T’is the season to purchase books for a Christmas gift or to curl up with a novel in front of a fire as the cold weather settles in. Without hesitation, I would urge the casual reader to read a Jane Austen novel they have not yet read. Her works are as equally satisfying to read in print as to listen to as a podcast, CD, or tape.
In addition to Jane’s outstanding novels, I’d like to suggest several new books this week for your consideration. The first is The Harlot’s Progress: Yorkshire Molly, by Peter Mottley. This is the first in a trilogy and a fictional actualization of Hogarth’s series of etchings called “The Harlot’s Progress”. Each story follows one of three 18th Century harlots who have all been seduced into a life of prostitution at The Bell, a Wood Lane brothel in the City of London run by the notorious bawd, mother Wickham. Underlying each story is the tale of a young woman’s struggle against overwhelming misfortune.
The Harlot’s Progress: Yorkshire Molly by Peter Mottley
This excellent book is for the history buff whose image of years past is NOT colored by sweet nostalgia. Tough, gritty, more realistic than the Hogarth prints on which the story is based, Peter Mottley portrays a harsh, predatory world in which a maid from the country steps down from a wagon on Wood Street to meet her fiance, and is swiftly seduced and turned into a harlot. Sweet 17-year old Molly Huckerby, her head filled with fancies about her new life as a dressmaker in London, can think of nothing but meeting her cousin Tom, who has prepared a room in his lodgings for her visit. But it is Mother Wickham, looking down from an upper window of The Bell, a seedy Ale-house, who intercepts her and introduces her to Colonel Charnell. He plies the young maid with bread, and brandy, and honey. And more bread, more brandy and honey…until she wakes up choking with despair, too ashamed to weep, and realizing with a start that “Instead of saving herself for Cousin Tom, she’d allowed herself to be taken to market by Mother Wickham. And she’d been bought.” And so Miz Molly’s career as a Cheapside Whore had begun.
Author and playwright Peter Mottley died in 2006, before this book was published. He was an actor, writer, and director and an active member of the Oxford Theatre Guild. One of his radio plays had been performed on radio by Bob Hoskins. Once gets a sense of his colorful personality in this obituary: “Peter Mottley (1935-2006), for many years a cheery presence at Pangbourne pub gatherings, died on 16 July; he was 71. Martin Hoare writes: ‘He had been a novelist, playwright, actor, producer and philosopher as well as having a career in advertising. His contribution to sf was the comic novel The Sex Bar (1972), about an aphrodisiac and contraceptive chocolate bar. His best known play was After Agincourt (BBC Radio 3, 1988).’ Goodbye, Peter, and thanks for all the birthday parties.”
Mr. Mottley’s sense of stage and scene are apparent in his writing:
The York Wagon. A canvas-covered bone-shaker full of hopefuls who had travelled two hundred miled to The great City, two hundred miles to escape the cattle and sheep of Yorkshire, two hundred miles to fall prey to the wolves of Wood Street. Out of the rat-holes crept the cutpurses, the bawds, the pimps, the harlots, all the Cheapside predators who might earn a shilling or steal a florin or gull a fledgling or find a fresh piece of meat to peddle.
To get a stronger flavor of the book, watch the excerpt below of the author’s daughter, Josselyn, reading a portion of his book. She performs it marvelously well, capturing the grittiness of the writing. Unfortunately, the book is only available in the UK at present. Many of us who have had the privilege to read it will keep you apprised of its U.S. publication date when it arrives.
I give this book my highest rating and strongest recommendation. Again, it is not for the faint of heart. For those with a keen interest in reading about London in the early 18th century, this book is a must have.
More on the topic:
- The Harlot’s Progress: Yorkshire Molly, Jane Austen Today
- A Harlot’s Progress: Hogarth’s Plates
- Peter Mottley: Radio Plays
- Peter Mottley: Theatre and Dance
- Oxford Guild News: Peter Mottley
- Book Review: Yorkshire Molly