Jessica Brown Findlay as Charlotte Wells in Episode 1 of Harlots

Harlots: Cathouse Caterwauling

Two households, both alike, in sluttitude, in olde London, where we set our tale…

First, we have Margaret Wells. Margaret, a former prostitute herself, now runs girls from her kinda seedy premises in kinda seedy Covent Garden. She yearns to move to Greek Street, in Soho. Her partner, in every way, is William North, played by the same actor who was Sembene in Penny Dreadful, which makes me happy. They’re a good pair–clearly they care about each other, and he’s good at reigning her in with some RealTalk when necessary, but they’re also well aware of what needs to be done for the business to survive.

And what needs to be done tonight is auctioning off Margaret’s youngest daughter, Lucy.

Margaret’s eldest, Charlotte (Lady Sybil!!), was pimped out at age 12 and is now one of the most celebrated courtesans in London. She’s currently got Sir George Howard wrapped around her…ummm…

George wants Charlotte to sign a contract basically binding her to him, but Charlotte’s not too keen on handing over her independence, even if it means her considerable debts will be paid and she’ll be kept in silks and goofy wigs for the foreseeable future. Maybe she doesn’t like that George has a habit of dressing up in those silks and wigs when she’s out of the house. She toys with George, refusing to make any commitments, and befriends a newbie male prostitute who moonlights as a sedan chair attendant.

Back to Lucy: Lucy’s been kept pure so she can be sold to the highest bidder once the move to Greek Street is complete. Margaret’s holding off on the auction because she’s convinced they’ll get a better class of men once they’re away from Covent Garden, where their clientele runs more to the soldiers-and-journalist sort.

But Margaret’s move to Soho puts Margaret’s former madam, Lydia Quigley, on high alert, for some reason. See, Quigley runs a VERY high-end place. Her girls are draped in pastel silks, and they’re meant to be enticing, interesting, and well-rounded. This is not where you go for a quick screw. It’s the sort of place that attracts aristocrats and high-ranking members of the judiciary. Quigley’s got all these men in her pocket, so to be honest, I’m not sure why she feels so terribly threatened by Margaret. Even if Margaret is moving to the same neighbourhood, she’s just not going to attract men this high up, unless she starts employing girls more like Quigley’s, and that doesn’t seem likely, just yet. Especially not once her highest earner jumps ship and joins the Quigley house (a move I’m fairly sure she’ll come to regret).

A lot of the purpose of the Margaret-Quigley face-off is to illustrate two very different sorts of mid-18th century London madam. Both are hard-headed businesswomen, but Margaret clearly has a lot of soft spots. She cares about her girls, and her daughters (despite the whole auction business–and I think it’s worth noting that Charlotte doesn’t seem to resent her mother for having sold her when she was still prepubescent, and Lucy doesn’t seem upset about her eventual fate. I’m guessing they spent so much of their lives deeply immersed in this world they can’t even fathom anything different for themselves.) Quigley, despite her pretty trappings, is a cruel woman who clearly doesn’t care about anyone except, perhaps, her wastrel son. She’s out to amass as much money as she possibly can, no matter what she has to do to get it. And she keeps those girls firmly under her thumb by heaping them with debt: everything she gives them–food, clothing, shelter–is added to their bill, so if they ever have to leave, they have to somehow magically pay it off. Difficult, when someone keeps about 95% of what you earn in the first place.

Quigley’s clearly a petty bitch, too. When religious zealots lead by Florence Scanwell lead a raid in Covent Garden that winds up with Margaret being arrested, Quigley sees her chance. She offers Scanwell a place to live, rent free, if she’ll keep making trouble for Margaret. Margaret is dragged before the justices and claims she just runs a boarding house, but then Charlotte shows up and accidentally throws a spanner in the works by telling the magistrates that her mother’s an awesome whorehouse runner and they should be encouraging more like her. They fine Margaret £100, which was no small change in 1763 and endangers her move to Greek Street. The only way to ensure the move now is to sell Lucy quickly.

Margaret and Charlotte take Lucy to the opera to show her off to prospective buyers. The bidding begins, and it’s fierce, but the winner ends up being George, who offers to pay twice the highest bid, just to get back at Charlotte for refusing to sign his contract and for partying while he was out of town. He wins, but is unfortunately unable to get it up and do the deed. He and Lucy agree to keep this between them, and Lucy leaves undebauched. Margaret feels terrible for what she’s had to do and admits to William that she always hoped, while she was pregnant, that her children would be boys, so she wouldn’t have to face this sort of decision. Fortunately, her youngest child (with William) did turn out to be a boy, so there’ll be no repeat of this.

And that’s where we leave things at the close of episode one: Charlotte and George on the outs, Lucy not quite initiated into the world of her mother and sister, and Margaret and Quigley going to war.

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