REVIEW: A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
I don't know if it was Jayne's recent review of the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation of this novel, or a discussion of Forster's works that some of us on Twitter got into a while back. There's also the fact that every time I see Jennie do one of her classics reviews, I think to myself that I should reread and review this novel. Whatever the reason, the urge became irresistible after I got the book in e-form, and on a recent plane flight, I began to read the book, and fell in love with it all over again.
A Room with a View, first published in 1908 and considered by many to be Forster's sunniest and most optimistic novel, begins in the Pension Bertolini, an inn in Florence, Italy. Two tourists, Miss Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin and chaperone, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, are dining with other Bertolini guests and complaining about the rooms they have been given. The inn's owner, the Signora Bertolini (an Englishwoman from London's east side despite her name) has put them in rooms overlooking the courtyard instead of giving the two women the rooms with a view to the Arno River which they had been promised.
Mr. Emerson, an old man seated dining at the same table, suggests that Lucy and Charlotte trade rooms with him and his son, George. But rather than accepting as Lucy wants her to do, Charlotte is offended by the old man's familiar manner (she immediately concludes that he is ill-bred because he ventures to speak to her without observing her for a day or two first).
Also staying at the Bertolini are the Reverend Beebe, a clergyman who is soon to become the vicar of Summer Street, Lucy's parish; Miss Eleanor Lavish, an author of romantic novels; and two elderly sisters, Miss Catharine and Miss Teresa Alan; all of whom play a role in the novel. But Lucy, Charlotte, Mr. Emerson and his son George are the central players, and what begins as a minor contretemps about rooms with views foreshadows a greater conflict.
Following dinner, Reverend Beebe advises Charlotte that accepting the exchange of rooms would not put her under obligation to the Emersons. After Mr. Beebe leaves, one of the elderly Miss Alans approaches the newcomers. Forster's gift for dialogue is on display in the conversation that follows:
"But here you are as safe as in England; Signora Bertolini is so English.'
"Yet our rooms smell,' said poor Lucy. "We dread going to bed.'
"Ah, then you look into the court.' She sighed. "If only Mr. Emerson was more tactful! We were so sorry for you at dinner.'
"I think he was meaning to be kind.'
"Undoubtedly he was,' said Miss Bartlett. "Mr. Beebe has just been scolding me for my suspicious nature. Of course, I was holding back on my cousin's account.'
"Of course,' said the little old lady, and they murmured that one could not be too careful with a young girl.
Lucy tried to look demure, but could not help feeling a great fool. No one was careful with her at home; or, at all events, she had not noticed it.
"About old Mr. Emerson – I hardly know. No, he is not tactful; yet, have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time – beautiful?"
"Beautiful?" said Miss Bartlett, puzzled at the word. "Are not beauty and delicacy the same?'
In fact, one of the central themes of A Room with a View is the tension between beauty and delicacy, between honesty and propriety.
Eventually Charlotte Bartlett accepts the exchange of rooms, but not until she has embarrassed Lucy, Reverend Beebe, and the Emersons. Charlotte begins the novel as the personification passive aggressive martyrdom, uttering lines like "My own wishes, dearest Lucy, are unimportant in comparison with yours. It would be hard indeed if I stopped you doing as you liked at Florence, when I am here only through your kindness. If you wish me to turn these gentlemen out of their rooms, I will do it."
Lucy's reaction is equally telling:
Charlotte's energy! And her unselfishness! She had been thus all her life, but really, on this Italian tour, she was surpassing herself. So Lucy felt, or strove to feel. And yet – there was a rebellious spirit in her which wondered whether the acceptance might not have been less delicate and more beautiful.
One day Lucy ventures out into Florence in the company of the romantic novelist, Miss Eleanor Lavish. Miss Lavish thoughtlessly loses track of Lucy, and Lucy, abandoned without a guidebook, is grateful to run into the Emersons in the church of Santa Croce. Once again Mr. Emerson speaks bluntly, and Lucy is torn between accepting his kindness and taking offense. When they are separated from George and Mr. Emerson asks her to befriend his melancholy son, Lucy is uncomfortable and hides that discomfort by distancing herself and then taking offense when Mr. Emerson senses the truth of her emotions.
On another afternoon Lucy goes outside by herself (a daring act for a young woman at the turn of the century) and after purchasing some souvenir photographs, happens to witness an altercation between two Italians which ends in murder. She passes out and is caught in George Emerson's arms. While she recovers, George throws her photographs into the river and Lucy confronts him over that action; an embarrassed George admits that the dead man's blood was on the pictures, and he did not know what else to do with them.
Lucy thanks George for his actions and asks him not to tell anyone what happened. She cannot yet put her finger on what it is that has changed, and does not use words like "intimacy" or "connection," but she is aware that having witnessed a death at the same time has altered things between her and George. George, even more than Lucy, is conscious that something profound has happened. "I shall want to live," he tells her.
