(Samantha Morton’s Madame Margaret Wells speaks truth to an unwilling daughter)
Join Working It every week as we liveblog and accuracy-rate Harlots!
This week’s live blog is really more of a recap at this point – last week being SPRING BREAK and your editor being a bit too stoned to want to commit anything to the unforgiving memory of the internet.
Tune in Thursday tho for a live blog recap of episode 2.
Bear in mind that as we will be keeping score of historical accuracy as well as good, bad, or wretched sex worker representation, there may come some spoilers. It is odd to say it about things that happened some two and a half centuries ago, yet so it is!
If you do not want to be spoiled about the actual dates and lives of long dead whores, we must beg that you turn your eyes away and avert them til after the season is over!
And now: Harlots!
Mature audiences? excellent! I can be assured I’m getting quality sex work content when I know it’s intended for mature audiences!
Bit of a 2006-Marie Antoinette vibe here, with the modern music and the trailing blue rococo skirt. The Beggar’s Opera was a hit a few decades prior to the ostensible start of the show, but I suppose that would sound odd to a modern ear.
1763! blares the title onscreen, followed by the very generous estimate that 1 in 5 women makes a living trading sex.
There’s virtually no source for this number, and in fact contemporary estimates varied wildly, from 3,000-ish women to 50,000 or more. The population of London at the time was something like 500,000.
If we exchange “make a living” with “have traded sex at some point”, that 1 in 5 figure could become much more accurate, as even to this day people dip in and out of trading sex and the sex trades as needed. This isn’t TH White, there is no Once and Future Whore. Only people using what they got to get whatever they don’t got, as needed.
Enjoying the racial diversity already! The blonde girl with the anachronistic Alice in Wonderland bob we’ve been following through the streets just gave a black man’s arm an affectionate squeeze before taking Harris’s List (nice intro device that!) into the house to read to her eager whore sistren.
Nice hooker camaraderie, reading the reviews around the table and getting nasty over the reviews and underlying tensions.
Ohh, so the girl with the incongruous hair (Lucy, played by Eloise Smythe) is a virgin and the daughter of the Madame of the house, so let us subtract 2 accuracy points!
As of 1763 (or ever) the woman Charlotte Wells is based upon (Charlotte Hayes) had no younger sister and was also recently out of debtor’s prison. She does not look hagged by a years long jail stay!
Madame Morvern (Samantha Morton, her character is Margaret Wells (irl Elizabeth Ward) but despite being a method actress I can’t see her as anyone but Morvern Callar!) is amping up desire for her youngest, the fictional and virginal Lucy with the anachronistically short flat hair. Ahhh, I see what you did there! This way we can start with Charlotte already placed for her role but we still get the titillation of bids for virginity (presumably for as long as Madame Morvern can convince people Lucy’s a virgin, I just read a recipe for that!). Lucy seems nothing loth, although she perhaps hopes for a more attractive suitor than this uggo her mum has her playing for.
He wants her bad, but her mum won’t have it. Ouch! he called Madame Morvern a spider! Is that really the way to get what you want, son? She takes it coolly and reminds him that she’s going up in the world, not down. Good for you!
Smooth move to the upscale brothel, deduct another accuracy point for the fictional “Mrs Quigley” (bawd of the fancy brothel) but add 50 joy points for the script writers getting in that notorious hooker diss, “she looks dead inside.”
“It says here you look dead behind the eyes!” the wicked wealthy witch (Lesley Manville) squawks at a (indeed very bored looking) French girl. Oh if only I had a dollar for every time some wretched bouncer/manager/waitress/floor staff/other sex worker told me to smile and look enthusiastic. If only I had renewed COLLAGEN for the crow’s feet I incurred thru a decade dancing! I’ll say this for doggy style: at least you don’t have to smile.
Wicked wealthy Mrs Quigley announces that she is off to watch the fun in a menacing tone.
Oooh here we go with the mature content! Montage of brothel scenes and sex scenes with a voiceover reading reviews. From Harris’s List to Hobbyhunter, reviews and review culture have always been nauseating.
