Damage is inevitable when it comes to war. War leaves wreckage in its wake – bloodshed, ruined lives, wrecked bodies, broken hearts. Even when the cause is noble or necessary, the fight itself is never beautiful. It is just red. Wth Harlots, a British costume drama about prostitution in Georgian England, war is not waged on battlefields. Instead, it is waged on the streets of London by working women. These women wage war not only to win, but to survive and gain a semblance of control in a highly patriarchal society. They are vicious, ruthless, cunning. They are unapologetic and contradictory, women who understand what must be done even when faced with the risk of total destruction.
“This city is made of our flesh. Every beam, every brick. We’ll have our piece of it.”
Harlots is inspired by “Harris’s list”, a guide into London’s prostitutes published from 1757 to 1795, and it is a series written and directed entirely by women. It is set in 1763 and follows two houses of ill repute who are competing for the control of Soho. One house, based in Convent Garden, is owned by Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), herself a mother of two harlots. Her eldest, Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown-Findlay who is known for her role as Lady Sybil on Downton Abbey), is a coveted harlot who is being pursued by an extremely rich and possessive aristocrat (Hugh Skinner). Charlotte’s younger sister, Lucy (Eloise Smyth), just had her virginity sold to the highest bidder by her mother in the series’s pilot. Margaret or Maggie is determined to expand her business, with her eye set on a new house in Greek Street. But the person who stands in her way is a figure from her past, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), an older madam whose girls are – according to Maggie’s partner, Will (Danny Sapani) – “sucking the law, the clergy and the whole King’s bench.”
We discover more about the circumstances behind Lydia and Maggie’s long-running feud in the show’s second episode. In the pilot, Maggie tells her daughter, Lucy, the story of how her mother sold her to Lydia at the age of ten in return for a pair of shoes. In this episode, we begin to see how much more damage is hidden beneath the surface than we first thought. While Maggie struggles to rise money for the house in Greek Street, Lydia is approached by a judge who asks her for ‘an innocent’ for his new friends. Lydia is hesitant at first; the act puts her at risk of a hanging. But then, the judge says, “Impress them and doors would open for you, as they are opening for me.” Lydia succumbs to her ambition and ends up approaching an innocent young girl who is looking for a position as a maid. Lydia kidnaps the girl and forces her into a life of prostitution. This is clearly not Lydia’s first rodeo. As the episode progresses, we begin to realise that this what Lydia has done to ten year-old Margaret Wells. However, Lydia seems to view things from a different perspective than Maggie’s. “What use is moaning?” she yells at the distraught girl she has tricked and now has tied to a bed. “I’ve saved you from a life of drudgery!”
Unlike Maggie, who becomes sick to the stomach after selling her daughter’s virginity to the highest bidder, we don’t really see remorse from Lydia. There is the excuse she gives to her son at the end of the episode – that she made Maggie “part of her family” and it is Maggie who betrayed her by accusing her of “kidnapping”. But there is a moment when Lydia asks the judge, “What becomes of her [the girl] after?” To which the judge replies, “I have no concern for after.” The judge’s answer is not a surprise; most of the men in the series who acquire the services of these girls do not genuinely care about how the girls might fare “after”. It is significant that Lydia, despite her seemingly apathetic reaction, is the one who raises the question. It is only the women, not the men, who think about what might “come after” for them. And a character the series uses to explore this theme is Mary Cooper, a once-famous harlot who is found curled up in a gutter, dying from the French pox.
Charlotte, an old friend of Mary’s, is by her bedside as she dies. In many ways, Charlotte is moving up in the world, maybe even more so than her other compatriots in the series. She has a fancy house and a rich patron who is besotted with her, ready to indulge in her every whim as long as she lets herself be owned by him. To Maggie, this is one of the most ideal situations for her daughter to be in. But Charlotte herself is clearly dissatisfied with her circumstances and she dreams of another life, perhaps in another world altogether. There is a sadness in Jessica Brown-Findlay’s performance as she stares down at her dead friend, whose face is now hideous and wrecked with pox marks. It is not a subtle moment, but it is an effective one. When the Wells women gather around Mary Cooper’s corpse, it is obvious that they are looking into a future that could be theirs. Here, the damage is laid bare for them all to witness. “God preserve us all,” says Lucy, “from a fate like Mary Cooper’s.”
