This Edwardian social comedy explores love and prim propriety among an eccentric cast of characters assembled in an Italian pensione and in a corner of Surrey, England. A charming young English woman, Lucy Honeychurch, faints into the arms of a fellow Britisher when she witnesses a murder in a Florentine piazza. Attracted to this man, George Emerson--who is entirely unsuitable and whose father just may be a Socialist--Lucy is soon at war with the snobbery of her class and her own conflicting desires. Back in England she is courted by a more acceptable, if stifling, suitor, and soon realizes she must make a startling decision that will decide the course of her future: she is forced to choose between convention and passion.
The novel was published in 1908, when 19th century mores were still prevalent, but under attack from a rising middle class. This is only one of the many recurring themes in the novel. There is the struggle for individuality, the barriers between the social classes, a religious community losing its grip and of course a woman's place in a changing society. These heavyweight themes are all there for the observant reader to discover, however they are presented with such a lightness of touch and such good humour that the the reader is more likely to gasp with pleasure than to become embroiled in a serious discussion of the human condition. That is the art of this novel.
Forster's dialogue is brilliant and witty throughout and his keenly observed characters are so well rounded that when they do or say surprising things (and many of them do) we are not surprised. The most obvious examples are Cecil Vyse's acceptance of Lucy's rejection of him and her subsequent assessment of his character; "His voice broke, I must actually thank you for what you have done - for showing me what I am." Then there is Mr Beebe who we have come to think of a reasonably progressive and tolerant parson, whose belief in celibacy allows him to take pleasure in broken marriage engagements. Forster's favourite character and one that I think he uses to speak through is the old Mr Emerson. A free thinking socialist whose sometimes outrageous comments signal major issues for the characters. "Beware of muddle" he says "life is glorious but it is difficult" Many of the characters are in a muddle, feeling their way through, most of them trying to do right, but all of them constrained. Lucy and George do break free, but it does not lead to happiness ever after. Life and world event intervene as Forster makes clear in an appendix written in 1958. Surprisingly enough the most underdeveloped character is George. We hear about him mainly through his father Mr Emerson, who relays to us his sons thoughts and personality. Whenever George appears he is largely silent or boisterous or just is. Perhaps this is what Lucy loves.
Forster's ability to conjure up the effects of landscape and surroundings on his characters is brilliantly evident. Here is Lucy unchaperoned at last and exploring Florence. She is restive and thinking about not wanting to be a "medieval lady". She comes into the Piazza Signora where a dramatic event is about to happen:
" Nothing ever happens to me she reflected,as she entered the Piazza Signora and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow: the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and its fountains plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth on the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality............."
The notorious male nude bathing scene is vibrant and full of youthful vigour and Forster describes the lush green sward freshened after rain. "The three gentlemen rotated in the pool breast high after the fashion of nymphs in Gotterdammerung". Homo erotic? maybe, but no more so than D H Lawrence's wrestling scene in Women in Love and this naked bathing scene ends in farce and high spirits.
As in A Passage to India and Howards End a carefully organised social event goes awry and leads to an event that will be life changing for those involved. In Passage to India it was Mrs Quested in the caves of Malabar, here it is an excursion to a wild mountain picnic spot above Florence. The ingredients are all here: The Emersons have been mistakenly included in the outing although by this time they have been more or less ostracised by the rest of the English group. They are not the right sort. The journey up in horse drawn cabs is fraught with difficulties and Mr Emerson argues with the others over the cab driver's dalliance with a girlfriend. They arrive in high dudgeon and wander off on their own. In a scene reminiscent of Mrs Quested in those caves, Lucy slipped down a terrace and lands at the feet of George:
"This terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.......For a moment he contemplated her as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her."
Unlike the scene in the Marabar caves there is no mystery here. George comes forward and kisses her, but still the consequences are enormous for both of them.
This is a relatively short novel: just 200 pages and the events take place within a one year time span. There is however so much to enjoy and so much to ponder over that its the sort of book you end up flicking back through almost as soon as you have read it: for the sheer pleasure and joy of reading
The amount of humanity and humour in this book surprised me all the way through. This is mainly because of my preconceived ideas about E.M. Forster, which came from my reading his The Art of the Novel in my undergrad days. I found that book pretentious to the nth degree - however I'd probably think differently if I read it again now. (I remember him writing something about plot being a pale worm dangled on the end of forceps, and I thought any author who despised plot should have been a bus driver instead.)
This is a book with characters who are complex, varied, likeable (or hateable), and touchingly human. His humour is subtle and enlightening; an example of this is in his chapter headings, e.g. Ch 9. Lucy as a Work of Art, and Ch 10. Cecil as Humorist. Or Ch 6. The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr Emerson, Mr George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett and Mis Lucy Honeychurch Drive out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive them. Actually, the humour seems more crass taken out of context - within the context of the book it's lighter, and contains layers of meaning.
