If season one of Hulu’s Harlots hooked us on the scandalous nature of 18th century London, season 2 turned us into ravenous addicts. The Mutineer and I watched season 2 in about two days, and they were the wildest two days of my life. I contemplated putting ten gifs of someone screaming to capture the essence of how I felt about the show, but I decided in the end to put my literature degree to use and give a thoughtful critique of the show’s social commentary, because, like I wrote last year, 18th century London is my jam.
The second season begins almost immediately where the first ended: Charlotte is deep in the thrall of Mrs Quigley (or so it seems), Lucy is avoiding the advances of Lord Fallon, and their mother, Margaret, is dealing with the aftermath of Sir George Howard’s murder at her and her daughter’s hands. Additionally, there is still the lingering fear of the group of aristocrats who rape and murder young girls for sport–of which we know Lord Fallon is a member. The series quickly devolves into a game of cat and mouse between the harlots and the gentry–and it’s not always clear who is the cat and who is the mouse.
The second season also introduces Lady Isabella (Liv Tyler), who is an incredibly rich woman with a terrifying secret.
Lady Isabella is beautiful, rich, and influential, but that doesn’t mean that she controls her own life. In fact, Isabella’s purpose on the show is to demonstrate just how little control most women had over their own lives–even those in the highest social circles. Classism was rampant in this time period, but so was sexism and racism. Even though Harlots lends itself to dramatic, sensational narratives, the depiction of 18th-century British society isn’t really that far from the truth; the implications of the show’s social commentary reaches to modern day sensibilities (and debates) concerning sexuality, class conflict, and female autonomy. In short: the wallpaper’s changed, but the structure of the house is the same.
In fact, I would argue that the most terrifying moment of the series is when we are shown Bedlam, and one character says to another “all it takes is the signature of a male relative.” If you are unfamiliar with Bedlam, it was an asylum for the mentally ill, but far, far worse than prison. (In fact, the word originally referred to Bethlehem Royal Hospital, which is shown in the show, but now has become a synonym for madness or insanity because of it.) In the mid-1600s, the hospital shifted to a system that allowed its medical professionals to be chosen due to their social status; so in a sense, a position could be ‘bought’ at the institution, meaning that sometimes the medical staff were not the most qualified to treat mental patients. In fact, the Monro family held sway over the institution for over one hundred years–turning the asylum into a family business of sorts. Treatments were exceedingly violent–cold baths (freezing water being poured onto patients), blood-letting, blistering, were just a few ‘treatments’ employed by the staff on their patients. No consideration was made for social standing inside Bedlam, although patronage and visitation from the upper class was encouraged and sought out by hospital administrators.
It is without exaggeration when I write that to be institutionalized was a fate worse than death for most people, and women could be admitted solely based on the recommendation of a male relative, meaning admittance was not always prescribed by a medical professional. Think about the implications of that: you could be institutionalized at the whim of your husband/brother/father/uncle and subjected to torturous ‘treatments’ and you were powerless to prevent it.
That, in effect, is what the crux of the second season of Harlots is about: powerlessness.
After the English Civil War, the dissolution of the Commonwealth and Restoration of the monarchy, it was more important than ever that the aristocracy have a good rapport with the public. Public appearance was everything to the upper echelons, especially since it was possible to purchase a title, and the so-called ‘quality’ of the gentry changed. Immediately following the Restoration, during the reign of Charles II, the culture embraced immorality and hedonistic lifestyles–the poet John Wilmot is a perfect example of this–but as the century turned, there began to be an outcry for societal change, and moralistic societies began to take root.
In Harlots, Mrs Scanwell, her daughter, and Justice Hunt are perfect examples of these pushers for virtue and moral justice. They work practically nonstop to imbue their sense of morality into London’s populace, but most of their work is focused on the lower class. Historically speaking, the moralistic societies that appeared in the early 1700s focused most of their attention on the poorer classes:
From the moment that William and Mary were proclaimed king and queen, there had been spontaneous efforts across the country to crack down on immoral behavior. In some places godly magistrates waged war on wickedness more or less single-handedly. The mayor of Deal, Thomas Powell, plastered his town with royal proclamations against vice and went around personally admonishing and punishing swearers, Sabbath breakers, and other offenders against decency. “I took up a common prostitute, whose conduct was very offensive,” he wrote in his diary, “brought her to the whipping-post,—being about mid-market, where was present some hundreds of people—I caused her to have twelve lashes; and at every third lash I parleyed with her and bid her tell all the women of the like calling wheresoever she came that the Mayor of Deal would serve them as he had served her, if they came to Deal and committed such wicked deeds as she had done.” (Dabhoiwala)
This focus on the lower class is mirrored in Harlots, since it is the bawds and common prostitutes who suffer at the hands of the law. Time and again, Margaret Wells tries to bring members of the upper class to justice, but to little avail. In a world where a woman as wealthy and prominent as Lady Isabella is threatened with Bedlam, people such as Margaret, Mr North, or Violet Cross have little chance in correcting wrongs done to them by people of a higher social status. Not only did women have very little legal control over their property or themselves, but women and other marginalized persons of the lower class were often the singular focus of the ‘moralistic’ purges of prostitution, adultery, and other vices. Common accusations against these women, such as Margaret Wells, was that they:
allure and tempt our Sons and Servants to Debauchery, and consequently to embezel and steal from us, to maintain their Strumpets; Here ’tis that Hirelings consume their Wages, that should pay Debts to Tradesmen, and buy Bread for Children, thereby Families are begger’d and Parishes much impoverished; Here ’tis that Bodies are Poxt and Pockets are pickt of considerable Sums, the Revenge of which Injuries hath frequently occasion’d Quarrellings, Fightings, Bloodshed, Clamours of Murther (and that sometimes at Midnight) pulling down of Signs and parts of Houses, breaking of Windows, also other tumultuous Routs, Riots and Uproars, to the great Disturbance and Disquietment of Their Majesties peaceable Subjects. (Antimoxeia)
In plainer, more modern English: lower-class women/prostitutes were the cause of every problem in England, according to upper class men. Sound familiar?
Unfortunately, this focus on the lower class pretty much meant that the upper class could do whatever they wanted. As I earlier wrote, appearances and reputation were everything to the upper class, and so if one’s station were in jeopardy, they’d do anything they could to secure it. We see this within the justice system in the show, as Justice Hunt’s immediate superior is easily swayed by the threat of blackmail that would destroy his reputation. It was the illusion of morality that was important to the gentry, and what happened in private was often ignored by the justice system:
As one magistrate put it, “Vice when it is private and retired is not attended with those provokingcircumstances, as when it revels in your streets, and in your markets, and bids defiance to God and religion, in the face of open day.” (Dabhoiwala)
The marginalized in 18th century were abused and neglected by the system, and the modern implications for what we see in Harlots is not lost on me, particularly in context with the current political climate in America. The first season of the show gave us intrigue and scandal with the backdrop of 18th century London; the second season gives us women seeking empowerment and autonomy. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the show so far is when one of the villainous gentlemen is captured, and when it is asked if he is at the mercy of the court, the answer is, “The women have him.”
It’s a systemic problem that women are less likely to be believed than men (a problem that still plagues us), but Harlots gives us a glimpse of what happens when women of any race or class believe each other. Spoiler: they get things done.
Harlots season 2 is now streaming on Hulu.