Oh shit! The reform police have arrived! That wicked wealthy Madame was foreshadowing when she said she was off to watch the fun! They’re raiding the brothels while a blind madwoman goes all Julie Birchill about the “burning of the harlots”.
Have I mentioned how attractively Madame Morvern’s bosom falls out her bodice? She’s the picture of an 18th c bawd, rushing to protect and prepare her workers for the raid.
And there’s the wicked wealthy witch, watching from safely inside a carriage. What a bitch.
Lucy – blonde virgin – escapes dressed in men’s clothes and was meant to get her sister, but instead fell asleep in a stable until dawn? Better late than never?
Ahh, and here’s Charlotte finally! Played by Jessica Brown Findlay (the HOT Crawley sister on Downton Abbey, who most unfortunately left after two seasons), Charlotte played a pivotal role in the creation of Harris’s List (the review book Lucy was carrying and reading from in the beginning) and was famous in her own right. The show places her nearly correctly for the date (St James Place) but appears to have fastforwarded over her early career and stint in jail, moving them forward to the future – sometime this season?
Even so, she’s meant to have a good deal of experience by this point so why is she cavilling at her wealthy lover comparing her to a PINEAPPLE? if that’s good enough for Sally Salisbury, it should be good enough for you, my girl! He even GAVE her a pineapple! What! Not only are pineapples delicious, they were also worth a fortune back then, AND symbolised fruitfulness and well being. I’m from New England, I had an antique pineapple frame bed when I was a teenager. I know my shit and pineapples are the shit.
Not into the show describing what was essentially giving a woman “carte blanche” (ie your name for credit purposes) as “an ownership contract.” Far from it. No agreement between a whore and her protector could come close to the dehumanising act of coverture that married women submitted to. In fact! Men could beat their wives and use their dowry money to pay for whores. So. Not sure what this bitch is bitching about. Maybe she doesn’t like financial security. Maybe she WANTS to end up in debtor’s prison!
Maybe she ought to Listen To Her Mother.
Oop and here's Lucy, come to beg help for their mother.
Madame Morvern is arguing with the Justice like a fine virago, but Charlotte and her late entry are not actually much help – really arguably making things worse which one would have thought hard, but it’s only after Charlotte’s outburst gives the lie to her mother’s claim that she rents rooms and that’s all, that the judge fines Madame Morvern. £100!
Charlotte hasn’t been written very well – someone obviously researched the pineapple thing because it’s clearly a reference to Sally Salisbury, but Charlotte herself shows a distinctly 21st c view on the relative worth of a pineapple/being compared to one, and a most anachronistic and ahistorical unwillingness to have a man to pay her debts. Irl Charlotte Hayes led her keepers a merry dance, but maybe 21st c writers can’t fathom that sort of extravagant recklessness without excusing it with unwhorish unwillingness to be “owned”. Can’t repeat too much how much MORE “owned” a wife was than a whore.
Entirely in sympathy with her mother and the urge to slap her. £100 fine! That’s as much as Kitty Fisher ate at once!
Ugh back to the haggard wicked wealthy witch! There’s some bad blood between her and Mrs Wells (heretofore known in this recap as “Madame Morvern”, hence to be Mrs Wells). She’s trying to get the blind madwoman to target Mrs Wells. Most reasonably, the blind madwoman wants to know why.
Cut to Charlotte’s wealthy lover in some of her clothes and a wig, cooing at his own reflection. Is this a nod to the underground culture of mollys and molly houses?
If that doesn’t take the cake! His po-faced valet just ratted Charlotte out for not actually staying at home and pining while her lover was out of town. That is not going to go over well.
Speaking of po-faced, Emily Lacey, the spiteful wench from Mrs Wells’ brothel just left for the fancy brothel of the wicked wealthy witch. The rococo finery is ace but does show Emily Lacey’s ill fitting clothes and untidy hair in a sad light. What’s most unfortunate is the bitter way her saggy clothes put her into debt with Mrs Wells and now further debt with Wealthy Wicked Witch Mrs Quigley, who obviously sees bitter Emily Lacey’s defection as an opportune weapon to use against Mrs Wells.
