Tea & Review: Harlots – Episode 3

In episode one, the second bidder for Lucy’s (Eloise Smyth) virginity was, of course, Lord Repton (Tim McInnerny). In episode three, he’s here to collect his winnings. Summoning Lucy to a country estate, the Lord and Lady (Fenella Woolgar) tellingly distance themselves from civilization.

The Reptons’ style of foreplay includes asking Lucy to hunt a doe while the kinky couple peppers bullets in Lucy’s direction for their own amusement. Her disorientation and breathy panic– mixed with the cracking of bark under siege of gunfire and the Reptons’ giddy shrieks of delight– savors of a most dangerous game. A game for which she is woefully unprepared.

Though paralyzed by the anxiety of being prey, Lucy’s prospects of survival are made worse still. She fails to appreciate her own unpreparedness. A shortcoming for which Margaret (Fenella Woolgar) may be partially responsible.

Believing Lucy to be special, Margaret has puffed her daughter up over and over. Internalizing Margaret’s words, Lucy tells Kitty (Lottie Tolhurst) and Fanny (Bronwyn James) that they, unlike her, are common whores. She informs Repton’s footman that he’s too lowly and too poor to share her company. She introduces herself as a “famed courtesan” to the stableboy, Jem Curran (Alex Jordan). And the list goes on.

The result of Margaret’s grooming is a young harlot with an over-inflated ego and a naive understanding of what it means to be in the business. Sex work is indeed working. It requires strategy, technique, presentation, sales, marketing, and maneuvering.

The tragedy is that Margaret’s intentions were to push her daughter up from the dregs of Covent Garden, but in doing so, Margaret may be the reason Lucy is out of her depths. The consequences of which are painful, as evidenced by the marks on Lucy’s back after Repton rapes and punishes her for displeasing him.

Back in the city, George Howard  (Hugh Skinner) exhibits his own ugly abuse of power. He punishes Haxby (Edward Hogg) for demonstrating loyalty to Lady Caroline (Eleanor Yates), Howard’s wife. In an entirely distasteful moment, Howard demands Haxby hold the pot whilst his master urinates into it.

Though the Baronet is Haxby’s superior in status and fortune, a quiet victory is an insufficient conclusion to Howard. Mercy and grace are foreign concepts. He instead craves the degradation of those who challenge him. Woe betides dear Charlotte if her actions should ever constitute a betrayal in the eyes of her cull.

And on the other side of town, Nathanial Lennox (Con O’Neil) has died. His son, Benjamin Lennox (Timothy Innes), dismisses Harriet (Pippa Bennett-Warner) as a free woman but keeps her children as slaves for himself. With few allies in London, Harriet sets aside her squeamishness when it comes to prostitutes, and seeks help from none other than Ms. Margaret Wells.

Margaret, of course, doesn’t entertain the idea of Harriet pleading with a court; she knows the court system doesn’t exist to defend people like herself or Harriet. Instead, she considers a more economic solution.

For where there are supply and demand, there is a price at which induces even the most reluctant person to sell. Every hustler knows that. Therefore, Margaret advises Harriet solve her dilemma by purchasing the children from Lennox.

Now I should note that Harriet’s circumstance as a black woman (and former slave) is distinct from Margaret’s circumstance (and privilege) as a white woman. However, we might for a moment consider the common ground between these two: a desire to free their children.

From a distant position of safety and comfort, we recoil at the idea of reducing one’s children to property. But Margaret would do it without a moment’s hesitation. She’s instructed Charlotte to sign a contract with George Howard and become his property. Indeed, Margaret would have Harriet yield to Benjamin’s claim on her children, so that she may, in turn, purchase them as chattel.

The suggestion that a human being could be property is deeply offensive to our principles, values, and sense of dignity. So it’s easy to judge Margaret Wells. We exclaim in horror, “How dare she put her daughter on the town at 12 years old!? How dare she sell Lucy’s virginity at auction? How dare she bid Charlotte become property?”

And episode three mounts the defense of Margaret and Harriet by asking us this, “What does it matter if you sell your child when it’s their freedom that you buy?”

Emerson would likely object to my application of his words here, but they so aptly capture my own feelings on the matter: “For what avail the plow or sail, or land or life, if freedom fail?”

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