Any progress for harlots?

Submitted by cathy n on 24 November, 2006 - 3:43

Amy Fisher reviews A Harlot's Progress, 2 November, C4

This one-off drama, conceived and written by Solidarity supporter Clive Bradley, was described by a reviewer in the Daily Telegraph as “execrable”. As you might expect, then, it was a very enjoyable, clever and thought-provoking two hours.

In 1731, at the age of 34, the now famous artist and satirist William Hogarth established his reputation with a series of paintings (which survive as engravings) depicting the adventures of a “harlot” in London. A Harlot’s Progress imagines real life people and events as a background to the production of the paintings, focusing on Mary, a young prostitute who acts as both the inspiration for Hogarth’s harlot and his muse.

In fact, “inspiration”, “muse” etc aren’t quite the right words, since the story the programme tells is both tragic and graphically unpleasant. Mary briefly becomes the mistress of a rich merchant capitalist, but he abuses and tortures her, and she finds herself back in a brothel; she is imprisoned under the laws against prostitution; and after her release her child dies and she begins a slow and painful syphilitic death.

Throughout all this, Hogarth manages to maintain a relationship and ultimately an affair with her: the child who dies is his. As you might expect, his growing obsession with her alarms his wife, disrupting their marriage. (There isn’t much criticism of Hogarth’s attitude either to his wife, who he doesn’t seem very concerned about cheating on, or to Mary, who he seems to regard at least in part as something wonderful to paint rather than another human being.) In addition, however, the increasing amount of time he spends on A Harlot’s Progress distracts him from more valuable commissions which he is under pressure from his father-in-law, himself a noted painter, to fulfil.

There are themes in here about the role of artists under capitalism. The most obvious one is that while Hogarth wants to paint something which he finds beautiful and interesting (Mary, and the social relationships and absurdities which surround her life), he is under pressure to produce for profit. One of the more upbeat and most enjoyable moments is when he trumps his father-in-law by deciding to make engravings of his paintings for public sale, subverting the pressure to make money by stepping from the aristocratic world of early capitalism into the modern one of mass production.

But the programme’s politics are mainly in its distressing moments. From the focus on the young black slave of Mary’s rich client to women in prison being forced to make hangmen’s ropes to people stepping over a dying child in the street, this is an acute depiction of the realities of 1730s Britain. At the same time, Mary’s fate reminds you of the monstrous injustice and oppression that women in particular faced at that time, and continue to face in large parts of the world. She is hounded to her grave by men, by the state, by the rich, by people who exploit and help perpetuate the system of prostitution while persecuting its victims.

All this is brought into relief by intercutting 18th century scenes with voice-overs from modern news footage on issues such child prostitution, urban poverty and so on — reminders that Hogarth’s period was not some ancient civilisation, but the beginning of the world we live in today, and that its social sicknesses have not been purged. They have been diluted and pushed to the margins of society by the struggles of workers and other popular movements over almost three hundred years. Children no longer die in the streets of London, but with the working class on the defensive, the margins are surging inwards. A Harlot’s Progress reminds us of that: no wonder the Daily Telegraph didn’t like it.