I have encountered another gripping and wonderfully gothic television show called Penny Dreadful. This blog post was not supposed to come before one about speech day at my alma mater but during episode five entitled “Closer Than Sisters”, which serves as an origins-flashback episode that comes vaguely mid-series. I have no wish to spoil this series for anyone (as everyone should give it a go!) but I have a host of topics and feelings on a sheet of A4 beside me here that I would like to approach and unravel through the medium of this fantastic (in every meaning of the word), entrancing and erotic period drama.
The foremost item on my list is perhaps the most detached, but can also be construed as the most integral to the reason why Penny Dreadful has so entrammelled me: namely, the actress Eva Green. I have long admired her work and the ethereal presence with which she imbues her films. Ever since I saw Marlene Jobert’s daughter (yes, she is!) in Sir Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven in which she plays the Queen of Jerusalem, Sibylla, her talent has led me to actively seek out feature films and programmes in which she stars. Thus have I watched Camelot, The Golden Compass, Casino Royale and Dark Shadows. In all these roles, she plays mysterious and complex women all of whom have a distinct magical quality, whether it be literal or figurative, and are unlike the loud and cliched lead females to which we have grown accustomed in western cinema. She is the leading lady who smiles rather than grins, floats rather than glides and is unconventionally beautiful rather than in-your-face attractive. Can you tell I’m a little bit in love with her?
Her character in Penny Dreadful – Miss Vanessa Ives – moves through the crowds of Victorian, Jack the Ripper London analysing and observing the throng around her, not simply avoiding it or following it like a sheep. This is something I am wont to do more often than not. I choose to exist beyond the crowd and watch people interact rather than be an active party myself. It gives me more enjoyment and more power and control over myself than people who merely wend their way through life, unable to notice but ever willing to ignore. That is all I will give you concerning her background in the show…the rest is up to you to discover as you watch the series yourself!
In this episode featuring flashbacks and Vanessa Ives’ and Sir Malcolm’s (played by Timothy Dalton) origin stories, as a viewer I witnessed a young girl who grew into a young lady much like myself who had to battle with insanity and the loss of her friends, her family but most of all, her mental wellbeing in the early years of adulthood. The core reason for her disintegration lies in her relationship with her best friend, Mina Murray, and how as the pair mature, it dawns on her that life and marriage will cart her bosom friend away and she will be left behind in the shadows to a life she cannot have and doesn’t desire. Every cruel action, thought and emotion she has stems from the innate need not to be abandoned by a friend who is more like a sister to her. I can understand that. The moments when Vanessa questions herself and viewers observe her growing cruel and callous, are intensely familiar to me and just as I understand (from my parents and extended family) that I used to be a sweet child who grew and changed into a colder and manipulative adult, I felt myself get pulled into her narrative.
The codependency that exists between Vanessa and Mina is similar to the one that keeps me attached in heart and mind, if not body, to my two best friends who are – like Mina – slipping away and flourishing in their twenties, while I languish and struggle to make it from one day to the next without scarring my left wrist further. They are my lifeblood, my everything and they are the brothers I wasn’t given by blood. As they forge new friendships, get girlfriends and experience what life has to offer them, they need me less and less and forget that I need them more and more. I remember in my last few years at school I used to constantly ask if they would forget me when they both went off to the same university, not because I wanted the affirmation that they would do no such thing but because the greatest fear I have, more than dying and being barren, is that they will fade from my life and I will fade from theirs like a memory of a person that once meant something but now is just a name at the bottom of an unappreciated Christmas card on the mantle once a year. It is this fear that utterly grips my mind and heart that leads me to do the most cruel and inexplicably immoral things to ensure that no matter how low I sink or how high they reach, I will always be there and they will always have me. Vanessa’s action was to seduce Mina’s fiance on the last night before their nuptials to stop them from going to India. She gets her comeuppance in her madness and relegation to an asylum. My misdeed was to cling too hard and too fast to my “brothers” and in so doing, I wrecked something that took decades in the forming and is now irreparable. Vanessa mentions how she will never be able to forgive herself for her sins and I echo the sentiment.
