We’ve seen fresh-faced, country girl Moll Hackabout arrive in London, hit the harlotry jackpot and become a mistress, only to fall a few rungs into prostitution. This week, with Plate 4, she has fallen further and is now in jail (or gaol, if you prefer).
It’s amazing the amount of sympathy I feel for Moll, as compared to Tom Rakewell from A Rake’s Progress. For me, I feel that Moll came to London innocently enough, hoping for the best, although I wonder if she was warned on the coach along the way, that little good turned out for girls on their own in Town. In contrast, Tom Rakewell earns my ire, having been given every advantage only to squander them, despite having several chances to repent and escape his ultimate fate. Moll finally looks defeated in this plate, too, which somehow makes it worse.
A Harlot’s Progress was a series of six paintings and engravings. The paintings were destroyed in a fire at Fonthill House in 1755, but the original engraving plates survived, and are in the public domain.
A jail bird, a person used to be kept in a cage. Prisoners.
From the Wikipedia description:
Moll is in Bridewell Prison. She beats hemp for hangman’s nooses, while the jailer threatens her and points to the task. Fielding would write that Thwackum, one of Tom Jones’s sadistic tutors, looked precisely like the jailer. The jailer’s wife steals clothes from Moll, winking at theft. The prisoners go from left to right in order of decreasing wealth. Moll is standing next to a gentleman, a card-sharp whose extra playing card has fallen out, and who has brought his dog with him. The inmates are in no way being reformed, despite the ironic engraving on the left above the occupied stocks, reading “Better to Work/ than Stand thus.” The person suffering in the stocks apparently refused to work.
Next is a woman, a child who may suffer from Down syndrome (belonging to the sharper, probably), and finally a pregnant African woman who presumably “pleaded her belly” when brought to trial, as pregnant women could not be executed or transported. A prison graffito shows John Gonson hanging from the gallows. Moll’s servant smiles as Moll’s clothes are stolen, and the servant appears to be wearing Moll’s shoes.
Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.