Shades of Esme Beringer: Double-Weapon Fencing in “Penny Dreadful”

  • Originally published on the site on Wednesday, 12th October 2016

The final season of the popular dark fantasy/drama series Penny Dreadful introduced the character of Catriona Hartdegen, a historian, thanatologist and expert swordswoman played by actress Perdita Weeks.

As the series is set primarily in London during the 1890s, Hartdegen’s skill at a stylised form of double-weapon fencing is an interesting creative choice.  In real history, that style had been long-obsolete by the end of the 19th century, its heyday having been during the Elizabethan period.  It was, however, revived, starting in the 1880s, primarily through the efforts of fencing antiquarians Egerton Castle and Captain Alfred Hutton, both of whom were still very active in promoting “ancient swordplay” at the time Miss Hartdegen is shown to be practicing it.

Also during the 1880s, a Viennese fencing/performance troupe began touring throughout the United States and parts of Europe, with a show that included theatrical re-enactments of gladiatorial combats as well as a stylised double-weapon method:

Above: Captain Hutton and W. Grenfell demonstrate the art of rapier and dagger fencing at the London Bath Club (March 9, 1899).

Hutton and Castle, however, placed an unusual emphasis upon serious historical research and sought to revive these antique fencing methods as practical fighting arts.  One of Hutton’s most famous exhibitions took place at the London Bath Club in March of 1899. The rapier and dagger style was demonstrated, along with the fencing of the sword and buckler, the two-handed sword and the rapier and cloak:

The next exhibition of the “ arme blanche” was a fight between Captain Hutton and Mr. W. H. Grenfell, both armed with rapiers and daggers, and a very pretty game they made of it. Thus doubly weaponed, the fencer’s game is very much the boxer’s. The slip, the pass, the feint, are all very similar. And we can sympathize still with old George Silver’s indignation at those new-fangled Italian masters who “fought as you sing prick-song, one, two, and the third in your bosom”, and used the point in manner far too deadly for these English, “who were strong, but had no cunning.”

The Bath Club exhibition also included a demonstration of Bartitsu by Edward Barton-Wright. Shortly thereafter, Hutton joined the teaching staff of Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club, instructing students in both historical and modern (circa 1900) forms of swordplay.  He also learned from his fellow instructors, picking up some jiujitsu kata from Sadakazu Uyenishi and Yukio Tani and enthusiastically practicing the unique, self-defence oriented cane fighting system of Pierre Vigny.

One of Hutton’s most skilled and prominent students was the actress and swordswoman Esme Beringer, who became an expert in the theatrical as well as martial forms of the art.

Above: Esme Beringer strikes a pose with the rapier and dagger.

Esme Beringer had first taken up fencing as a girl, under the instruction of a Sergeant Elliot.

During the first decade of the 20th century, she participated in numerous historical fencing displays with Hutton, Castle and their other students, and in 1902 she both chaired and bouted during an “ancient swordplay” display for the Playgoer’s Club. A reviewer from the Stage newspaper wrote:

The two performances given by Miss Esme Beringer and Mr. George Silver (an actor who shared the name of the famous Elizabethan-era swordsman) were marked by a keenness and promptness of attack and defence that raised the enthusiasm of the spectators. Their first contribution was a very spirited engagement with rapier and dagger, in which Miss Beringer, though vanquished finally, revealed considerable skill and alacrity. Not less absorbing and stimulating was their encounter with dagger and cloak, in which some very smart play was witnessed, Mr. Silver scoring two points to one.

Esme Beringer went on to become an instructor with the Actresses’ Foil Club, which had originated as the “ladies’ branch” of the Actors’ Sword Club. While the Actor’s Club was suspended during the First World War, the Actresses’ Club continued during wartime. Thus, it is not unlikely that Esme continued the Hutton/Castle lineage of historical fencing into the 1920s, and possibly beyond.

Meanwhile, in France, a similarly stylised method of double-weapon fencing had been developed by the fencing masters Albert Lacaze and Georges Dubois.  It’s interesting to compare the style displayed in this 1927 newsreel with that used in the Penny Dreadful fight choreography above:

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