And now she has to fuck that unpleasant pudding of a son for free.
Given all the bitter things happening to her, it’s nice to see Mrs Wells in the loving embrace of whatever this nice man is to her. Lover and baby-daddy certainly, husband too?
And here we go with the backstory! Margaret Wells’ mother sold her to Mrs Quigley for a pair of shoes – we learn this as Mrs Wells gives her own daughter a pair of shoes on the event of Lucy’s lost virginity being auctioned off to pay her mother’s debts. Evidently not how events were supposed to go down, you can nearly taste the bitterness Margaret Wells must be swallowing down.
Feelings on this must of course be mixed but I have to say I’m solidly team Margaret. When women and children are dying on the streets outside your door and you’ve got one marketable thing, how can you not harp at your children to use it lest they end up dead? She wanted to protect her children and did her best to give them better than she had – how many parents do as much.
Back to Charlotte and her lover, Charlotte still not signing, her lover seeing a chance at revenge.
Can I just say that while I understand the motives behind the choice to keep Lucy’s hair all Alice-in-Wonderland virginal with its BOW, the anachronism is incredibly grating to me, esp on top of the screeching symbolism.
And Charlotte just keeps making everything worse. Good lord. In full charity with her mother’s furious whisper, “you’re the village idiot.”
The blows just keep coming at Mrs Wells: Lydia Quigley was behind the raid; Lydia Quigley has Emily Lacey, and the highest bid for Lucy’s virginity is from Charlotte’s lover, who can’t resist insulting Charlotte further before taking Lucy off to lord-knows-where for her deflowering.
Charlotte’s finally getting the lecture she needs.
“Why are you driving him away, he’s an easy keeper?” her mother asks.
“He’s a snake,” Charlotte returns, as if this is somehow inconsistent with being an easy keeper, as if most men weren’t and aren’t snakes. Oh Charlotte. You beautiful little fool. Dock another 5 accuracy points from the show for the way they keep harping on the contract as an ownership contract and something to be dreaded, rather than personal high spirits, distaste for her protector, and mischief being the motivation behind disrespecting him as she will.
“Indulge him!” her mother begs. “I’m thinking about your future.” The shoe story comes up again:
“I’ve heard about those shoes so many times I could start a cobblers,” is Charlotte’s ungrateful riposte.
Can I deduct another 5 points for inaccuracy? There’s obviously a lot to be said about Charlotte’s relationship to whoring and to her protectors; it’s more than clear that she had an ambiguous relationship to at least one of them before she went to jail. I am interested in depictions of the ambiguities in our relationships to and with tricks, there is so much to be said. But it’s never black and white, and it could never have been black and white back in a time when the possibility of starving or dying of an sti in the street was so very very near.
“The only safety is in money,” her mother whispers.
“I hate money,” she whispers back.
“Money is a woman’s only power in this world. Make it your solace and your dream and one day wealth, real, lasting wealth, will be yours.” Has anything changed? Money is the only true freedom. Preach it, Maggie!
Charlotte is unmoved.
You know what else is unmoved? Charlotte’s lover’s (whatever his name is, I think they keep calling him Baronet. Irl by rights he should be dead by 1763 but then, who even is Lucy? this is FICTION, y’all.) dick.
He can’t get or stay hard and he blames Lucy. Lucy – who, having been raised in a brothel should certainly both know better and know what an advantage he’s given her – believes him and begs him not to tell her mother, who’s going to be selling off her virginity at least a few more times so wouldn’t mind it actually being real but okay. okay. Tuh.
And Charlotte, oh Charlotte. Charlotte pays that gabby Irish chairman a tuppance to fuck. Even knowing what I know, I’m still so annoyed.
“This city is made of our flesh,” Margaret Wells says quietly to her lover. “We’ll have our piece of it.”
That’s a promise, and a threat. I trust her to make good on it.
Accuracy points: -3 ish
Joy points: 100+
Until next time!