With the setting of 18th-century brothels, the Hulu series Harlots (2017-) could easily have been just a frothy sex romp in corsets and wigs. While it definitely has light moments, the female writers and directors delve deeper into historical issues of women’s status, class divisions, and even race in the period.
Of about 25 characters that appear in the 8 episodes of the first season, 4 named characters (2 male, including one child, and 2 female) are black, so that’s about 16% of the show’s people. Which is a not entirely inaccurate representation, all things considered. According to Gretchen Gerzina in her book, Black London, by the mid-18th century, blacks made up 1%-3% of London’s population. Many of these people were working as servants — they had little choice because the Lord Mayor of London ruled in 1731 that “no Negroes shall be bound apprentices to any Tradesman or Artificer of this City.” The main characters in Harlots are all at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, so it makes sense there would be more blacks in their world, as the story is begins in 1763.
William North (played by Danny Sapani)
He’s one of the few male characters in the series who aren’t shown in a mostly negative light (the others being some variation on pimp, procurer, john, toff, abuser, spy, liar, cheat). William is the partner in business and in bed of Margaret Wells, who runs the main brothel that the story revolves around. The pair have a young son together, Jacob, and their relationship is clearly that of equals.
Backstory on the show describes William as ‘born a free man in England rather than as a slave,’ and he works at the brothel as something of a protector and bouncer. He’s often a voice of reason and a calming influence on Margaret. However, the way he helps Harriet get her children back goes against Margaret’s initial idea and causes friction between the couple, setting up potential conflict for the next season of the show.
William seems like a realistic black character of the period to me because he is incredibly pragmatic. He sees the world for what it is with no illusions, and he has few aspirations for himself, his son, or anyone else. His actions are measured, thoughtful, yet forceful. This is not a cliche, stock character, but a man who has experienced hardships and learned how to function in a society that sees him as other.
Jacob Wells North (played by Jordan A. Nash)
William and Margaret’s son doesn’t have much of a speaking role in Harlots, but he is often visible and his presence is felt. As a free black boy, his status is considered and discussed by others, and in one scene, Margaret rails against the idea of Jacob becoming a servant in some rich people’s home. I feel like is an allusion to the many, many 18th-century portraits of upper-class men and women with little black boy servants in the background, where the boys are sometimes dressed in “exotic” clothing and treated as accessories.
Violet Cross (played by Rosalind Eleazar)
She’s a street-walking prostitute, working under the wing of Nancy Birch (a friend of Margaret Wells). Violet also picks an occasional pocket when she can. Her life on the streets brings her in contact with Amelia, daughter of religious crusader Florence Scanwell. Instead of being at odds, the two strike up a flirtation that becomes passionate over the course of the series.
Violet is very open and approachable to other characters, which doesn’t feel wholly accurate for someone who’s been living on the streets, presumably hand-to-mouth, doing whatever it takes to survive. She’s the most carefree of Nancy’s girls; the others express a bit more concern about their edgy existence. Her storyline is enjoyable to watch, but it doesn’t feel realistic to me. Part of that is how random it is for her and the supposedly ultra-religious Amelia to hook up — as if the showrunners just wanted to add a queer romance in, and these characters were available. I’m unclear on either Violet’s orAmelia’s motivations. Violet is one of those very useful characters that honestly could be anyone of any race or gender, whose just there to move the plot along. Hopefully she’ll get more development.
Harriet Lennox (played by Pippa Bennett-Warner)
Harriet comes to London as the wife of Nathaniel Lennox, a former lover of Margaret Wells. Harriet had been enslaved on Nathaniel’s plantation in America, and they have two young children together. Shortly after Margaret borrows money from Nathaniel for her new establishment, he dies, and Harriet realizes her “husband” never completed the paperwork to free her. Thus, she and her children are property of Nathaniel’s older son by his first / legal / white wife. The son lets Harriet go, but keeps her children, saying he’ll sell them back in America. Harriet works for Margaret to earn money and buy her children back, first cleaning house, and then becoming a prostitute.
I find Harriet’s storyline and character the most fascinating of all of these in Harlots. She thought she had gotten out of slavery by marrying her master, but he lied to her — that just feels emblematic of the white supremacist patriarchy right there! It’s further compounded by the older son taking away her children, so she’s forced to get them back however she can. And what’s available to her? What will earn enough money? Sex work. That’s literally her only option.
However, she does try to take this back to empower herself. Instead of having rape forced on her as an enslaved person, she now chooses when, where, and how to have sex and gets paid for it and uses the money for her benefit. Plus, in the scene where she turns her first trick, she does so in a very domineering fashion.
Finally, she and Willam outsmart Lennox’s son to get her children back. It’s a bit of a nice, happy ending for her, which is probably more of what we’d like to see happen than what really would have happened in the time period. But there’s still the open question of what she will do to support her family in season two and if her relationship with William with change/develop, leaving lots of opportunities for historical storytelling.
What do you think about Harlots‘ treatment of race in 18th-century London?