Harlots: The Short Straw

This is hardly going to be news to anyone, but man, it really sucked being a woman in 18th century England.

Let’s start with (so far) one of the least depressing storylines: that of Emily Lacey. Emily’s the girl who used to work for Margaret before taking herself off to Quigley’s. She’s doing fairly well there, exuding a certain–shall we say–earthiness that some of the customers find appealing. But Quigley does not find the girl’s tendency to ruin carefully staged vignettes with rude noises all that endearing. Not. At. All.

Quigley’s just coming off that scandal Margaret caused last week¬†with Mary Cooper, and trying to figure out who this mysterious person she nabbed a virgin for actually is (signs point to royalty, at the moment), so she’s rather peevish and anxious these days. Emily’s not worried, because she’s been regularly giving Charles Quigley quickies to keep him on her side. He warns her, however, that she needs to shape up, or she’ll be matched with a customer who’s ominously referred to as ‘the short straw.’

That customer appears one day, and the girl whose turn it is to entertain him prudently hides herself away, so Quigley just shrugs and sends him on to Emily. We don’t see the man, but the second Emily does, her face falls, which is ominous as hell. Is this, perhaps, the customer who poxed Mary Cooper? (Mary did claim she didn’t catch the pox until after she left Quigley’s, but she was angry with Margaret when she said it, so she may have very well been lying). It seems risky and unlikely for Quigley to continue to provide girls with someone who’s visibly diseased, but it’s hard to say what else could have made Emily look so horrified so quickly. Maybe just the name was enough to do it.

Not far from Emily’s room of doom, Charlotte’s dealing with George, who’s getting ready to make his first speech in Parliament. He tries practicing for her, but then notices she’s too busy reading the newspaper to be paying much attention. It seems she has a greater grasp on political matters that he does, however (no surprise there).

Unbeknownst to either her or George, Haxby has summoned George’s wife, Caroline, to London to show her the accounts and tell her how fast George is going through all his money. Strike that–he’s going through all of her money. Yes, that’s right: in the 18th century, a wife’s property immediately became her husband’s upon marriage, and she almost never had any control over it. So George is spending all of Caroline’s money to keep Charlotte in high style, which is an understandably bitter pill for Caroline to swallow.

She sweeps into her husband’s bedroom, where Charlotte’s lounging about in her underwear, and announces she’s come to surprise her husband on the day of his first Parliamentary speech. Charlotte grabs a robe and the two sit down together, facing off over the hearth, pretending to be civil and make small talk for a while. And then Caroline tells Charlotte, somewhat bitterly, just who is actually providing the means for Charlotte’s upkeep. Charlotte manages not to cringe.

I feel for Caroline, I really do. What a shit situation. Part of me wonders why she married George in the first place: she’s a Lady, so she comes from a family that outranks him, so she didn’t marry him for position. She clearly loathes him and thinks he’s an idiot, so love’s out, and obviously she didn’t marry him for money, so…? It seems improbable her family would have arranged a marriage she had nothing to gain from, so I’m left with a lot of questions. And a lot of pity. Charlotte I feel less sorry for, and I think that’s because I’m having trouble getting much of anything out of her. There doesn’t seem to be much complexity to unpack with her just yet. She kind of bounces along, seeming happy enough with her life, unconcerned about the future, despite the fact that she’s surrounded by constant reminders of how rough her future could very well be, if she’s not careful.

She meets up with George that evening at a high-class gambling den and warns him that Haxby’s gone behind his back. At her urging. George summons Haxby to his room the following morning, humiliates him, and tells him that, just because his family’s worked for the Howards for generations doesn’t mean he isn’t expendable. George knows no loyalty. Charlotte, TAKE NOTE.

Ok, remember: these are perhaps the least harrowing parts of this episode.

Lucy. Oh, dear, Lucy. It’s time for her to lose her virginity (again)–it’s been sold to Lord Repton, who apparently also took Charlotte’s. As she’s being driven in a carriage to the Repton home, she realises they’re not going the right way. The driver tells her she’s being taken to Repton’s country house. She objects, because this was not the deal and that’s throwing up all kinds of red flags. She orders them to take her back home and the response is predictably repellent. She has no escape.

She arrives at the country house and is cheerfully greeted by Lord and Lady Repton, who both eye her like she’s a little marzipan peach they’re about to split. At this point, I’m all:

But guess what? As creepy as this seems at first glance, it manages to get about 20 times creepier before we finally get out of here!

Lady Repton, who never seems to stop smiling in this flesh-crawling, lascivious way, gifts Lucy with a little china doll; then she and Lord Repton take the girl out hunting. Arming Lucy with a gun almost bigger than she is, they lead her on a frightening game of hide-and-seek through this menacing, acid-green forest that ends up being so disconcerting and horrifying that you don’t at all blame Lucy when she just blindly shoots into the forest. She manages to hit not a Repton, but a baby deer.

Over dinner, Repton comments on Lucy’s silence and poutily wonders where the Wells family spirit is. Lucy, no doubt fearing what will become of her if she upsets this very important client, tries to make a bawdy joke about Repton having failed to hit a single target all day. Repton laughs. Lady Repton laughs. And then Repton backhands his wife hard enough to knock her right out of her chair.

No more laughing. The woman gets up, visibly shaking, and now we see what’s happening here. She’s not a gleeful participant looking forward to a threesome, she’s a battered wife who very well may be taking part in all this because she has absolutely no choice. This is all her form of self-preservation.

