Review: The L-Shaped Room, Lynne Reid Banks

Lynne Reid Banks is better known for writing The Indian in the Cupboard adventures, which were made into a successful film – I was a fan myself as a child.  It was not until much, much later that I heard about her first novel, The L-Shaped Room.  This is the story of Jane Graham, an unmarried mother – I also didn’t realise until I started it that it’s set in the late 50s, I kind of figured it was about 20 years old or so but it was published in 1960 so this makes it pretty revolutionary for its time.  Reid Banks said that her mother warned her that everybody would assume it was semi-autobiographical since ‘most first novels were’ and that indeed early reviewers had examined her closely for the ‘pitter-patter of little feet’.  Interestingly, Reid Banks’ mother also said that she should be careful that young women not read her book and think that being a single mother was a noble and courageous thing to do.  

To give this book some context – Jane Graham is twenty seven.  Even at the latest, if we say the book is set in 1960, that only puts her as one year younger than my grandmother.  And I know what my grandmother thinks of pre-marital sex.  She’s actually surprisingly vocal about the joys of post-marital sex but beforehand it’s absolutely ghastly.  So you can see what society at large would think of Jane, who has gotten pregnant as a result of her first ever sexual encounter with an ex-boyfriend.  To add insult to injury, the sex was very unsatisfactory.  Jane is a girl from a Good Middle-Class Home with a Good Job and she is then summarily kicked out of Good Middle-Class Home by her angry father and thus she ends up renting a room in the top flat of a dodgy house in Fulham. This is not the story of a teenager making a mistake, this is an adult woman who has made a miscalculation and been thrown out of polite society.

The film, which apparently makes Jane French.

The inhabitants of the flat embrace Jane as one of their own and although the characters seem like cliché, they are drawn with great warmth.  There’s Doris the cockney landlady, the spinster Mavis who tries to help Jane abort her child, Toby the Jewish writer and John the gay black guy.   And of course in the basement, the prostitutes who Jane is naturally little better than.  It’s hard in this liberal age to imagine the social stigma around unwed motherhood but my mother was a single mother in the 1980s and even then people looked twice despite my mother having the Mrs title.  Jane consciously chooses the worst flat she can to punish herself for her sin, which seems a bit strange but she is very much of her time.  When she finally runs into the father of her child again by chance, he admits that he had taken against her after their night together because he had thought her to be That Sort of Girl.  

The thing is that this attitude hasn’t changed that much.  Jane falls in love with her fellow-lodger, Toby and although he is in many ways very sweet, when he discovers that she is pregnant he also considers her to be a whore.  She tries to explain that in fact it can happen to anyone at any time and he asks if she is looking for him to marry her.  It’s the attitude men take towards single mothers that doesn’t change, that they’re in for the main chance when really they’re doing the hardest job in the world.  As the child of a single parent, I say that we get just as good of an upbringing as everybody else and that one good parent is better than one good parent + one rubbish parent because the rubbish parent will distract the good parent from the main job of parenting so yes, single parents are great.  And Terry, the father of the baby was a total loser who let himself get socked in the jaw because he couldn’t live with the guilt of his uselessness.  

One of the lines that stood out for me was when Jane remarked that it was difficult for anybody under the age of thirty to understand that their actions could have lasting consequences.  This is not an excuse but it is true, even more so now.  As children, we are reassured by our parents that they can fix everything and then we grow up and can be shocked by the messes we get into, that really there is only ourselves to sort things out – that this is how it should be.  The things we say and do leave marks which don’t go away and sorry when it comes down to it is just a word, it takes a far better sort of person to actually take responsibility and live with consequences of actions.  Jane’s pregnancy is a consequence that can happen just as easily today and it cannot just be wiped away – even adoption or abortion are still consequences which have to be lived with.  

Another interesting thought came from Jane’s fabulous aunt Addy, who in a letter told her gently not to resist the shame she felt entirely because of course without some shame, how could she ever avoid making the same mistakes again.  I am a great believer in learning from mistakes and also that the impulses to shame and to guilt are generally to be trusted.  It is not fair that Jane is the only one to pay the price for her misdeed which does, let’s face facts, take two.  It’s funny because I am generally not phased about what other people do in private but this book did give a non-judgemental but bluntly honest appraisal of what happens when Everything Goes Wrong.  Sex without love or commitment is plain old flying without a parachute even now when we have much reliable birth control, this is highlighted again when Jane watches Toby leave her bed one morning and realises that she is his mistress and so has no hold over him.  In that way, she is not learning from her previous mistake and in that, her aunt is completely right.  Think about what you do, why you did it and for heaven’s sake, learn.  

In an interview, Reid Banks remarked that upon rereading the novel, she couldn’t believe some of the things she had written, particularly about John the gay black guy.  Indeed, the book is riddled with casual anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia but this is very much of its time and although to the modern PC reader it seems odd, you just bear with it.  More striking to me is the way that Jane drinks, smokes and generally runs around while pregnant with very little thought for the baby.  Her doctor thinks she is being a bit hysterical in wanting to train for the birth and chortles heartily at all of the stuff which she is being ordered to buy, most of which would never fit into the L-shaped room.  Last year, I was with a pregnant friend who was not allowed to buy unpasteurised cheese over the counter at Morrisons, even though she was pregnant with her fourth child and had managed to keep the other three kids alive while still eating unpasteurised cheese.  Although obviously, smoking is smelly and a daft thing to do, but it did make me think about the way we view pregnant women now.  Women have been having babies for millions of years, we should give the human body credit.

I liked the ending, especially that Jane and Toby didn’t just walk off into the sunset at the end – life is not that simple and certainly parenthood is not.  Toby comes across as a good man but if Toby had been worth having and fighting for, then he would have been more stable and more ready to take on some responsibility for her child.  He had his own stuff to sort out, emotionally he wasn’t stable and he had to figure out his career so both he and Jane were sensible to realise that it wasn’t the right time.  There are two sequels available and from a brief glance it looks like they don’t get their Happy Ending … so I won’t be reading those, I am happy with the Question Mark.  

This is a fairly short book, I read it over a weekend when I had a seven hour train journey (it was a round trip) but it is definitely worth reading if only to see how far we’ve come … also what on earth was Lynne Reid Banks’ mother talking about, it does not glamourise single-motherdom!  During an interview, Reid Banks said she still thought that being a single mother wasn’t the best thing to be doing and I would broadly agree, not for the child but because if you’re going to do it properly, who on earth would go into all that deliberately?

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The L-shaped room by Lynne Reid Banks
Published by Simon and Schuster on 1960
Genres: London (England), Neighbors, Fiction, General, Europe, Great Britain
Pages: 280

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