Author of novel set in Primrose Hill brothel: ‘I find it hard to be a feminist’

Molly McGrann

Molly McGrann - Credit: Archant

Pastel-coloured Primrose Hill hides a dark secret. Now synonymous with style and celebrity, the suburb was not always so fashionable.

The Ladies of the House by Molly McGrann

The Ladies of the House by Molly McGrann - Credit: Archant

After the Second World War, it was a hotbed of prostitution. Many of the village’s houses were rebuilt cheaply to serve as brothels, as author Molly McGrann discovered while researching her third novel, The Ladies of the House.

“I was living in Primrose Hill and I complained to my neighbour about the thinness of the walls, in comparison to the cost of the house. It seemed unfair.

“And my neighbour said it was because the houses went up really quickly, because they were brothels. It stuck with me and put my neighbourhood in a whole new light.”

The novel is foremost the story of the lives of three former prostitutes, and the madam’s grown up child, and how they came to live and die together in their dilapidated former brothel in Primrose Hill.

Linking all of them is Arthur Gillies, a man with a double life: a husband and father to a doting housewife and ordinary daughter living a sheltered existence at home – and an owner of a brothel empire in London, who takes advantage of the large number of working girls at his beck and call.

The novel was chosen as Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime last year, after it was first published in hardback almost a year ago.

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Writing a story of sisterhood with strong, self-reliant female characters was important for American-born McGrann, born out of an occasional frustration with her “traditional” role as stay-at-home mother to three sons.

“I find it hard to be a feminist,” says McGrann, who now lives in Oxfordshire. “Sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re walking in your mother’s footsteps, who walked in her mother’s footsteps before her.

“I grew up thinking I could be anything I want to be but it’s hard to be those things when you’re a mother. Some of my friends just gave up.

“But I think it is important to have ideas and be active about doing something with them.”

Her initial curiosity about the brothels of her Primrose Hill neighbourhood led her to research Soho’s sex industry in the 1950s and 1960s by reading history books, fiction, and even speaking with a former madam.

Her goal was to understand the women behind their label of “prostitute”.

“The madam confirmed my theory that prostitution had been an important part of the post-war recovery,” the 43-year-old explains. “She was proud of her girls, because it wasn’t easy. She ran a clean business, and referred to them as her English roses.”

She adds: “I wanted to write with humanity, and not be puritanical.”

Ladies of the House is published by Picador and available in paperback at £7.99 from today (Thursday).