The L-Shaped Room – Lynne Reid Banks (1960)

This novel is by author Lynn Reid Banks about a young English woman (changed to French for some reason in the 1962 film) who ends up being unmarried and pregnant (the shock! The horror!), gets kicked out of her home by her father and lives in a dreary boarding house in London.

I am not exactly certain how I came across the title (apart from that it is somewhat of a domestic classic in some circles), but I do think that when it came out at the time (early 1960’s), it must have caused a sharp intake of breath for a lot of people through its coverage of taboo subjects such as unmarried sex, abortion, prostitution, and other topics probably only whispered about that time in certain circles. It also doesn’t really gloss over the harsh realities of poverty and living in insect-invaded housing with shared bathrooms and not much heat.

To my twenty-first century eyes, this story was not all that shocking because this sort of thing happens all the time now. However, what I did find noteworthy was how little things have changed in some ways: there are still some families where the girl would get kicked out for being pregnant and unmarried, and there are still not a lot of choices for some women in that situation (although at least health care has evolved where women don’t have to go to back alleys any more).

At the same time as reading this book, I am also reading “Consequences” by E. M. Delafield (who wrote Provincial Diaries  et al.). This is set in 1899 (but written in 1919), and also features a young head-strong female protagonist facing a similar situation: not pregnant, but she is in her third year of being a deb and still no appropriate suitor. What to do.. what to do… as we all know how precarious an existence can be when you are an aging spinster in those late Victorian days… Where would you live when your parents died? How would you pay your bills if you didn’t have a husband and didn’t work (apart from doing some piece-meal sewing work etc.)?  So, even though “The L-Shaped Room” is actually more than half a century on from the Delafield volume, some things had not changed that much (despite the forward movement of the women’s movement). The forward steps were that now it was acceptable for women to work and be more independent, but still there remained obstacles: financial, the societal shame of being an unmarried mother, poverty etc.

So – “The L-Shaped Room” was quite a good read, and I can imagine how shocking it must have been when it was first published. I have the sequel to it in the TBR pile and will probably move that closer to the top. It’s well written with a forward-moving plot – you can tell Reid Banks had been involved in playwriting as the dialogue was strong and the characters pretty well developed. However, true to its time, it is quite awful in how it uses discriminatory language towards people of color (one of the neighbors is a person of African descent) and Jewish people, and how the characters do not shy away from employing narrow stereotypes. However, when you place the book in its time, this all seems to fit, but it was still harsh to read about such language and attitudes being ok.

(Coming from a public health background, it was also interesting to see how lax people were about  prenatal care – lots of drinking, smoking, poor nutrition etc…) At least that has changed for the better over time for the most part for first world citizens.

A good read overall, and one more off the TBR mountain.

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