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Books

“The L Shaped Room” (1960) by Lynne Reid- Banks

The L Shaped Room provides an interesting and direct contrast with Shelagh Delaney’s contemporary work of genius, the 1958 play A Taste of Honey which deals with the then taboo issues of un married motherhood as it’s main subject.

Delaney’s writing is far more ambitious and political than Reid Banks, as the teenage writer also intertwines homosexuality, race and vice into her play. It is a stunning indictment of the class system and the perceptions of working people and their portrayal in popular culture.

 In addition the Delaney’s amazing work had a pivotal impact on my political and professional development as 22 year old me taught A Taste of Honey to 25 15-year-old working class and ethnically diverse girls in my first teaching post. No room for naivety as the girls argued vociferously and with passion for their favourite characters and the themes that they felt to be important in the play. I grew up more in that term as a person in addition to as a teacher, than perhaps in any life experience to that date.

Reid Banks’ scenario is quite pedestrian in comparison, but I feel commentators have been harsh in their evaluation of The L Shaped Room due to it’s being held up against A Taste of Honey.

The protagonist, Jane Graham is 27 and from a comfortable London Middle Class background, although not without it’s tensions as Jane lost her mother young as was brought up by her up tight Civil Servant father. She becomes an actor, much to his horror, and then falls pregnant to a fellow thespian. The title of the book comes from her dalliance with rebellion. Jane leaves home in the wake of Pater’s disapproval, moving into an L shaped attic room in a dilapidated Rigsby styled multi occupancy house replete with a variety of oddball characters.

Jane comes across the usual prejudices surrounding un married pregnant women, including the money grabbing doctor who offers her an abortion, then illegal, for 100 guineas. Despite these woes there is a wealthy and sympathetic elderly aunt, a well paid job and Daddy still living in his Barnes semi. Therefore you feel that she is “playing” at living with dysfunctional life. There is no hint of discussion of why these attitudes are at play in society, and no meaningful reflection of the more obvious existential themes on offer.

But on the other hand maybe I am falling into the Delaney trap, because if you take it as a story about a young woman trying to define herself against her married and conventional contemporaries whilst meeting some interesting characters along the way, The L Shaped Room is an entertaining read, but don’t believe those who bang on about it being a seminal book. It isn’t, but is non-the worse for it.

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About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.

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