A Harlot's Progress - 1732
'As Ronald Paulson has established, the direction taken by Hogarth in transforming his single episodes into sequential Progresses was shaped by events featured in the London press.
As he had demonstrated in The Beggar's Opera, Hogarth was sensitive to the ways in which social eminence could cloud fundamental similarities between the apparently respectable denizens of high life and the more marginal criminal classes. The extent to which there was one law for the rich and another for the poor became vividly apparent in 1729-30 when a series of scandals and misdeeds proceeded to have very different outcomes according to the social background of the accused. In December 1729 the arrest took place of the notorious highwayman james Dalton (whose wig box Hogarth shows stored on top of the Harlot's bed in plate 3 of the Progress). Several weeks later another highwayman, Francis Hackabout, was convicted of robbery at the Old Bailey, while his sister Kate enjoyed a brief notoriety in August 1730 when she was committed to hard labour after being apprehended for keeping a disorderly house by the Westminster magistrate Sir John Gonson. Finally, in April 1731, while Hogarth was hard at work on the Harlot, the noted procuress Elizabeth Needham was placed in the pillory in Park Place, where she suffered such severe physical abuse that she died four days later as a result of her injuries.
This litany of low-life dramas was almost overshadowed by the extraordinary events which had surrounded the trial of the wealthy gambler and libertine Colonel Francis Charteris, who was convicted at the Old Bailey in February 1730 for the rape of his maid servant, Anne Bond. Despite his appalling reputation for sexual misconduct, on 10 April a royal pardon was granted to Charteris, who had connections with the,prime minister Sir Robert Walpole. On the same day, james Dalton was sent to the gallows, a fate which befell Francis Hackabout a week later.
Though none of these events is literally mirrored in A Harlot's Progress, they undoubtedly shaped the narrative which Hogarth devised around his initial scene. Not only did recent news provide him with significant inspiration in developing his cast of characters, it also lent a degree of complexity to what otherwise might have remained a relatively two-dimensional tale of innocence corrupted. The fate of the harlot Moll Hackabout - the significant name only becoming apparent ' from the inscription on her coffin cannot be separated from the seamy world of London low life which Hogarth used as his setting. It is this environment which provides the moral foil for the way in which we are to interpret Moll's fate and to understand the choices that lead to her eventual downfall.
The innocent country girl whom we first encounter shortly after her arrival at the Bell Inn in Cheapside is immediately accosted by Mother Needham, who is apparently acting on behalf of Charteris, the thick-set figure who stands in the tavern doorway with his pimp, John Gourlay. The identity of these notorious figures was quickly recognized by Hogarth's contemporaries, who could well understand that Moll would prove easy prey to such hardened libertines particularly since the representative of the church so conspicuously fails to fulfil his moral duty. Her fall from grace is initially accompanied by a rapid social ascent: in the second plate of the series, Moll has become the mistress of a rich Jew, whose attention she tries to distract by kicking over the tea table in order to allow her clandestine lover to make good his escape.
Plate three shows the price that Moll has been made to pay for her treachery. No longer enjoying the material comforts of the kept woman, she now breakfasts in the dingy room in Covent Garden from which she operates as a prostitute. The fine china and elegant furnishings have been relinquished for cracked bowls and a clumsy stool; instead of an elegant ladies' maid, Moll is now tended by a coarse and ugly servant whose deformed nose bears the ravages of disease. As Moll displays a pocket watch, presumably filched from an unwary client, she herself falls to notice the advancing group of bailiffs intent on her arrest. They are led by Sir John Gonson, who had been responsible for apprehending Moll's real-life counterpart, Kate Hackabout in August 1730. Alluding to Gonson's notorious harshness with miscreants, Hogarth decorates Moll's squalid lodgings with a print of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Though an angel intervenes to stay the patriarch's hand, Moll can expect no such clemency from the unbending magistrate.
Confined to the Bridewell prison, where she is made to beat hemp with the other inmates, Moll cuts a pathetic figure as she wields her mallet, ill wearing the finery which recalls more prosperous days. Her elegant dress attracts the derision of a hideous old woman, while the glaring warder threatens her with punishment for her feeble efforts. Moll's servant shares her punishment, and sits in the corner leering at her mistress's difficulties. None the less, she remains loyal to the ailing harlot whom we next discover, apparently some years later, on the point of succumbing to the venereal disease contracted from a life of vice. As the miserable woman expires, her small son shows more interest in the food cooking at the open grate. The old woman employed to lay her out rifles through the contents of the harlot's trunk while two notorious quacks, Doctor Rock and Doctor Misaubin, hotly dispute the merits of their respective cures for syphilis, entirely unconcerned by the fate of their dying patient.
This indifference is echoed in the final scene, where the mourners around Moll's coffin show little grief for the dead woman herself. The old servant uses the casket as a drinks table; the parson spills his brandy as his right hand burrows beneath the skirt of the smiling woman by his side; the undertaker accosts one of the prostitutes, while two others devote their attention to the diseased finger which one displays; the extravagantly gesturing woman on the right is carried away by alcohol rather than emotion. As the harlot's small son, dressed up as chief mourner, happily plays with his spinning top, another mourner removes the coffin lid to gaze on Moll's body as a sort of memento mori. From the inscription on the small metal plaque, we learn that the dead woman wasonly twenty-three years old.'