The L-Shaped Room: Offensive Content in Older Books
Posted by: Misha Stone
I decided to read Lynne Reid Bank’s popular 1960s novel, The L-Shaped Room, after it kept popping up as a book I might like as I searched online. Customer reviews made it sound like a good read. I knew that it was about pre-Pill, pre-abortion England and that in it a young girl becomes pregnant and finds a new community where she will be accepted for who she is, rather than looked down upon for her condition. But what I discovered when I read the book was that it was behind the times in more ways beyond its central theme.
In the novel, I found myself bombarded with offensive, racist, homophobic, Anti-Semitic and just generally bigoted comments about other characters that the protagonist, Jane, encounters in London. It’s set in the 1950s, so some of this may have been commonplace, but it felt so gratuitous, so jarring and grating, that I had a hard time judging the book for its other merits. This book was quite popular in its day and spawned two sequels.
I bring this up because I wondered how many groups have decided to discuss classics or older works and found them full of unsavory elements from times when our social climate was less accepting and less humane. A friend of mine is reading through the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels chronologically and is writing about it on his blog, Following Pulitzer, and has run across some very outmoded attitudes in many of those works.
Has your group been surprised or caught off guard when discussing older works? What were they, and how did you discuss them? Which works stood the test of time, despite their offensive attitudes, and which did not?