Lynne Reid Banks obituary | Books

Lynne Reid Banks obituary | Books

Lynne Reid Banks, who has died aged 94, hit a jackpot with her first book, The L-Shaped Room (1960), the story of an unmarried middle-class girl, Jane Graham, who takes a dingy room in London to hide her unwanted pregnancy. The novel was a cracking read that caught the cusp of a momentous change in social attitudes. Its profile rose even higher when it became a film in 1962, with Leslie Caron playing its heroine. It sold in its millions and never went out of print.

This success was both a blessing and curse for Reid Banks. In the decades that followed, she published nine further novels (two of them sequels to The L-Shaped Room), two award-winning volumes of biographical fiction on the lives of the Brontës, two books about Israel and numerous books for younger readers. But nothing she wrote ever matched the acclaim for The L-Shaped Room.

Reid Banks was a dramatic and dynamic woman who lived her life with gusto. If the slights of the literary world sometimes hurt her, they never quenched the energy and passion she brought to her work. Stories flowed effortlessly from her pen, characterised by lively dialogue, well-crafted plots and compulsive readability.

The Indian in the Cupboard (1980), a children’s book she wrote for and dedicated to her youngest son, Omri, came closest to her first success, in sales, translation into 20 languages and transformation into a Hollywood film in 1995. That pleased her. But in the same year, she expressed outrage that her longstanding publishers had turned down her latest adult novel. She nevertheless found another publisher and received considerable praise for Fair Exchange (1998), a book she dedicated to her friend Norma Kitson, whose remarkable struggle against apartheid in South Africa infuses its story.

Lynne was born in Barnes, London, the only child of a Scottish doctor, James Reid Banks, and an Irish actor, Muriel (nee Marsh, who went by the stage name Muriel Alexander), and began her education at a Catholic boarding school. At the start of the second world war, aged 10, she travelled with her mother and a cousin to Canada, which she thoroughly enjoyed. On her return to London, she went to Rada, and thence began acting in provincial rep, like the heroine of The L-Shaped Room.

It was during this period that she met and enraged the young John Osborne, whose first wife, the actor Pamela Lane, was her close friend. Osborne’s letters revealed not only his dislike of her, but the probability that she inspired one of the main characters in his own first success, Look Back in Anger.

The L-Shaped Room was adapted for film in 1962, directed by Bryan Forbes.

A combative streak in Reid Banks got her into spats all her life. But she was no less forthright in her judgments of herself than of others. She did not hesitate to call herself a failed actress, failed playwright (of several plays) and failed television reporter, before her true career took off.

In the doldrums, she began writing freelance journalism, and when she went to interview the head of the embryonic ITN for the Radio Times, she also talked him into employing her. She thereby became one of the first two female reporters on television in 1955. This did not satisfy her for long, however, as (she claimed) they only gave her “the rubbish” to do. When she complained, they put her into a cubbyhole and set her to work writing scripts.

Bored stiff, she began using ITN’s stationery supplies and time to start work on her first novel. She later recalled how the newsreader Reginald Bosanquet would read a page off her typewriter in mocking amusement. But the laugh was on Reggie when the Evening Standard later ran the headline: “ITN girl sells film script for £25,000.” The real sum for The L-Shaped Room was £20,000, but that was still princely in those days.

She was not happy with the film, which changed the book’s story. It was a hit, but it took her 30 years to forgive the director, Bryan Forbes. It also infuriated her that people assumed she had written of single motherhood from personal experience, rather than imagination. Although on the crest of a wave of fame, money and success, Reid Banks left the country and did not return for a decade.

She had met the man whom in 1965 she was to marry, the Israeli sculptor Chaim Stephenson, while he was visiting Britain. She was not Jewish, but she went out to Israel and loved it, becoming an Israeli citizen. The couple lived on a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee, and their three sons were born there.

It surprised but delighted her, soon after her arrival in Israel, to be asked to leave her hot, tiring work in the vineyards to teach English to a class of children. She threw herself into this new occupation with zeal, relishing the chance to use her acting skills, and achieved outstanding results.

But as the years went by, she missed Britain, and in the early 1970s she came back, the family settling uncomfortably at first in the London suburbs, but later living happily in a farmhouse in Beaminster, Dorset, and later still settling in Shepperton in Surrey. Her output of books for children continued (she produced many sequels and series), and she travelled, gardened and wrote for newspapers.

Chaim died in 2016. Reid Banks is survived by her sons, Adiel, Gillon and Omri, and her grandchildren, Daniel, David and Paloma.

Lynne Reid Banks, writer, born 31 July 1929; died 4 April 2024

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