The climax of the first episode of “Harlots” — the narrative climax, mind you — is less sexy than tragic: Madam and mother Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), in order to raise money for her brothel’s move to Greek Street in SoHo, conducts a silent auction during an opera for her daughter’s virginity. The daughter in question, in this case, at least knows what she is getting into: Lucy Wells (Eloise Smyth), raised in her mother’s “boarding house,” has an older sister who was auctioned off in the same way. Margaret, sitting with Lucy as she gets ready for her big night, tries to explain to her — with self-loathing tenderness — that she’s trying to give Lucy a better life than what her own mother gave her: At the age of 12, Margaret was sold to a madam by her alcoholic mother, for the price of a pair of shoes. Prostitution isn’t decent nor exactly legal, but it’s a way to survive. Now Charlotte (Jessica Brown-Findlay), Margaret’s eldest daughter, has her own pretty house where a possessive lord keeps her in finery. It’s a step up for a family who a generation ago nearly starved to death in a London gutter. But it’s a precarious one, too, and not without its emotional tolls. When Margaret accepts the money for Lucy’s deflowering, she waits until the man has left, and then vomits in a corner, sick to her own stomach.
Stories about sex work are surrounded by potential pitfalls. There’s the risk of sexualizing the characters to the point of caricatured exploitation; conversely, there’s the risk of making every sex worker’s story a tragedy that ends in misery. There is the risk of making a narrative sex work into an unrealistic parable of feminism, just as there is also the risk of cutting the women’s perspectives entirely out of the story. “Harlots” admirably avoids all of these pitfalls, using the distance of the historical era (the show is set in the late 1700s) to enjoy the juxtaposition of stuffy decorum and bawdy sex work. The show’s characters’ enjoy sex work, and laugh at it, and sometimes absolutely despise it — making for a rounded perspective on the profession that is often hard to come by.
It helps, of course, that in a practice that was at that time dominated by women — and was in many cases a poor woman’s only pathway to work — that “Harlots” is top-lined and executive produced entirely by women. This might help to explain how the show is able to create a detailed enough world that the harlots’ perspectives make sense: If virginity is prized, why not sell it? If a blowjob in an alley gets the job done, why not do it? If forgiveness is what the john wants, why not charge him?
“Harlots” principally follows Margaret, Lucy, and Charlotte as they struggle to stay above abject poverty, and this puts them in direct competition with Golden Square, a high-class “cunny-house” in SoHo. Stepping above the business of streetwalking means entering a world of decorous social mores, political connections, and expensive accessories. Rival madam Mrs. Quigley (Lesley Manville, in a constant state of gloriously high dudgeon) offers her patrons an air of refinement through rather unscrupulous means; she keeps her girls in constant debt to her for the room, board, and clothes, when she’s not sacrificing them to the whims of a particularly sadistic client. It would be unfair to give away too much of the plot, but there’s plenty of it — with a dozen characters all illegally paid to sleep with other people, there are plenty of broken hearts and petty financial maneuvers to go around. Survival is a high stakes game in this world — think “Downton Abbey” meets “Game of Thrones,” with all the drama that implies.
For fans of historical drama, “Harlots” is delightful because of the details that other shows shy away from. A Jane Austen adaptation, which would take place in the same era, could not possibly tell you what it was like to be in a SoHo brothel as a French courtesan — who is costumed as the goddess Diana today, for some reason. These are the characters beneath, or outside, what would be euphemistically termed “polite society.”
“Harlots,” meanwhile, revels in this world — observing not just the mass of humanity in Covent Garden, but the many contradictions within. The pretty women have to dodge the filth of the streets; poorer men seeking pleasure might have to make do with a back alley instead of a brothel bedroom. Women pour slop from upper windows as finely dressed mistresses in makeup and rich silk walk on the street below. Children — the children of prostitutes or madams — run through the hallways of the boarding houses, or laugh while listening at doors. Whatever boundaries the upper classes have enforced for their own comfort largely evaporate by the time you get to the basement of a Covent Garden brothel. The show pairs sumptuousness with filth and period glam with contemporary bass beats, demonstrating a sense of fun that goes a long way in a costume drama.
At the same time, these indignities and unsavories throw the talent of these shilling-charging harlots into sharp relief. In dirty hovels and frigid digs, it’s these sex workers that are responsible for creating escape and fantasy for their clients. It’s a skill in and of itself, and some are better than others. To underscore this point, in the opening scenes, the characters are all introduced poring over the latest edition of “Harris’ Guide” — essentially the era’s Yelp for prostitutes. The women read their reviews aloud, assessing them as constructive critique for their future work.
“Harlots” is unsparing and sympathetic, able to find humor in its characters’ romps and compassion for the profession’s tragedies. To her credit, showrunner Moira Buffini does not eschew complication — the lower-class prostitutes include black and Asian women, reflecting how the margins of society saw racial mixing much farther back than is commonly believed. Indeed, Margaret’s common-law husband, of sorts, is a black man — a partnership formed after her daughters were born — and their five-year-old son is a mixed-race English boy. The show is engaged with racial diversity and abolition, as political issues of the day that would get filtered down even to the hookers and hawkers of Cheapside. But best of all, it exposes a side of history unseen and under-told — the raggedy underside of humanity, just a couple of miles from where the King George III ruled the nascent British empire. “This city is made of our flesh,” Margaret says quietly, after Lucy’s auction is over, and even the brothel is quiet for the night. Collecting herself, she says with determination: “We’ll have our piece of it.”