest with you, I don't know under what circumstances she could be introduced or used (something supernatural could go down at the school, I suppose). I just wanted to take the opportunity to once again enforce my belief that this is a character with legs, and deserves to be used.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Originates from:  Reality (1859)

Considering that the last two choices of character have originated from the mind of the same man, I think this is an excellent opportunity to mention the man himself, and the elephant in the room: the Detective. I feel very strongly that Holmes' involvement in Penny Dreadful should be avoided at all costs. And not just because there are currently two ongoing versions of the character on other series, and not just because he is the single most adapted fictional character in the history of humanity. More so because Holmes does not fit into the environment that Penny Dreadful has established, that is to say one entirely dependent on the supernatural. Holmes, in his original condition, was a man of pure intellect and deduction. His methods, a scientific approach, depend entirely on foreseeable outcomes, which are not possible when dealing with the ethereal. In fact, until Doyle went nutty after the war, as his mouth piece Holmes (and Challenger) railed against supernatural explanations for events, knowing that it is man's nature was the cause of misfortune, not some invisible hand.

But this season, in a pair of moments featuring Frankenstein, the series opened up a tantalizing possibility: that the authors of these stories could co-exist within this universe with their creations. Frankenstein quotes Shelley at one point, and is latter given a copy of Varney the Vampire, the penny dreadful that inspired Stoker when writing Dracula. And while there are many, many choices for authors active in 1891 to include in the flesh, including more Verne and H.G. Wells, there was perhaps no one popular author more famous at the time than Doyle. His appearance need not be anything more than a cameo, but the prospect of author and creation co-existence is almost too good to pass up.

Sexton Blake

Originates from: The Missing Millionaire by Hal Meredeth (1893)

Since we can't (or shouldn't) have Holmes, perhaps the next best thing would be the next best thing. Sexton Blake suffers from a lot, but most of all he suffered from the popularity of Holmes. Originally an earnest attempt introduce a new character to the emerging world of literary detectives, the character appeared in cheaper half-penny magazines (which eventually destroyed the penny dreadful), written by multiple writers, until by the turn of the century he was little more than a pastiche of Holmes (it wouldn't be until after the First World War that Blake would become an action hero, an early example of the pulp heroes of the fifties, and of a certain 00).

Because season one focused so intently on the eight core characters, viewers saw little of the larger London that they inhabit. And save for one season early on in the season, we saw nothing of the police investigation that surrounded the multitude of murders we've witnessed. The introduction of Blake as a thorn in the side of everyone would provide a natural, and human, antagonist for the second season. And one that would cover all the stories. First, there is Chandler and his eviscerations. Second, there is Caliban's neck snapping tendencies (and what ever maladies befall London once Ms. Croft is resurrected). Third, there are the piles of corpses of women left in the wake of Sir Malcolm's various vampire nest hunts. More than enough, across the board, to attract the attention and drive the interest of a detective looking to establish himself, or perhaps establish an identity separate from the overbearing shadow of his more famous counter part.

Ayesha (She-who-must-be-obeyed)

Originates from: She by R. Rider Haggard (1887)

Make no mistake, Sir Malcolm's name might not be Quatermain, but the character is obviously inspired by Haggard. And really, it works. Having a representative of an entire genre of fiction, and a subset of the Victorian culture on the show makes sense. It also allowed Logan to do something quite interesting with vampire lore, tying it into ancient mythology and African tradition. I'm very interested to see how Logan follows up on that aspect of what he's created. And it presents an excellent opportunity to explore some of the 'lost world' stories that were popular back when the map was still incomplete. 

This season saw The Master featured as the never present antagonist, and I doubt that Mina's death will mean we've heard the last of him. But a big part of the thesis of the show has been about the balance of nature. The Master sees Ives as counterpart equal in evil. Caliban destroys Proteus, the new and  improved version of Frankenstein's creation, and demands that a mate be made in it's place. Ives and Mina represent the competing end of Sir Malcolm's family spectrum. Even the demon that possess Ives is a balance to the Master: one is intangible, but direct, the other is flesh but secretive. But with all the talk of demons and monsters, no time was left to discuss that balance: the angels.

According to She, Ayesha is a 2000 year old white skinned "Arab" and ruler of the ruined kingdom of Kôr, in the African interior where she uses the Pillar of Life to grant her immortality and magical abilities. Her presence in Africa might provide her a connection to Sir Malcolm, but I rather see her utilized as a counterpoint to the Master. A creature, immortal and inhabiting the realm between human and spirit, but acting benevolently rather than poisonously. Female rather than male, and perhaps in as great a need to seek out a mate for her purpose as the Master is intent on acquiring Ives.

Lord and Lady Greystoke

Originates from: Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)

All season, Sir Malcolm talked of his great return to Africa, but the finale left that adventure in doubt. I think that Africa holds a lot of potential for increasing various story points across the series, but understand that from a production perspective it would likely to be the sort of thing that would happen between season. That being said, there are still plenty of characters who could appear on the show for whom Africa hold a destiny. For instance, the unnamed Greystokes are effectively a blank slate, ready and waiting for Logan to inbue them with whatever characteristic he saw fit. Considering their destiny is to be marooned off the coast of Africa, where they eventually die, leaving their infant son in the care of the Mangani Apes, anything up to that point can be produced from whole cloth.

Perhaps the events of season two might see Sir Malcolm's interest in Africa renewed, or a journey there necessitated. Perhaps the Greystokes are a manipulative pair, attempting to secure legacy and glory for their house by seizing the supernatural powers that Sir Malcolm and company have so diligently dispatched. Perhaps their maroonment is less an act of cowardly treason and more an opportunity to rid the ship of malevolence, making their literary destiny a poetic form of punishment. Because the characters are deceased throughout the course of Burroughs' novels, and they are never elaborated on, they could be used to literally any end. And that is an appealing notion for any author.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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