“We should put some powder on her.” / “Let’s not hide what life had done to her.”
If Harlots were any other series, they would present the Mary Cooper storyline as simply this: a glimpse into the heartbreaking conclusion to a harlot’s life. But, even with only two episodes in, Harlots keeps subverting all our expectations in the best of ways. From the very beginning, we see that Maggie is not holding back in her attempt to rise to the top. In this episode, we see her playing with fire when she engages with an old client and lover who is rich enough to invest in her business expansion. Her partner, Will, grudgingly gives his permission for this dalliance. But clearly, trouble lies ahead. Like with auctioning off her daughters’ virginities, Maggie does what needs to be done despite the consequences. She is conflicted about her decisions, but not nearly enough that it dissuades her from making them.
Will acts as Maggie’s voice of reason. He is the one who sees right through her intentions and he cautions her against using Mary Cooper as a weapon against Lydia Quigley. Maggie, of course, does not heed his advice. Her genuine sadness toward Mary Cooper’s fate does not stop her from using the dying girl to strike back against her old enemy. She and her girls march Mary Cooper’s corpse through Convent Garden, blaming the death on Lydia Quigley. She plants a story that Mary’s French pox is contracted from Quigley’s house even though Mary has said she caught the disease on Cheapside. The episode closes out with Lydia answering a knock at her door in the middle of the night to find Mary Cooper’s dead body lying on her door step. The body is adorned with flowers and candles, with Lucy’s first harlot coins on her eyelids, the image ethereal and chilling in equal measure. Then, Maggie and her girls step out of the shadows, lining up defiantly across from Lydia and her girls. The battle lines are drawn, and you can’t help but feel that London will burn because of it.
This is what makes Harlots such an exciting and unique project. The series is not only about the damage done to these women. It is also about the damage these women wrought on themselves and each other in retaliation. And I, for one, am more than ready to witness this exhilarating ride.
- There is no mistaking the budding connection between Charlotte and that handsome Irish lad. They will surely fall in love, and when they do, her rich and possessive ‘keeper’ will definitely have a say in the matter. Hugh Skinner is extraordinarily amazing in this role, and I can’t wait to hate his character even more than I already do.
- The dynamic between Haxby and Charlotte is extremely entertaining to watch. (“I don’t think you’re a dog at all, Mister Haxby. I think you’re a bitch.”) I fear Haxby will end up turning on her in the end, but I am holding out hope that Charlotte would eventually win him around. The prospect of the feisty Charlotte and straight-laced, disdainful Haxby as BFFs is too good to dismiss out of hand.
- You always remember your first time. But for many of these characters, their first times are memorable for all the wrong reasons, as we see with Lucy’s in the pilot. In this episode, Lucy tries to wrestle back control by selling herself to a simple, attractive stable hand who is a virgin. This time, the man is entirely her choice. Lucy’s action raises the question of how much control these women actually have over their own lives. Even when they think they are in control, are they really in control? And can they ever gain true control in such an oppressive society? But that’s a conversation for another day.
- I’m very appreciative of the fact that the series’ London is not an entirely white London. Will, Maggie’s partner, is a person of colour. So is Violet, one of the girls in Covent Garden. This episode suggests that race is a theme the show is interested in exploring, especially with the introduction of Harriet Lennox, the African-American wife of Maggie’s old lover, and his racist son, Benjamin. It is rare to see a British costume drama that’s not exclusively white and I am intrigued to see the roles these POC characters will play going forward.