Several of the Bertolini’s guests later go on an outing to see a view, and there the beauty of the violet-studded Italian countryside, as well as their emotions, overtake George and Lucy for a brief moment. Miss Bartlett separates them and later turns Lucy's mind against George, suggesting that he will gossip about Lucy and ruin her reputation. Charlotte then takes Lucy away from Florence, and the two women flee together to Rome.
The novel's second half picks up some months later in Summer Street, Surrey, in a house named Windy Corner. The house belongs to the Honeychurch family. Lucy's father, a solicitor, built it and established his family in "the best society obtainable" before he passed away.
Now it appears that Lucy has gained entry to an even better society – that of Cecil Vyse, who has just asked for, and been granted, Lucy's hand in marriage. A good sense of Cecil's character can be gleaned from this exchange between Cecil and Reverend Beebe:
"Let me see, Mr Vyse – I forget – what is your profession?'
"I have no profession,' said Cecil. "It is another example of my decadence. My attitude – quite an indefensible one – is that so long as I am no trouble to anyone I have a right to do as I like. I know I ought to be getting money out of people, or devoting myself to things I don't care a straw about, but somehow I've not been able to begin.'
Cecil sees Lucy as a work of art, something to be protected, rather than as a full equal. At heart he is a snob, but one who does not realize that is what he is, and who in fact, wants to teach others to be less snobbish. Thus it is that when a villa in Summer Street becomes vacant and Lucy writes to the Miss Alans suggesting they apply to lease it, Cecil, to get the better of the class-conscious landlord, suggests that friends of his would be more suitable. The so-called "friends" are two lower middle class men with whom Cecil has only a passing acquaintance – Mr. Emerson and his son George Emerson.
Lucy is infuriated by Cecil's undermining her kindness to the Miss Alans, but more than that, she is frightened by George's arrival in Summer Street. On the surface she is afraid that George will spread rumors that will destroy her engagement, but beneath the surface fear is a deeper one, for Lucy has lied to herself about her feelings for Cecil and her feelings for George, and she does not want to examine the truth of her emotions.
The situation is further complicated by a visit from Cousin Charlotte and a scene in a romantic novel. Will Lucy be able to see the truth of her feelings for Cecil and her love for George before it is too late? What will honesty with herself and with others cost her and how much will they gain her?
A Room with a View is not perfect – Bradbury points out, and I agree with him, that George isn't that well-defined a character – but there is so much I could say about the book and the reasons I love it.
There are the social critiques of snobbery and the class system and of propriety and repression.
There is Forster's humor, which ranges from witty satire, such as this:
"He is nice,' exclaimed Lucy. "Just what I remember. He seems to see the good in everyone. No one would take him for a clergyman.'
To gentle irony, as in this description of the elderly Miss Alan's troubles:
It was a real catastrophe, not a mere episode, that evening of hers at Venice, when she had found in her bedroom something that is one worse than a flea, though one better than something else.
There is the beauty of Forster's descriptions, as in this passage:
Evening approached while they chatted; the air became brighter; the colours on the trees and hills were purified, and the Arno lost its muddy solidity and began to twinkle. There were a few streaks of bluish-green among the clouds, a few patches of watery light upon the earth, and then the dripping facade of San Miniato shone brilliantly in the declining sun.
There are the touches of philosophy, as in this bit from George:
"We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won't do harm – yes, choose a place where you won't do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.'
There are the acutely observed characters which feel so real. Many of them, true to Forster's own definition of round characters in his nonfiction work, Aspects of the Novel, surprise the reader in convincing ways. Of these, Lucy is quite possibly the most fully fleshed, so much so that even when she lies to herself and to those around her, I find myself sympathizing with her instead of condemning her. Among many things, A Room with a View is a coming of age story about Lucy's entry into adulthood.
Above all, perhaps, there is Forster's humane way of seeing the people he breathes life into. Even Cecil proves capable of rising, momentarily at least, above his priggishness. One senses compassion and kind wishes for the characters from the novel's omniscient narrator, even while that same narrator observes their flaws and weaknesses. I am in awe of Forster's ability to clearly observe, gently forgive, and passionately love, all at the same time.
The next to last chapter, "Lying to Mr. Emerson," makes for a soaring, triumphant climax to the novel. The elderly Mr. Emerson's speech to Lucy is one of the most moving and romantic meditations on love I have read, so I won't spoil it for readers.
We all need the room to express our personal truths, the openness and freedom to love that views represent in this novel. The values of self-knowledge over self-denial, of clear communication over muddled thinking, of the love and light that we can only express if we are true to ourselves, are at the center of A Room with a View, part and parcel of what makes the book an enduring classic.
In response to Mr. Emerson's speech, Lucy later thinks that "he had shown her the holiness of direct desire," and I think that is also what the author has done for this reader. A+.