The L-Shaped Room, Lynne Reid Banks’ 1960 novel about the pregnancy of a young (ish) single mother, is a superb evocation of a time when women’s choices were limited and attitudes to sex and marriage had not yet been challenged by the ‘permissive’ 1960s.
Single mothers in the 1950s and 1960s faced prejudice and opprobrium, and were advised to hide their shame by pretending to be married or widowed. You could choose to confer a kind of legitimacy on the child by legally adopting it and giving it your name.
Jane’s pregnancy, her single status and her early ambivalence about whether to have the child are at the core of the story of The L-Shaped Room.
When she becomes pregnant as a result of a brief liaison which lacked both passion and commitment, she takes a room in a rundown lodging house in Fulham.
Her world is immediately peopled with richly drawn characters, all inhabiting a kind of bohemian demi-monde and demonstrating different kinds of social positioning and sexual behaviour. There’s John, the black, gay musician; there’s Toby, the struggling writer who disguises his Jewish identity (and with whom Jane falls in love); there are the two ‘prossies’ who live in the basement; there’s the retired wardrobe mistress Mavis who sees it as her mission to facilitate an abortion for Jane.
As in other works of this period and genre, such as Saturday Night And Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe, women have to decide whether to have an abortion, which was illegal in Great Britain until 1967. They face the choice of dicey home remedies (gin and pills) or pricey private medical procedures (a standard 100 guineas in Wimpole Street).
In both the novel and the film, Jane shows a remarkable lack of sentimentality about the decision. Reid Banks explores the complexities of the emotional and practical process with compassion and understanding.
She takes us through Jane’s first visit to a doctor in more nuanced terms than it is presented in the film, where the doctor is slimy and self-satisfied and the shot of his flash car nudges us to disapprove of the way he makes his money.
Bryan Forbes’ 1962 movie has its heart in the right place, that is, in a very decent book. But the film presents an oddly off-kilter version of the novel, and some of the changes seem random.
Making the central character French removes a whole layer of interest and undermines the sense of social context which is associated with the British New Wave.
Lesley Caron is a luminous presence and gives a compelling performance, but she is not the English middle-class young woman who Reid Banks created. Characters in the film frequently refer to the fact that Jane is French, signified by her decidedly chic wardrobe and her accent, so slight that most of the time she sounds like a well-spoken English woman.
There seems to be no reason for the change of identity. It doesn’t facilitate any insights that I could see, and makes the character, though sympathetic, a more distant and less grounded figure than the novel’s counterpart.
The lack of back story in the movie is unsatisfying. Toby and Jane have many long rambling conversations about love, most of them abstract and a tiny bit tedious.
If you see the film without having read the novel, you want a bit more of the getting-to-know you stuff. Hey Toby, what’s it like being a struggling Jewish writer in London in the late 1950s? Do you know Arnold Wesker? Or Bernard Kops? And Jane, what’s it like being the unmarried daughter of (guessing here) bourgeois French parents?
A little bit of kiss-and-tell would have been good. Who is the beautiful celebrity married woman with whom Toby was in love? How come that Jane got together with an English actor?
In the novel, the passages about Jane’s life in repertory are lively and engaging, and the details of her relationship with the baby’s father are satisfyingly woven in to the story.
Her personal background is solid and convincing, with well-drawn characters such as her friend Dottie and her idiosyncratic Great Aunt Addy, who is a significant mentor and support.
Synopses of The L-Shaped Room often refer to Jane’s father throwing her out on the street and calling her a whore. This does happen, but it’s far from the whole story. He regrets this action and writes a letter, which Jane sees as cold and distant in tone, asking her to come home. When she refuses, he offers her financial help. He turns up at the house to see her.
Jane’s reassessment of her father and their relationship is a mark of the growth of her emotional maturity. She comes to see his letter as the attempt of an undemonstrative man struggling to express complex emotions. She acknowledges her own pride and stubbornness (she can be a bit of a pain, actually). The shifting dynamic of their relationship is convincingly handled and is one of the most moving aspects of the book.
The dialogue in both the novel and the film reflects the now unacceptable ways in which women, black people, Jewish people and people of different sexual orientations were regarded, and the insistent racism gives you a creepy feeling, as if the lice in the bedbugs scene were crawling all over you.
There are a couple of odd differences between the novel and the film in this respect. John’s sexuality isn’t featured in the film, whereas Mavis, who in the novel presents herself as having had affairs with men, turns into a closet lesbian, who comes out to Jane in a scene which is delicate and touching. In another invention, the transformation of Mavis into a variety performer who at the Christmas party at the house gives a spirited rendition of Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty, decked out in military jacket and peaked cap, is a joy. Fans of The Smiths will recognise this rendition from the beginning of The Queen Is Dead.
And the winner is…
The film has an excellent cast and deserves its reputation as an influential British film but Lynn Reid Banks’ novel is more satisfying. It presents a coherent and absorbing narrative which touches deftly and lightly on issues of personal and social morality.
Concepts of friendship, family, loyalty, personal responsibility, self-esteem and self-acceptance inform Jane’s story, which is enlivened by funny anecdotes and fascinating glimpses into the medical profession at the time.
Jane herself has enough going for her to reassure us that she will cope. She is middle-class, educated, competent. Although at the beginning she rejects her father, she never rejects the comforts of a well-to-do life. Her L-shaped room is made more pleasant by the Persian rug and curtains which she takes from her father’s house.
In the end, she has been a tourist in the rundown world of bedsits in Fulham. Never again will have to live there or anywhere like there. She has interesting work and, at the end of the story, a fab place to live. She doesn’t need a man to supply any of this. (Not even Toby? I’m not telling. But there is a sequel to the novel…)
Jane is like a less intellectual forerunner of the protagonist of Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. This novel was published a few years later, in 1965, and introduces us to another single pregnant woman, an academic this time, Rosamund Stacey.
Sisters are beginning to do it for themselves.