‘1763. London is booming. One in five women is making a living selling sex.’ This is both the opening statement and the premise of Hulu’s new TV series Harlots, created by Alison Newman and Moira Biffini, together with an almost exclusively female production team. The series focuses on the competition between two eighteenth-century London brothels and their leading madams, with the help and hindrance of a cast of wonderfully vivid characters and the promise of equal male and female nudity on screen. With all this to offer and more, the series has been well-received, being described as ‘delightful’ by Variety, and ‘great fun’ and a ‘bodice romp’ by The Guardian.
The primary conflict on which Harlots centres is between the villainous and well-connected owner of an upscale brothel, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), and Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), who has clawed her way up from poverty to build her own (rather less classy) brothel and now dares to dream big. At the heart of this conflict is also Margaret Wells’ relationship with her two daughters. Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown Findlay), the eldest, is a mistress of a wealthy nobleman and has integrated into high society and created a name for herself as the ‘finest whore in London’. Lucy Wells (Eloise Smyth), the youngest, is on the verge of becoming her mother’s greatest business transaction, as her virginity is about to be sold to the highest bidder. The two storylines interact against the backdrop of court sessions, night-time raids on brothels, religious zealots, high-end fashionable gambling parties, kidnapping, jail and murder. One thing, however, is clear: the depictions of the actual business of selling sex are in no way passionate or titillating. Nor are they tragic and depressing morality tales of the hardships of fallen women. If anything, they represent a variety of lived experiences, whether good, bad or morally ambiguous.
At the same time, part of the real charm of Harlots is its variety of larger-than-life characters. The series was inspired by historian Hallie Rubenhold’s book about prostitution in Georgian London, The Covent Garden Ladies, and uses Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies to create characters shaped by the descriptions of real-life individuals. Indeed, in an excellent comedic interpretation of what must have happened at the time, the first episode of the series opens with Margaret Wells’ ladies excitedly reading their reviews and descriptions in Harris’s List, a contemporary guide to the pleasures London has to offer. Charlotte Wells is based on Charlotte Hays, a real and highly successful courtesan. She is, in fact, described in the 1761 edition of Harris’s List as ‘very pleasing and…as desirable as ever’. Charlotte’s mother, Elizabeth Ward, was also a London bawd, just like Margaret Wells, who did actually auction Charlotte’s virginity. Other colourful characters include the ironically-named BDMS mistress Nancy Birch (Kate Fleetwood), who is based on a ‘Ms Nancy Burroughs’. According to Harris’s List, Burroughs used ‘more birch rods in a week than Westminster schools in a twelvemonth’. The syphilis-ridden Mary Cooper, who rampages through Episode Two, only to die and have a song dedicated to her, is also based on Lucy Cooper, who was likewise famously celebrated with songs. Lastly, Harlots gives a nod to the male side of the oldest profession by introducing a male prostitute character: Charlotte’s love interest, Daniel Marney (Rory Fleck Byrne). Marney is a sedan chair carrier who makes a tidy profit on the side, patronised by wealthy female clients.
Harlots’ other distinctive feature is its bold style, a mixture of strikingly contemporary and just as strikingly authentic visual storytelling. The costumes are eye-popping and define the characters: Margaret Wells and her girls make a loud statement of personality with chest-bursting bodices and bright, peacocky dresses; in contrast to Lydia Quigley’s elegant, high-end girls, who present a more refined vision, powdered and pastel-coloured, with many bows, frills and pearls. Charlotte’s transformation into one of these visions of perfection at the end of the series, as she leaves her mother’s house, is poignant. A soundtrack of contemporary rock music, with the heightened tension of drum solos, fits well into the fast-paced tempo of the show. All this is well-balanced, on the other hand, with hidden historical gems: the exuberant contemporary slang and insults, the use and reimagining of Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress imagery, a glimpse of what an eighteenth-century condom looks like, and the realities of pregnancy in eighteenth-century brothels. On the other hand, Charlotte screaming out ‘I don’t want to be owned, like your wife!’, slapping her mother and refusing to sign a contract with her wealthy keeper all reflect very modern attitudes, and fit awkwardly into the setting.
The only areas in which Harlots fails are its overall tone and vision. The show starts off comedic, energetic and fast-paced, and draws you in with its relatable characters and excellent performances. However, the writers chose to represent their upper-class characters as very one-dimensional, comical, depraved and clichéd, often to the point of ridiculousness. Most male characters in the show are either very simplified and flat side-kicks, or predators who leer creepily (and sweatily) at virginal flesh. The romance between Charlotte and Daniel is unconvincing, lacks chemistry and adds very little to the overall story. Ultimately, it is the tonal shifts from the light-hearted romp into a modern court-room murder drama that undermine Harlots as a solid, well-rounded experience. Yet it is, nonetheless, worth diving into.
Harlots, a Hulu Original series, was broadcast in the UK on ITV Encore in 2017. The first season is now available on DVD. A second season will air in 2018.