We’ve heard the stories before. Or have we?
Freshman UK series “Harlots” flips the script on the 18th century prostitute narrative and allows the ladies to take charge and remain there. Set against the gritty backdrop of 1763 London, “Harlots” tells the story of bawd Margaret Wells, her daughters Charlotte and Lucy and a myriad of other characters.
The fact that 1 out of 5 women in Georgian-era London were sex workers is a tidbit that “Harlots” gives right from the beginning. And they run the gamut: independents struggling down Cheapside, escorts in great bawd houses near Grosvenor Square and the crème de la creme, kept mistresses of rich men.
It’s an odd dichotomy: women are (mostly) handling other women’s agency. But is it agency? Women in this period had few economic options. Rely on their father. Rely on their husband. Work in a backbreaking trade for pennies. Sex work. The ability to provide for oneself was predicated on limited employment opportunities.
Margaret Wells’s story is an unusual but uniquely common one: former harlot becomes a bawd house owner and raises daughters in the life. Her eldest daughter Charlotte: glamorous, fabulous, toast of London and kept mistress of Sir George (a minor baronet); and Lucy: untouched, virginal and utterly terrified of living the life her mother desperately wants for her.
Another interesting and accurate portrayal are the Black people in and around Margaret’s life. Too many British costume dramas ignore the presence of Black Brits in antiquity and beyond. “Harlots” embraces it. Margaret’s common-law husband Parr is a Black British freedman. She also has a young son with Parr (Jacob) and mid-series, American freedwoman Harriett (and later her two children) take up residence in Margaret’s bawdhouse. It’s a correct representation of Georgian London.
Because women are running the bawdhouse thing, the largest conflicts are of course between women. Margaret’s nemesis is high society bawd, Lydia Quigley-her former employer. The rancor between the two is at level 10. They leave corpses at each other’s establishments, they poach one another’s girls. They loathe the other. It’s a perfect storm of ugliness.
The catalyst between these pimps (because that’s what they are) is when the unattached Charlotte Wells becomes a resident of Mrs. Quigley’s bawdhouse. Margaret was devastated but Charlotte’s reasoning-vengeance against Lydia for her mother-is a secret known to only herself and her true love, Daniel Marney.
Season two promises to be an explosion of awesome proportions.
Harlots now streaming on Hulu.