There are moments when you read a story so well put together, where the characters are so well-developed, which captivates you so much that you feel you are looking through a window and getting a glimpse of life at the time of writing. I had such an experience whilst reading The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks. The story is not only engrossing, but I also learnt much about attitudes in 1950s Britain; it could be used as a history set text as a comment on social norms in the post war years.
The story might not seem remarkable in a modern context; an unmarried woman unexpectedly and unintentionally falls pregnant. In the class-bound late 1950s this sort of mishap was shameful and seriously frowned upon. Unfortunately, this is the predicament Jane Graham finds herself in. Her only parent, her father, throws her out of their home and she punishes herself by moving into a bedbug-infested, dark and dismal room, which happens to be L-shaped, in a large boarding house in Fulham. Her father’s reaction is the first in a series of incidents and encounters with other characters that serve to highlight the shame Jane has brought onto herself. She is determined to punish herself further by deciding not to get to know anyone else in the house. It doesn’t work out as she planned. Lynne Reid Banks introduces a fabulous supporting cast of characters to help tell Jane’s story during her time in the L-shaped room. Even the characters with the smallest parts are so well described they provide realism and authenticity.
Toby and John, who play the most important roles in Jane’s life during her time in Fulham are the antithesis of the norms of the era, providing a glimpse of times to come. They are positively bohemian compared to some of the stuffier, uptight characters, but both tortured and constrained in their own ways. They are not immune to internal struggles and like Jane punish themselves as a form of catharsis. In fact, this idea of punishing oneself for personal failure is a recurring theme of Reid Banks’ book. There are several other characters who go through similar emotional journeys while dealing with their problems.
It is depressing to think of the treatment women such as Jane endured during the 1950s and for a long time afterwards, but equally depressing are the other prejudices introduced in such a matter-of-fact manner throughout The L-Shaped Room. Those of racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. You only need to catch a glimpse of programmes like Rising Damp or Till Death us Do Part (both of which aired later than the setting of this book) to realise such insulting behaviour and opinions was commonplace and not considered offensive at the time. Although Jane experiences prejudice as a result of her “condition” she herself displays prejudice towards Jews and gay men, which are only partly resolved by the end of the book.
Despite the themes and issues regarding life in 1950’s Britain seeming heavy-duty, the book is actually a delight to read. I felt real empathy towards many of the characters and loved that it was not a long-winded saga, but provided a snap-shot of Jane’s life before she moved on to a new chapter. The L-Shaped Room is the first in a trilogy of books about Jane, but I’m not sure I need more, it is perfect on its own.