After dinner, as Lucy prepares for bed, Lady Repton warns her that this is about to get very, very ugly. ‘Have you ever lain with a man whose manhood you’ve just insulted?’ she asks, before telling Lucy this man’s going to rip her to shreds. Then she goes to a chair next to the bed and sits down because now she has to watch.

We (thankfully) don’t have to watch along with her, but it’s obvious her prediction was all too true. Lucy wakes the next morning covered in bruises, and when she returns to London she’s clearly on complete emotional lockdown. She tells her mother nothing, but when presented with a client, who–to his credit–seems fairly nice and does try to bring her out of her shell, she can say and do nothing to entice him, so he leaves. Lucy’s now so traumatised she can’t even bring herself to sleep in a bed, and she just clutches that little china doll in her hand like some sort of talisman.

Maybe Margaret would be better equipped to deal with this if she were less distracted, but she’s got more than a few things on her mind. While Lucy was away, the move to Greek Street started to go forward, but while Margaret was packing, Lennox’s wife, Harriet, arrived to summon Margaret to the man’s deathbed. By the time the ladies arrive, Lennox is dead of an apparent heart attack.

Harriet weeps but Margaret, ever practical, locks down her own grief and addresses the practical matter at hand: does Harriet know if she’s provided for? Harriet has no idea, so Margaret hustles her into Lennox’s study so they can rifle through his papers before his repugnant son, Benjamin, can arrive and make trouble. They find Harriet’s freedom papers in there, but they aren’t signed. Margaret urges Harriet to forge Lennox’s signature, quickly, but before she can do so, Benjamin arrives and shoos the women out of the room.

While that’s going down, William and Margaret’s girls pack up and head to Greek Street, where they’re met by a mob who say they don’t want this sort in the neighbourhood. They attack William (who fights back really well, considering he’s outnumbered about ten to one) and harass the women, forcing a retreat back to their old premises. The mob was gathered by Quigley and Florence Scanwell, who watch the show gleefully from the rooms Quigley’s renting to Scanwell.

Margaret returns to the old place to find that the move to Greek Street has been put on hiatus for the moment, at least until they can figure out what to do. She has a fight with William, then goes to drink her frustration and grief over Lennox’s death out with Nancy. She also asks Nancy’s advice on how to get to Greek Street, and Nancy’s like, ‘Girl, I’m glad you asked.’

They pull together a posse of their own: a pussy posse, if you will, consisting of the two of them, William, all their girls, and, it seems, several other ladies from their neighbourhood. They all head to Greek Street and lay into this mob of assholes. (Did I mention Nancy’s specialty is S&M? Girlfriend knows how to wield a whip!) With an actual riot now on their hands. Florence sends her daughter for the watchman, unaware that he’s one of Margaret’s clients. His response is essentially, ‘Hey, you don’t like your new neighbours? Take it up with their landlord. Meanwhile: everyone back to your respective corners.’

Thinking she’s won, Margaret finally enters her new premises, only to find the putrid, rotting corpse of Mary Cooper lying in the parlour.

That’s pretty much what she’s dealing with when Lucy comes home.

And speaking of mothers and children: Benjamin unexpectedly signs Harriet’s papers, making her a free woman. Wow, that’s quite commendable and gener–

–Oh, wait, there it is. He’s signed her papers, but makes it clear her children are still his slaves, and he’s sending them right back to his plantation. And Harriet’s out of the house. Now.

With no one to turn to, she does the only thing she can think of and goes to Margaret. Margaret, ever practical, figures that if the children are slaves, they’ll be purchasable, so Harriet will have to work for the means to buy them. Harriet realises where this is going and says she’ll never be a whore, but Margaret says she can work in the kitchen instead. She follows this up with an insulting comment about how Harriet will now have to do actual work, and Harriet flings back that she used to be a slave, you know, so it’s not like she’s spent her whole life sitting around getting manicures, mmmkay, Margaret?

I’m glad she’s staying, because I think there’s still a lot to unpack in her storyline–not just with her as an individual, but with what it meant to be a black person in London at that time. Particularly a black person who’d experienced slavery in the colonies. Those were two fairly different experiences. And while slavery in England wasn’t quite what it was in the colonies, it still wasn’t exactly fun being a person of colour in England at that time.

And also there’s been a little bit of commentary about how race might be more of an issue in this new, higher-end establishment. We’ll have to see where this all goes. I don’t think she’ll be a kitchen maid for long, to be honest. For one, I doubt she’ll be able to earn enough at that to buy her children back before they’re shipped back across the Atlantic. And the show was careful to tell the audience that Lennox had ‘taught her well’ when she was first introduced. I really don’t think she’s talking about algebra and Latin verbs, do you?

So, yeah, that was a pretty bleak hour, but not bleak enough to turn me off the way, say, The Village did. There are some interesting things going on here, and the harrowing bits were lightened somewhat by happier moments, like the warm, frank relationships Margaret has with Nancy and William, or the way Fanny smiled when she saw her watchman. But I think we should be prepared for the show to get uglier: Quigley’s out for another girl for the justice’s client, and she’s got her eye on Florence Scanwell’s daughter. And Lucy’s got a lot to work through, and I’m still waiting to see how the story with Charlotte is going to shape up. The show’s starting to find its groove, I think, and getting better. Here’s hoping for more interesting things to come.

 

 



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