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+.
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What a lovely review. I think I’ll do a re-read of Room With A View! Thanks for the nudge Janine.
I read Maurice before I read ARWV. I remember Maurice as such a beautifully written love story and that started me looking for more Forster books.
Maurice is one of those books I’ve never re-read for fear that it won’t hold up to my memories of it.
@Joanne: I read Maurice too, but it was a long, long time ago. I remember liking it a lot and certain scenes, like the last one, still stand out in my mind.
Of Forster’s books I have read three novels, all early ones — A Room with a View, Maurice and Where Angels Fear to Tread; two of his F/SF short story collections, The Celestial Omnibus and The Eternal Moment; and his nonfiction book on writing, comprised of a series of lectures, Aspects of the Novel.
I can honestly say that he is one of my favorite authors ever, and yet, I’m afraid of reading his most respected books, Howard’s End (I have started it but haven’t gotten that far) and A Passage to India, for fear that they won’t live up to my stratospheric expectations. So I can truly relate to your fear of rereading Maurice.
Of all the Forster works I’ve read, my favorite is Where Angels Fear to Tread, but given its tragic ending, I thought it was less suitable for DA’s readership than A Room with a View.
This is one of my favorite movies and I went on to read the book afterwards. I was glad to find that the movie was a faithful adaptation of the novel. However, I cannot even read the review without seeing Helena Bohem Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day Lewis and Maggie Smith in my mind.
@Tae: LOL. I also see the cast of the film in my mind (Denholm Elliott who played Mr. Emerson most of all), probably because it was the movie that first introduced me to the book.
It’s interesting to compare the movie to the book. Very faithful adaptation, as you note, although there are minor differences and the book gives more insight into the characters’ thought processes.
Great review. I love what you say about “Forster's humane way of seeing the people he breathes life into” – the older I get, the more I appreciate that in a novel. I was reading a New Yorker essay on “Middlemarch” and it reminded me that one of the things I loved about that book was Eliot’s acceptance of all of her character’s foibles.
I’ve only read “A Room with a View” by Forster, but I’ve seen film adaptions of “Howard’s End” and “Where Angels Fear to Tread” (the latter quite recently), and like both a lot. His humor is sublime, especially when dealing with culture clashes, but it’s the serious parts that stay with me.
Me too. I think the warmth and tolerance reflected in the novel’s worldview are a huge part of what I appreciate in it. It always seems to me that he understands and sympathizes with his characters even when they make their worst mistakes. He makes it difficult to despise them even when they do things that in another book, I would view as despicable.
Take Charlotte Bartlett. She begins the book as a kind of unbearable duenna figure. It is she who breaks up George and Lucy, standing “brown against the view.”
And I think much later in the book, when Lucy sings at the piano, the song whose lyrics are “Look not thou on beauty’s charming / Sit thou still when kings are arming / Taste not when the wine-cup glistens / Speak not when the people listens / Stop thy ear against the singer / From the red gold keep thy finger / Vacant heart and hand and eye / Easy live and quiet die” is meant to embody an aspect of Charlotte at least as much as an aspect of Lucy.
Yet by this time, Lucy has allowed herself to become a kind of shadow-Charlotte, which allows us to begin to understand more deeply where Charlotte is coming from, and when Lucy finally breaks free, she and George piece together the realization that Charlotte aided their love as much as she thwarted it.
It’s astonishing that he wrote the book when he was only in his twenties.
His other novels are reputed to be more serious than A Room with a View, and from what I’ve read that’s been the case, so you might like them. Where Angels Fear to Tread, in particular, broke my heart. I wasn’t keen on the film adaptation though I saw it before reading the book, but the novel — wow. The last scene was indelibly powerful, romantic and tragic.
Oddly enough, I’m less interested in the HEA between Lucy and George and rather more interested in what their romance represents for the middle-class society of the Edwardian era. The expectations placed on Lucy’s shoulders mimics Lily Bart’s burden, though Lily is “wealthier” and better placed than Lucy. The description of both milieus–the fussy, anxious English middle class and the greedy, grasping “400”–is rather suffocating; however, unlike Lily, Lucy had the freedom to choose her path simply because she isn’t so highly placed on the social scale. Lily’s fall was infinitely more precarious because she had so far to drop, and love was never an option for her. That said, I find Forster an excellent author, but I always feel slightly unnerved when reading his novels because they feel a bit rough around the edges emotion-wise.
