The L-Shaped Room

The L-Shaped Room
Lynne Reid Banks
Vintage, 272pp, £7.99

It is interesting to return to this classic novel, first published half a century ago. The soberly told tale of Jane Graham, a middle-class girl cast adrift in seedy London in the late 1950s, played its part in changing attitudes towards women and sex in the Sixties, as did Bryan Forbes's 1962 film adaptation, with a luminous Leslie Caron in the lead role and the action switched from Fulham, south-west London, to groovier Notting Hill.
Lynne Reid Banks's style has hardly dated down the years, though some of the prose of the early chapters shares the peculiar flatness one finds in many women writers of the period, as if the explosion of taboos demanded safe handling, just for propriety's sake. Or perhaps Reid Banks was trying to reproduce the interior voice of a depressed person? Either way, the deadpan tone pitched me straight back into the black-and-white world of repressed-sounding BBC announcers and the screamingly dull Sunday afternoons of my childhood.

The writing livens up as the story lifts off. Jane, an unmarried, out-of-work rep actress (Reid Banks was an actress before becoming a writer), finds herself pregnant after a disastrous week-long affair with an actor. The act of sex - her first - brings no pleasure to either of them, and this is one of the reasons for Jane's determination to go it alone. The importance of sexual pleasure to women as well as men is a recurring theme of the book.
When her father turns her out of the family home, Jane is driven, by necessity and pride, to a small room at the top of a sour-smelling boarding house in Fulham. There she meets an array of exotic characters, makes friends, falls in love, and contemplates but eventually rejects an abortion, ultimately finding happiness and independence.

It is still depressing to contemplate the pre­judice that women "in trouble" faced in this gloomy, class-bound postwar world. The novel illustrates beautifully the tortured interplay between internal shame and external strictures as Jane goes to extraordinary lengths to hide her pregnancy, not just from others, but even from herself.

However, just as striking and shocking to the modern reader are the casual racism and anti-Semitism. "You mustn't mind old John [the black guitar player who lives in the room next to Jane's]. He's naturally inquisitive. Like a chimp, you know, he can't help it." Anti-Semitic characters are mildly disparaged, but that does not stop a rather too faithful reproduction of a stream of ready insults. And just to complete this triptych of British prejudice, there is Jane's homophobia, which gives way to something no less alarming. Realising finally that John is gay, "I waited for a change in my affection . . . the faint revulsion I had felt for . . . others like him in the past. But there was no change."

In fact, John and Toby, the tortured Jewish writer with whom she falls in love, are two of the most positively drawn figures in the novel. Open-hearted and curious individuals, they are counterpoints to the stiff conformism of Jane's heavy-drinking father and the creepy Harley Street gynaecologist who gloats at her shame and distress.

So, this book is as much about class as sexual mores. For Jane, the L-shaped room, with its bug-infested mattresses and grimy wallpaper, turns out to be just a phase in her life. She is reconciled with her father and inherits the cottage that used to belong to her adored, eccentric aunt. We also know that she will find interesting work. But she leaves behind her a cast of characters so steeped in poverty that they have little hope of a similarly happy ending.

Written in short chapters and a conversational style, the novel is an easy read in the best sense, but also contains passages of depth and subtlety. The issues it deals with come alive because it works at the level of character. And Jane is an attractive heroine without self-pity.

When, towards the end of the book, after a bungled abortion attempt, Jane is questioned at a party, she has an epiphany. Surrounded in
a dimly lit room by "attentive and potentially malignant strangers", she suddenly understands "that the moment should have meaning, even if it were to my discredit. I felt a rush of impulsive courage to the head." She tells the group that she is having a baby. It is this journey from shame to self-acceptance that is the emotional arc of the novel, and the reason, surely, for its enduring popularity.

Melissa Benn's most recent novel, “One of Us", is now available in paperback (Vintage, £7.99)

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter