‘Harlots’ – An Intro To The Feminist Series That Defies Convention

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A few weeks ago, as many of us have done over the last months, I found myself flicking through every streaming medium available to find an evening watch. I yawned at the idea of the new trends, Selling Sunset, The Fall – the Tiger King phase of lockdown has put me off starting any over-hyped Netflix show for a while. Yet, I despaired at returning to yet another episode of age-old classic Peep Show. So, what to watch?

I decided to chance my luck with iPlayer and scrolled past Harlots. I hadn’t really heard much about it, other from a family member describing it as a programme about a brothel in 18th century London. Boy, is it about a brothel. And SO much more.

The show first premiered on ITV Encore in the UK and Hulu in the US in March 2017, however, many people have been re-visiting series in lockdown, and Harlots appears to be one of them. The first series (the only available on iPlayer at the time of writing) takes on 1763 Georgian London, where women’s economic worth is determined by one of two things: marriage or sex work.

Brothel-keepers Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and Lydia Quigley (Lesly Manville) battle it out, fuelling a rivalry that seemingly has a much darker history that just competing for customers. The two daughters of Wells – experienced sex worker Charlotte (Downton Abbey‘s Jessica Brown Findlay) and coming-of-age Lucy (Eloise Smyth), whose virginity is almost ready to be sold, battle through their own experiences in the industry, too. The feud between the brothel-keepers grows fiercely in the first series, with lives put at risk because of it – survival is at the heart of the show.

‘The show is described as a costume-drama but don’t be fooled: it’s no Downton Abbey.

Though set in the 1800s, where men dominated almost every aspect of everyday life, these female characters are multi-faceted, fiery, and expertly brought to life by their respective actresses. The show explores the huge struggles women in the 1800s faced, and the complexity of the path they had navigate, with no rose-tinted glasses to be seen. Dealing with rape, sexism, work-ethic, mother/daughter relationships and so much more, Harlots is a brilliant study into the female experience.

The struggles that women faced then have often been dragged through the centuries, and still both exist, and are worryingly relatable and identifiable in 2020 Britain. The series demonstrates the power available to women through sex, and particularly sex work, but also the lack of economic or social progression available – a reason why sex work is one of the only viable sources of income for these characters.

Based on the book ‘The Covent Garden Ladies’ by British Historian Hallie Rubenhold, Harlots was written, produced and directed by women – and just from watching the series, you can truly feel this. The male characters are supporting roles, and often ridiculous and weak-willed, regardless of status or money. It is the women who are given power and complexity, a welcome reversal of the tropes of this genre.

The show is described as a costume-drama but don’t be fooled: it’s no Downton Abbey. It really is a true benchmark for other period dramas in terms of diversity. The grittiness of female history truly had me hooked, and I was eagerly counting down the hours last Wednesday to watch the first two episodes of the second series, now airing on BBC2.

Words by Livi Pearce

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