Lily Bart chose her milieu. She alienated her aunt/chaperone by gambling and spending beyond her means. Her beauty promised her easy entry into the gilded society, theme of Wharton’s.
However, to stay in that society, because she was not wealthy nor married required a series of lies. Lily could do the small lies, but the big one, marrying a man she didn’t love, was something she couldn’t bring herself to do.
Her tragedy was that she didn’t recognize her own core value of honesty before it was too late.
Thank you very much for reminding me of books I can download and read.
The most interesting aspect of the novel to me isn’t the HEA either, although I was very much rooting for Lucy and George. I think the novel is far more focused on Lucy than on George, and so I would say that for me it’s the theme of being true to oneself that is most resonant.
Of course, class consciousness is one of the major forces that stands in opposition to Truth in this novel and in some of Forster’s other books. But ultimately for me it’s the internal struggle between being what others want or expect us to be and being true to our innermost desires and beliefs that I find so compelling.
I think when Forster, through Lucy’s POV, writes that Mr. Emerson had shown Lucy “the holiness of direct desire” he doesn’t just mean physical desire (though that’s in there too) but also desire as in any longing or need.
Forster strongly prefers direct emotion to repression, though many of his characters are repressed. It seems to me that repressed emotion is a force he tries to counter with his books. But that’s not only done to make it possible to express romantic feelings, but to make it possible to express thoughts and feelings in general, as well.
As Mr. Emerson says to Lucy:
I see that need for the freedom to express true thoughts and feelings as the central theme in the novel, the figurative room with a view.
I haven’t read The House of Mirth and so can’t compare the two books.
Rough around the edges in what way?
I tend to read Forester less for the story and more for how his books make me feel. I loved A Room With A View and Maurice because after I finish reading them the world seems to shine. His books are so gorgeous. And, like some of the other commenters, I am afraid to reread Maurice because reading it was such an intense experience (I started and couldn’t stop until I was finished) and I worry that I’ve thought about it too much to enjoy it the same way again.
That’s such a beautiful way of putting it! His books make me feel like that too.
I can’t believe that so many readers wax lyrical about this novel as an endearing romance. Of course, the text proper is exactly that, with winning characters and a beautiful romantic tension. But has everyone read a version without the afterword? Forster’s afterword, written much later in 1958, tears everything to shreds. It takes us through two world wars, George’s infidelity, the harm to their relationship, George’s trip to Florence, where he cannot find the Guest House or the view, and their disappearance, since the author no longer knows where they live and seems uninterested in finding out. The afterword is bitter, cynical, and totally at odds with the main story. I have no idea why Forster did it, but it spoils the book for everyone who reads it. That he took the trouble to write it after such a long time suggests a determination that makes it seems he came to hate the book and its characters.
@Dr. Denis MacEoin: I’ve read the epilogue but I took it as tongue in cheek. Doesn’t George, in the epilogue, lose a leg in World War I but then enlist again in World War II? That seems a clear signal of satire to me — we aren’t meant to take the epilogue seriously.
I do think that by 1958 Forster wasn’t entirely comfortable with the novel’s happy ending — it was the cold war, fear of nuclear weapons era, and happy endings were no longer in vogue in serious literature. At the same time, I also read somewhere that Forster didn’t complete some gay themed novels he wanted to write precisely because he wanted to write them with happy endings, but no publisher would accept a happy ending for a gay love story at the time. What a loss to literature.
So in sum, I can’t take the ARWAV epilogue as seriously as you do. It reads as tongue in cheek to me.
Also, while I find A Room with a View deeply romantic, I feel it is even more focused on speaking your truth. Yes, here that truth takes the form of admitting your love to the person you love, regardless of who that loved one is and whether that love is considered socially acceptable, as well as being unashamed of the physical aspects of love. But it is above all about being true to oneself, and not just in romantic relationships — Charlotte’s role in the story is evidence of that.