Review: Harlots — Episode 3

Pippa Bennett-Warner as Harriet in Episode 3 of ‘Harlots’

In episode one, the second bidder for Lucy’s virginity was of course Lord Repton. In episode three, he’s scheduled to collect his prize. Summoning Lucy to a country estate, the Lord and Lady tellingly distance themselves from civilization. Their style of foreplay includes demanding Lucy hunt a doe while the kinky couple peppers bullets in her 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.

Lucy’s prospects for survival are made worse still by her inability to understand just how unprepared she is, for that would require some humility. A shortcoming for which Margaret may be partially responsible. Believing Lucy to be special, Margaret has puffed her daughter up over and over. Lucy has very much internalized Margaret’s words, as demonstrated when she tells Kitty and Fanny that they, unlike her, are common whores. And when she informs Lord Repton’s footman that he’s too lowly and too poor to share her company. And when she introduces herself as a “famed courtesan” to the stableboy, Jem Curran. 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 work. 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, and include the marks on Lucy’s back after Repton rapes and punishes her for displeasing him.
Back in the city, George Howard exhibits his own ugly abuse of power. He punishes Haxby for his apparent loyalty to Lady Caroline, Howard’s wife. In an entirely distasteful moment, Howard demands Haxby hold the pot whilst his master urinates into it. Since the Baronet is Haxby’s superior in status and fortune, good breeding would of course lead Howard to gracefully accept a quiet victory over his servant. But alas, George Howard is something of a bad apple. Craving the degradation of those who challenge him, mercy is a foreign concept. Woe betide dear Charlotte if her actions should ever constitute a betrayal in his eyes.
And on the other side of town, Nathanial Lennox has died. His son, Benjamin Lennox, dismisses Harriet 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 the business of prostitutes, and seeks help from none other than Ms. Margaret Wells.
Margaret of course doesn’t entertain the idea of Harriet pleading with the court; she knows the system doesn’t exist to defend people like them. Instead, she proposes a more economic solution. For where there is supply and demand, there is a price which induces even the most reluctant person to sell. Every hustler knows that. Therefore, Margaret advises Harriet solve her dilemma by simply 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. Most of us 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.
Because the suggestion that a human being could be property is so offensive to our principles and sense of dignity, 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?”
But 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 plough or sail, or land or life, if freedom fail?”

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