This novel begins with plain, middle aged Maria Gillies reading a newspaper article on her way on holiday- three concurrent but separate deaths in an old, neglected house in Mayfair. She's convinced that she's responsible for these deaths, despite having never met any of deceased. The Ladies of the House seems from the beginning to be a murder mystery, rather than the lush and scandalous drama that it is.
The bulk of the story follows the lives of several individuals from the post war era to the present connected in some way to the deceased Arthur Gillies. An ugly but uncommonly charismatic man, Arthur made his money (unbeknown to his timid Italian wife and plain, meek daughter) in brothels; bringing beautiful country and small-town girls to postwar London and turning them into high-class call girls. The book is narrated at times by two such girls; Rita and Annetta, now old and in declining health as they live in the Mayfair house that was so long their workplace. Through flashbacks we find out about their lives in the post war years, their customers and their struggles and comforts. Though his double life is revealed and his legacy explored, Arthur is mostly absent though his lasting influence on the women around him is evident.
The reader spends most of the novel with Rita, now an aged but companionable lady, still advertising in the personals. Though taken care of for life by the estate of Arthur Gillies, she enjoys a bit of work on the side- the independence and fun it provides for her. Rita hasn't exactly led a respectable life, but she's comfortable and happy. Sharp as ever, we learn of her past, her mistakes and successes as she made her own luck in life, paying her dues in the clubs of Soho before securing herself and Annetta on the payroll of Sal, the beautiful madame that took them in all those years ago. Despite the austere climate of Blitzed out London and the sordid nature of their existence, there is a strong, almost palpable bond between matriarch Sal and Rita and Annetta. Sal and her girls develop independence, self-worth, even a certain amount of celebrity through their shrewdly ran business. They live a far more lavish and comfortable life than the factory girls and the War widows. Even after Sal's death, Rita and Annetta stay on with Joseph, Sal's son by her lover and business partner Arthur. After spending his childhood being communally raised by a herd of women, he spends his middle age eating biscuits and riding the buses.
Annetta suffers from advanced dementia now, so her modern presence is slight. Foggy and weak, she escapes frequently, much to Rita's frustration. It's through her memories and flashbacks that we find out about the horrors and loves of her past, her taking under the wing by Rita and her life as a call-girl. Though frail nowadays, Annetta never had the wit or sharpness of Rita. What she demonstrates though is an incredibly strong spirit and mental fortitude; a complete refusal to be beaten. It makes her dementia all the more tragic, though it does reinforce themes of ageing, decay and isolation that run through the book.
The book gives the reader enough choice pieces of information to lead them in the right direction; it suggests, rather than gives away. I was impressed by the pace of this book and the gentle but increasingly gripping style. The plot meanders at first, but as the reader is drawn into the lives of these Ladies of the House, the characters get under the skin. I loved the tone too; the combination of humour and grimness, light and dark really worked well. It gave weight to the themes of poverty and entrapment, but also showed strength and resilience in its characters as they reacted and thrived within the circumstances they had. There's a faded glamour to the novel that is quite irresistible- the details of post Blitz London are rendered with an acute eye for detail and the characters that inhabit it- the girls especially come alive at once. The women are characterised by wiliness, allure and keen minds for business, while the men are simple, hopeless creatures with more money than sense.
The narrative never judges the women- it makes the reader think really; is working in a brothel any worse than working behind the counter at Woolworth's? Checking coats in a nightclub? Any worse than being a housemaid or a cook? Most jobs have unpleasant elements to them, so how is prostitution any different, assuming an individual has chosen to join and remain in the sex industry. The ex call-girls seem to have lived happier, fuller and more fulfilling lives than the forgotten, traditional wife Flavia and the legitimate but ignored Maria. Personally I don't believe this book merely bemoans the lack of options available to women of the post war generation. It acknowledges the differences between all women, and applauds the different tactics that strong women employ to survive. In many ways lasting 40 neglected years in a loveless marriage takes as much guts as plying the trade for 40 years. It celebrates the backbone and the resilience of postwar women and the choices they had to make to survive.
An excellent, surprisingly tender book that lingers in the memory. Written with excellent characterisation and setting, The Ladies of the House is a unique novel, a very personal snapshot of a generation of women.