Previously, our label for inspiring women here at Scarlett and Giselle was muse. I have decided to change this title to heroine, as I have been feeling that muse is too passive, too inactive a word to describe these women. Historically, muses are personifications of something, such as the Greek Muses who personified each of the ancient arts and helped storytellers and artists to create their work. However, the women that I would like to discuss at Scarlett and Giselle, both fictional and historical, do not exist merely to inspire others (namely men). The women whose stories I wish to explore do indeed inspire me, but they have become heroines of their own lives in ways that exist beyond their ability to act as a muse. These women are complex, often difficult women with traits that might almost make them un-inspiring at face value. But they present us with actions and experiences to admire, moreso than beauty or agreeable personalities. And so, it is heroines, in whatever way their heroic acts may arise, both challenging and inspiring, that we celebrate here. With this new definition decided on, I would like to introduce our heroine for the fall season, Vanessa Ives from Penny Dreadful.
I will start this post by saying that Penny Dreadful is not an easy watch. It is a show about my beloved London as a city of death and devilry, and there are ample amounts of gore and cruelty in the show. Several of the storylines I frankly don’t care for, and the show’s ultimate finale is one of the most abysmal television endings that I have ever seen (the series was cancelled halfway through the third season, despite the recent introduction of new characters and storylines. The writers had to promptly end the show in a less-than-satisfactory way). But I won’t be talking about the Penny Dreadful‘s ending, necessarily, nor will I ponder the fate of Frankenstein’s monsters or wonder who Catriona Hartdegen could have become. No, this post is for Vanessa Ives, a woman of a great, dark destiny.
In a cast of characters battling their inner demons, Vanessa is somewhat of a patron saint for internal conflictions. She is a woman of high birth, whose sinful mistakes and succeeding illness in her youth cost her her family and dearest friends. Penny Dreadful tells Vanessa’s story after this time, when her best friend Mina has been taken by Dracula (in an example of the show’s genius implementation of known fictional characters in the plot to place Vanessa within the real Gothic environment). As the series proceeds, we learn that Dracula is an incarnation of evil upon earth who desires to ensnare Vanessa as his bride. Meanwhle, Satan acts through a hoard of sinister Night Crawlers (witches) who create fetishes, enchantments, and traps to urge Vanessa to meet their master. In the Penny Dreadful universe, Dracula and Satan are brothers who fell from heaven as fallen angels. They are each seeking Vanessa as their bride—Dracula wants her body, Satan desires her soul. While these scenarios may sound like the plots of pulp-y monster movies in which our leading lady might end up a damsel in distress (they are after all based on the penny dreadful novels of the Victorian era—the very grandfathers of pulp), Vanessa is not so innocent for her part. She herself is the female incarnation of an ancient goddess of death who, when betrothed to Satan or Dracula, would bring evil upon the earth. Again, the story sounds awfully pulp-y when laid out in this fashion, and yet Penny Dreadful maintains an urgency in its conflicts, and Vanessa’s storyline rarely becomes melodramatic. This is largely because of Eva Green’s incredible work in playing Vanessa, but it is also in the way that Vanessa is developed as a character. She is as inherently good as she is sinful. Throughout the series she continuously resists those who might draw evil out of her by displaying kindness, strength, and piety. Thusly, the show is structured as a continuing battle between good and evil, both in the streets of London and in Vanessa’s soul.
Vanessa’s connection to ‘the demon,’ as she calls the evil forces that hunt her (which I think is as much her inner demon as the external demons Satan and Dracula), encourages her to believe that her fate is unavoidable, and yet she insists that ‘her soul is her own.’ Even Satan and Dracula know that she must choose to walk in darkness with them and that it is her choice that makes her what she will be. Remarkably, Vanessa seems to be even more powerful than Satan or Dracula, and successfully resists them several times. They want her on their side because of her power. Whereas other stories about demonic possession are generally used to service some male all-powerful devil, Vanessa’s power comes from her own destiny and her own blood. Her form of evil is an ancient power that potentially has the ability to defeat Satan and Dracula—which is a direction I think the show might have moved in had it not been cancelled.
And so, Vanessa is grappling with her place in this ancient war of good against evil—a war that is waging within her and without. Yet my favorite episodes are those that take place on ‘the moors,’ a place in western England where Vanessa met the Cut-Wife in her earlier years. The Cut-Wife, played by Patti Lupone, is a witch—not a Night Crawler like those in service of Satan, but a Day Walker who has learned the (sometimes rugged and frightening) magic of the earth. She teaches Vanessa herbalism, tarot, and spells, as well as how to give abortions to the local girls, which is where she earned her name. The local villagers hate the Cut-Wife for her services and later murder her for them. After this, Vanessa inherits her home and the potential to take her place. Later, she returns to the moors with Ethan Chandler, her love interest and prophetic protector, to escape the war in London. This is where is seems that Vanessa, for a short time, finds a third option, somewhere between good and evil; between her destiny and her will. She tells Ethan, ‘I don’t think I’m made for company. I think I’m made for something like the moors. And for doing such things that hurt even as they help.’ She and Ethan can be their rawest selves here. Sometimes, I like to pretend that Vanessa’s story stopped here, and that she found her truest calling as the new Cut-Wife.
But that isn’t Vanessa’s destiny, nor is it her ultimate choice. If we ignore the finale (which I try to do) I think Vanessa’s actual destiny is to hold both good and evil within her. Penny Dreadful tends to present binaries that its characters initially believe they must abide by (good vs. evil, mortal vs. immortal, destiny vs. free will), and yet it continuously allows for these characters to blur the lines between these oppositions so that rather than binaries, there are multitudes for them to swim in. Vanessa’s truest place in life seems to be to allow the forces of good and evil to battle forever within her, holding them like some sort of vessel of balance. Moreover, if we recognize that the show is structured around a largely Christian opposition between Vanessa’s Catholic faith and a demonic enemy, perhaps there is room for us to find that the bringing together of these binaries actually is the ‘third option’ I spoke of previously. As Dr. Frankenstein aptly puts it, ‘good and evil braided be.’ Vanessa is special not just because she has a great destiny, but because she represents the ability to hold the kind, light parts of ourselves as well as the shadowy bits. Ultimately, we might be able to view her ‘darkness’ as just that: the absence of stereotypical light, but also the ability to allow in those things that might not always be accepted but are still necessary to our growth and balance. Vanessa is not one or the other. She is all of it: the good and the frightening, the kind and the confronting. And for that, she is my heroine.