Furthermore, there is that part of you that is desirous of having those upon whom you depend remain with you and forever yours, but the prevalent part of people like Vanessa and myself that causes us to harm those we love is jealousy. There is something in us, in our very souls, that cannot abide the notion that someone – or something – else can divert you from us. It’s selfish, I know, but when you have as little as we do, the parable of the poor man’s lamb seems oddly appropriate.
“You could know love, you could know a man’s touch, while I, the courageous one, know nothing of life” – Vanessa
Vanessa says this and in all its eloquence does manage to express that primordial feeling of envy and sorrow that I feel on a daily basis. They are the words of one who does watch the world pass them by, is losing those they care for most, is being left behind. They are the words of someone prepared to do anything to avoid feeling that ultimate sense of loss, despair and depression. Vanessa does that and so do I in every action and in every thought. I cheat and I manipulate and I know that no matter how much I try to improve and get better, depression and a desire to have my family about me will never let those anxieties and wrongdoings cease.
Left: Vanessa Ives as a young woman; Right: Vanessa Ives in a mental institution (Eva Green, Penny Dreadful 1×05)
“How I envied you…perhaps I even hated you” – Vanessa
The crux of the matter is that envy can turn to hatred which in turn leads us lost souls straight down the path to abject insanity. It is the last aspect of the journey that is the most painful and therefore the hardest to leave behind and escape. This arduous journey is shown in Ives’ face, for without the toil and passion inherent in mental and emotional upheaval how can the girl on the left be reduced to the shell of a woman on the right? After episodes of seizures, catatonia and apparent possessions by demonic entities, she is committed to an asylum in London by her mother and father. There she is subjected to hydrotherapy, lobotomy and straitjackets. I will say this: I have trouble watching love scenes on television but up until recently, with this program and if I am completely honest, which I do endeavour to be on this blog, Ripper Street (in episode 2×02), I have experienced spasms and intense physical reactions to images of extreme treatments for mental health patients. Even though patients are under ether for lobotomies during this period, I surprised myself by convulsing as the drill bored into Vanessa’s skull. Those occurred sporadically during the sequence, however, when she was suffering through hydrotherapy (something that I believe was dreamed up by a person worse than Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer combined!) the convulsions were consistent and constant. I have nightmares where I dream that my friends and family have me committed like that to save themselves the bother of having to deal with me and my downright problematic existence. As Sir Malcolm points out: cruel little girls can break families, which is something I seem to have a distinct aptitude for…and so, it is the easiest thing in the world for this cruel little girl to imagine being lobotomised and blasted with a seemingly unending powerful stream of water or held down in an ice water bath just to get her out of society and away from people whose souls she can destroy. Although the rational part of me is perfectly aware that such backwards and savage methods are no longer applied in modern medicine, as I said before, that part is easily overwhelmed by any iota of mania and suddenly it seems entirely plausible in the dreamscape to be subjected to those horrors by apparent loved ones.
So, you have probably gleaned from that spiel that watching this particular episode of Penny Dreadful was a bit like cycling round the country on a Penny Farthing but it is actually immensely comforting for someone like me who struggles to leave the confines of her bedroom and who feels that any friends she has are slowly but surely leaving her behind to see such a similar character on a TV show. Much like I hope this blog lets others know that basket cases exist somewhere who are either experiencing the same (or similar) things in life to other sufferers from mental health disorders, so does TV and film as a media allow everyone in general to understand that what may be going on in reality is not that big a stretch for someone’s imagination. Then, what is imagined can swiftly become reality to someone and all of a sudden, you’re not alone sitting at your computer typing away in the hope that someone will hear you next time you’re weeping or that you’ll find someone who just won’t leave you alone. It’s all about what you see and more poignantly, what you can envision for yourself. I haven’t yet got to the end of season one of Penny Dreadful but I want to know just what awaits my compatriot, Miss Vanessa Ives, so I can see how my own story might play out.
Sorry if this seems a little haphazard in tone and structure, but to be frank, that does reflect the rollercoaster of feelings I am currently experiencing, so what the hell, call it a metaphor!