Lynne Reid Banks obituary: Off-piste writer who came to believe women were ‘infinitely the superior sex’

She enjoyed early success with The L-Shaped Room but her most popular work was the children’s book The Indian in the Cupboard

Born July 31st, 1929

Died April 4th, 2024

Lynne Reid Banks, a versatile British author who began her writing career with the bestselling feminist novel The L-Shaped Room, but found her biggest success with the popular children’s book The Indian in the Cupboard, has died aged 94.

Banks – the daughter of an Irish mother and Scottish father – was part of a generation of writers, including Shelagh Delaney and Margaret Drabble, that emerged in postwar Britain and whose books explored the struggles of young women seeking personal and financial independence, in sharp contrast to the contemporaneous “angry young men” literary movement defined by John Osborne and Kingsley Amis.


The L-Shaped Room (1960), lauded by critics as a second-wave feminist novel, tells the story of an unmarried secretary whose conservative, middle-class father throws her out of their home when she tells him she’s pregnant. Rather than reach out to the father of the child, she rents a small, L-shaped room at the top of a house in London and becomes part of an improvised family of fellow boarders, including a Caribbean-born jazz musician. Class, race, sexism and the danger of illegal abortions are all central to the plot.

Banks didn’t consider herself a feminist when she wrote the book; as a young woman coming of age in the 1950s, she said, she thought that men were superior. But she soon changed her mind. “What a joke,” she told the BBC programme Bookclub in 2010. “I mean, I don’t believe that any more. I think women are infinitely the superior sex and that men are probably the most dangerous creatures on the planet.”

Banks came to regret the racial tropes used in her portrayal of the Caribbean housemate in The L-Shaped Room, acknowledging that racism had permeated her narrative. “The prejudices existed, and they came out in this book, and it’s shame-making,” she told the BBC.

The novel became an immediate bestseller in Britain and was made into a film starring Leslie Caron, who was nominated for an Oscar for best actress.

The Indian in the Cupboard was published in 1980, and followed by four sequels. By the fourth book, The Mystery of the Cupboard (1993), critics had grown impatient with the cliched characters that would step out of the magic cupboard. “Through its innocent-looking mirrored door march a succession of plucky, albeit creaky cultural stereotypes, ever predictable and true to the dictates of their sex, ethnic group or time,” fiction writer Michael Dorris wrote in the New York Times Book Review.

She met and married Chaim Stephenson, a sculptor, and moved to Israel to join him on a kibbutz. The move led her mother to accuse her of wasting her talent

Lynne Reid Banks was born in London, the only child of James and Muriel Reid Banks. Her father was a Scottish doctor; her mother was an Irish actor (nee Marsh, but she went by the stage name Muriel Alexander).

As a child during the second World War, Lynne was evacuated with her mother to Canada, where they settled in Saskatchewan. It was a mostly happy time, and the human cost of the war became clear only when she returned to London at 15.

She first pursued a career as an actress, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and working in repertory theatre. She also began writing plays. In 1955 she became one of the first female television reporters in England, working for Independent Television News (later ITV). One day she was asked to try out a new kind of typewriter in the newsroom. One sentence led to another, and she realised that she was writing in the voice of a woman who was pregnant, unmarried and on her own. These random first sentences became the seeds of The L-shaped Room. “I didn’t know I had a book,” she later told the BBC. “I knew I had a situation.”

The success of the novel gave her the freedom to write full time, and she quit her television job. But her life took another turn when she met and married Chaim Stephenson, a sculptor, and moved to Israel to join him on a kibbutz. The move led her mother to accuse her of wasting her talent and placing herself in a dangerous and “soul-stunting” situation, Banks wrote in the Guardian in 2017. But she loved her adopted country, and she taught English and continued to write while raising three sons, until the family moved back to England in 1971.

Banks wrote two sequels to The L-Shaped Room – The Backward Shadow (1970) and Two is Lonely (1974) – as well as two books on the Brontë sisters: Dark Quartet: The Story of the Brontës (1976) and Path to the Silent Country: Charlotte Brontë's Years of Fame (1977). She began writing books for children and young adults in the 1970s. She wrote more than 45 books for adults and children altogether, many with Jewish themes, as well as 13 plays.

“She was a wonderful off-piste writer, and a wonderful off-piste person as well. She broke the glass ceiling in all sorts of different ways,” said her friend, the writer Michael Morpurgo.

Aged 85 she touched off a literary furore when she wrote a letter objecting to the Guardian’s decision to award its children’s fiction prize to David Almond for his book A Song for Ella Grey (2015), writing that a book with “lesbian sex”, as well as swearing and drinking, was not appropriate for children. A predictable outcry in response to her letter followed. “Although I’m still on the outs with modern life,” she wrote, “being old means I’ve stopped minding what people think of my opinions.”

She is survived by three sons, Adiel, Gillon and Omri Stephenson, and three grandchildren. Her husband died in 2016.

A version of this article originally appeared in The New York Times