Review: Hulu's 'Harlots' explores 18th century prostitution through the 'whore's eye view'

"Harlots" on Hulu explores prostitution in 18th century London through the eyes of the prostitutes themselves. (Hulu)
"Harlots" on Hulu explores prostitution in 18th century London through the eyes of the prostitutes themselves. (Hulu)
Published March 21, 2017

Harlot. Whore. Prostitute. Covent Garden nun.

The women of Hulu's Harlots wear these titles with pride. This is 18th century London, where one in five ladies sells sex for money.

The eight-episode series — boasting an all-female team of directors, writers and producers — promises just as much male nudity as female nudity and is full of delightfully vulgar Georgian slang. At the Television Critics Association's press tour in January, executive producer Alison Owen said they hoped the show would tell stories "from the whore's eye view."

Harlots explores prostitution in the 1700s from social, political and business angles. It's not a condemnation of a lifestyle nor is it nonstop soft-core pornography. There are plenty of sex scenes, but they're far from erotic.

The show is loosely inspired by Harris' List of Covent Garden Ladies, a pocket-sized book published from 1757 to 1795 that served as an annual directory of prostitutes in the small district in London's West End. Entries detail the women's physical appearance and sexual specialties, often in lurid detail.

Most of the notes appear complimentary and one of the first scenes in Harlots is Lucy (Eloise Smith) gleefully bragging about finding Harris' List and reading some of the girls' entries aloud during breakfast.

The series follows Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), a brothel owner who struggles to juggle the role of madame and mother to daughters Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey) and Lucy. The elder Charlotte has moved on from brothel life to become an almost-contracted mistress to a wealthy baronet. Lucy is quiet and dutiful, and she and her mother both hope to get a hefty sum by selling her virginity.

Life in Covent Garden turns nasty when Margaret's rival, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), targets her brothel with a puritan activist. Lydia even hires away Margaret's best girl, the stubborn and mouthy Emily Lacey (Holli Dempsey).

Margaret's brothel is a small, homely place with girls she has rescued from the streets. She makes sure they're fed, clothed and healthy.

Lydia's home is in the more affluent Soho district of London and caters to a slew of political leaders and law enforcement. The inside is decorated brightly with a French flair. Every aspect, even Lydia and her girls, seems to be covered in a light layer of white powder. Her girls are refined and required to be schooled in art and culture in order to engage their customers in civilized conversation.

Above all, Harlots is a lighthearted exploration of the sex industry in the 1700s through the lens of authentic, relatable characters.

Margaret is fierce and protective of what's hers. While many might see her as a failure for making her girls turn tricks, marriage during this time offered so much less freedom for women. When discussing marriage as a way out of debt, she said she doesn't want to see a man own everything she has earned: "I wouldn't wish marriage on a dog."

Lucy is a kind, gentle person who seems to be hiding ferocity and cunning. She wants her mother to be happy more than anything. Older sister Charlotte somewhat resents her mother for turning her into a harlot, but balks at signing a mistress contract with the baronet. She doesn't want to be owned by a man who gifts her a pineapple after a long absence. She wants her freedom.

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Harlots is chiefly about women obtaining the freedom to live whichever life they choose.

But London in 1763 is made of flesh, and everyone wants a piece.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at Follow @chelseatatham.