Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress, Plate 2

Oh, how greatly Moll has fallen since arriving on London’s doorstep.  Such was the way with most 18th century prostitutes, rags to riches and back again, except that rags the second time around were death shrouds.  But we’ll get to that later.  For now, Moll has glided into glory, her slippered feet barely entertaining thoughts of touching the ground.  For a country girl with few prospects or hopes of luxury, she is living the dream, but it’s already begun to crumble.

Despite the tumultuous milieu, Moll is at her peak here.  She’s snagged a Jewish lover (notice the thick, black eyebrows!) and although he seems to have given her everything her heart desires, she’s already cavorting with other men.  In the background, her young lover sneaks by on stockinged feet, Moll’s maid holding his buckled shoes, and we have only leave to assume he slithered out of the drawn canopy bed moments before.  Her affluent lover is a bit disconcerted by the scene he’s unknowingly interrupted, mostly because Moll is kicking over the table and making a petite moue at him in her cheeky way.  With the expression on his face, he has to be wondering what’s got hold of his pretentious ladybird.  “She used to be so sweet, so innocent,” he groans. His silent lamentation is the beginning of the end for Moll.

Instead of the shy, new-to-London chit we saw in the last plate, Moll is all about wanton sophistication.  She’s wearing a patch on her forehead, the sign of a haughty or majestic demeanor.  She knows how high she’s risen in a short period and although she seems secure in regard to her fine furnishings and person, she is anything but. Her life has turned into one big, rollicking farce.  She’s a masquerader, her true self concealed beneath so many layers of paint, and at this point, she’s enjoying it.  Her tea is spilling, her pots of rouge and paint breaking, but it’s all in good fun.  Moll finally has tenuous power over someone and she’s exploiting it just as others have exploited her.

Paintings and Appurtenances

As a fallen woman existing on the margins of Christian morality, Moll bears a kinship to the men in the two portraits behind her.  The paintings are of  Thomas Woolston and Samuel Clarke, English freethinkers who placed rationality and nature above doctrine.  The question begs to be asked: as with the larger canvasses above, do the portraits simply belong to her patron or does Moll sympathize with their sitters, judging herself as acting in accordance with the natural order?  For what, she might ask, could be more natural than sex?

The two remaining paintings in the plate recall scenes from the Old Testament.  Like everything else in the house, they are presumably owned by the man who is affording Moll this extravagant lifestyle.  Her gown now has the effulgence of Mother Needham’s in Plate 1 and matches the upper part of the coat on her very own slave.  During this period, ladies were known to hire black boys to serve them tea, a tradition taken from colonialism, and carried out with great pretension back in England.  His presence is highly suggestive of the process of creating wealth that in turn provides for Moll’s lifestyle, but at the same time, he is dressed to mock it.  Like the monkey, he is Moll’s exotic toy, just as she is the exotic toy of her patron.  Indeed, all of Plate two centers on deceit.  But we’re left to wonder . . . who’s fooling who here?

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