How Penny Dreadful Uses The Garden to Navigate Life & Death, Darkness & Light
It was just a few weeks ago that gothic lit lovers and Vanessa Ives aficionados said goodbye to the American-British drama series Penny Dreadful. With an abrupt ending that we’d never be so cruel as to divulge, we reflect on the dichotomy of life and death and darkness and light. Two undeviating themes that weave throughout the Showtime series and often use the garden as a means to exhibit how intertwined these binaries function all around us.
With 19th-century characters like Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, executive producers Sam Mendes and John Logan (who doubles as the primary writer for the show) unveil the exploits of characters who are drawn to darkness regardless of their longing for light.
In the first season, Oscar Wilde’s re-imagined Dorian Gray meets Vanessa Ives at Mr. Lyle’s soirée. Lyle has a wealth of knowledge in dead languages and assists Vanessa when she speaks Verbis Diablo, which Dorian gets a glimpse of the night of their first encounter. (Verbis Diablo, the language of the devil, is spoken yet avoided by day-walkers, otherwise known as witches, who choose to use their magic to brew potions with herbs foraged by day– and to block evil with spells by night.)
The next time Vanessa and Dorian meet is at the botanical gardens, which in contemporary day is home to the biggest collection of living plants in the world— the Kew Gardens. Here, Dorian and Vanessa have an exchange about a beautiful yet poisonous orchid inside the Victorian era Palm House.
The two continue to visit the garden, on their own accord. For Vanessa, the flowers are a symbol of solace and everlasting beauty, while Dorian identifies with their fleeting and fragile nature— like all things he knows and loves.
As both characters begin to spend more time in isolation, away from nature and their beloved gardens, the more we witness their inner darkness unraveling. This is also true for Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, Lily. When Lily is born, via a jolt of lighting throughout her veins, she asks Frankenstein, “What is my name?” He answers to her, “Your name is Lily– the flower of resurrection and rebirth.”
Frankenstein wants Lily to be a beautiful flower, strong and yet in need of a master in order to flourish. As memories of Lily’s former life begin to reappear, she seeks vengeance on the men who search for fragile flowers of the night. Frankenstein, who cannot tame his flower, is forced to return to his research, which is his only means of separating life from death.
The final episode of Penny Dreadful was titled “The Blessed Dark”, and alludes to the fact that in order for light to prevail, darkness must run its course for each character. Here, Frankenstein’s Creature recites William Wordsworth’s Imitations of Immortality, from Recollections of Early Childhood. Spoilers will now inevitably apply.
“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.”
To hear the remainder of the ode to nature, watch and listen here.