Lynne Reid Banks and the writing of The L-Shaped Room
Lynne Reid Banks (born in 1929) wrote one of the most marvellous of London novels, The L-Shaped Room - published in 1960. It was the story of a young, pregnant woman who takes refuge in a run-down boarding house in Fulham (the film adaptation moved the setting to Notting Hill).
On 20th April 2000 I interviewed Lynne Reid Banks about the writing of The L-Shaped Room, and I have transcribed below her remarks:
Lynne Reid Banks talking to Andrew Whitehead on 20th April 2000, mainly about the writing of The L-Shaped Room
Q: When you wrote The L-Shaped Room, when you wrote about that then rather down-at-heel part of Fulham, did you have a particular house, a particular street, in mind?
No it wasn’t quite as specific as that. I did see the room. I was looking for a room for a friend, and I was living in Sheffield Terrace at the time which was quite grand, in its own way. And I certainly had never lived in those sort of quarters, but somebody I knew needed somewhere and I was looking – around Chepstow Villas, that sort of area, not Fulham. And there was this very tall house, and we went up these stairs, and it got gradually worse and worse as we went up. I think it was an Indian house, It was all very decorated, very embellished. Until you got to round the third floor, and that was where the rooms were for rent. And right at the very top was this room with two – this space which had been a square attic space with two doors, and one of them led intoa small square room, and the other led into this room round the side. They’d made two rooms out of one space. And the inner room, didn’t have a window. And the L-shaped room did, but it was very cramped and very squalid. And I decided after one quick look round the bend that this would not do and I retreated. But it imprinted itself on my memory. And I must say I thought there was something quite romantic about it. ... I can scarcely imagine living it. But it’s the place you could scarcely imagine that your imagination wants to get to grips with. And I did want to know how it would be to live in it as it was so much different from everywhere else I’d ever lived, except possibly theatrical digs, which could be fairly down market at that time.
Q: The L-shaped room that triggered off your imagination wasn’t even in Fulham.
No it wasn’t.
Q: So why did you move the setting to Fulham?
I don’t know. It wasn’t really fair of me I suppose, I just had a mental image of Fulham as being full of those kind of houses. I passed through Fulham many times. I suppose in those days it was – it’s all been very gentrified now, but in the ‘50s it was a very down-at-heel area and it seemed a suitable localel for the house.
Q: You paint not only a rather grim, forbidding picture of the room – at least as it’s presented in the book – but also of the house, and of the street, and of the newsagent, and of the entire locality. You’ve got a downer on Fulham
Well, that was very probably very unfair of me. At one time – one time – for one night actually, when I was living at home, years before, I had a terrible quarrel with my mother, and I actually ran away from home. I wasn’t a child. I was a grown up woman in my early twenties. And I packed a bag and I ran away and I went to Fulham and I spent a night – which I can’t remember very well, I was in a highly emotional state – in a boarding house in Fulham. And it was much too much for me. I was back home the next day. But walking through those streets looking for a place to live, and probably getting it from a newsagent’s window, must have impressed itself. I remember it was pouring with rain and I was very miserable, I thought that’s it and I’ll go away and live in the most squalid, horrible place I can find. And I don’t know who I thought I was punishing but that was my idea of ... running away from home, doing it right. But of course it didn’t take, and I high-tailed it home the next day, but of course that was what I remembered of Fulham, at that time.
Q: Although the Fulham that you present is distinctly down-at-heel, grubby really ...
Grotty is the word I think.
Q: ... there is still an affection about the way you portray the area and the city, as well as the characters.
Well, I’m not very good at living with characters that I invent that I don’t like. I have to see something attractive about them in order to want to explore them and live them for the period you are writing the book, which can be anything up to a year and a half, two years. Which it was in this case. So of course I would have an affection for them and everybody in the house, from the prostitutes in the basement to the Jewish writer that – laid it on rather thick – landlady and all that. I had indeed a great affection for them and they became extremely real to me, so much so that when the film was made I was quite upset about the changes that the film producer decided to make to make the film the kind of film he wanted. Not that the characters were less interesting in the film, perhaps even more – he laid it on with a thicker trowel – but I felt them so real in my imagination that I didn’t like them being altered.
Q: The book was remarkable forty years ago because it followed the story of a woman who was pregnant outside marriage, it’s a very sympathetic account of her experiences –
Q: ... but it’s also pioneering in other ways, for example one of the central characters, again very sympathetically portrayed, is black. There weren’t many novels at that time ... that had a black character as a central character.
Yes. You’re probably going to ask me if I knew any black people at that time and the frank truth is that I didn’t. And I am somewhat embarrassed now by my treatment of this black character. I think I made him rather more primitive in his speech, and in other ways, than I would dream of doing today. I think there’s something almost racist in my – well, I hope not I’m very fond of him and as a matter of fact I thought his character was one of the best in the film, because it stuck most closely to my conception of him. But there are certain aspects of the book now, in my treatment of him, that embarrass me. I think it was very much a period piece. ...