I enjoyed this book far more than I expected to, having hated The Art of the Novel and not appreciated Howards End as I probably should have. Once I was fairly into it, I devoured it, finishing at about 1.00 am, despite an early start the next day, which I think is something of a recommendation.
Lucy Honeychurch was a breath of fresh air for a time period when young single women were mostly at the mercy of their mothers or the men they had promised to marry. Lucy and a senior cousin take a trip to Italy to immerse themselves in the art of Florence. They stay at a pension that caters to English travelers and it is there that Lucy meets Mr. George Emerson and his father. The Emersons are different from your typical English gentlemen. George was somewhat a bohemian for the day and an atheist. Lucy seems to even doubt herself and how she became immediately enchanted by someone so different from her circle in society so she denies her feeling for as long as possible and almost loses the one thing she was sure she wanted. Love.
Forster illustrates class, and gender issues with great feelings but he also draws beautiful nature settings with words.
I am now going to treat myself to a viewing of the film, with Helena Bonham Carter. Said to be one of her best roles.
Even just reading the chapter headings was illuminating and amusing. One of the most revealing, I think, was In Santa Croce with No Baedeker. Baedeker was the popular travel guide of the day, which told you just what proper reactions you should have to the art around you. Lucy through much of the novel will be peering at the social Baedker of the reactions of her fellow British around her trying to decide just how to act rather than looking into her own heart. As much as anything else, this is her coming of age novel.
Oh, and yes, romance. Her love interest to my mind isn't drawn all that strongly or appealingly. I didn't fall in love with George Emerson in the way I have the romantic heroes of Austen or Bronte or Gaskell. He's shown as rather impulsive and immature and not all that articulate. His father comes across more strongly as a character than he does. For all that, it's still is a strong appeal to let love be--and the ending gives more grace to certain character than I would have expected. It's a novel lovely and lyrical and warm.
I was impressed with Forster's take on his characters, making them complicated and interesting and often funny. I especially enjoyed his portrayal of Lucy, who's independent spirit is hidden deep down beneath her layers of appropriate behavior. Forster treated her as a person and even advocates a level of equality between a man and a woman, especially in romantic relationships, hinting that the kind of man as protector role which puts women down is a backwards kind of ideology.
Forster is compassionate about his characters, showing depth of soul and potential for redemption even in the antagonists whom other writers might villainize.
On top of that Forster's writing style is gorgeous with crisp clean prose. He weaves in metaphor beautifully without resorting to the kind of over the top sentence construction that can be confusing and is often seen in older works. The simplicity of style makes for a smooth and easy read.
I loved it. More Forster, please!
A favourite quote: "She was a novelist," said Lucy craftily. The remark was a happy one, for nothing roused Mrs. Honeychurch so much as literature in the hands of females. She would abandon every topic to inveigh against those women who (instead of minding their houses and their children) seek notoriety by print. Her attitude was: "If books must be written, let them be written by men"
Perhaps it's because I read [A Passage to India] as an English major, or maybe it's the many layers to E.M. Forster's classic story that made me feel, when reading it, that I could write a paper about his use of inside and outside, of old and new. Class distinctions are still important, particularly to the older characters and city dwellers, while less so to the younger and country folk. Lucy's fiance says at one point that Lucy pictures him inside a room, which seems connected with his repression of her spirit and independent thought, hugely in contrast with George Emerson and Frank Honeychurch's behavior outdoors in the Sacred Lake. The layering of metaphors and brilliant characterizations made this a real pleasure to read, and I would not hesitate to read it again knowing that I would get just as much - if not more - out of it with multiple readings. At the same time, the story is accessible and compelling, a classic that is neither long nor slow reading. Highly recommended.
At one point, Mr. Beebe observes that if Lucy were to live with as much passion as she plays the piano, both her life and the lives of those around her would be much more interesting. Although she ultimately alienates her family to pursue the man whom she loves, even this decision is not reached without the strong influence of Mr. Emerson. In this respect, although the author's definition of passion won over propriety, I was sincerely hoping that Lucy would be able to throw off all the harnesses of well-meaning advice and reach her own conclusion of what do do with her life. I was also disappointed with the rather abrupt and mostly happy ending. In my opinion, although Lucy grew in self-awareness, she never truly discovered herself apart from the influence of others.
The novel also has some other attractions. Forster has a lot of fun with the English abroad, who seek to bring their own country with them or take pride in finding an probably imaginary "real Italy." And then, of course, there's Lucy Honeychurch, the female character at the novel's center, who is wonderfully human and sympathetic. She's not as headstrong as Elizabeth Bennett, but because the conflict she feels, which often hinges on the conflict between her own affection for her upbringing and her desire for a new sort of life, her character might be an excellent recapitualtion of all the novel's themes. I didn't find "A Room with a View" to be a fun or thrilling read; in its way, it's very formal. But that doesn't mean it isn't a very, very good novel.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this novel is that Forster accurately reflects the changes of society and the novel at the time. The conflict between old Victorian proprieties and modern sensibilities and equalities plays out in its pages much the way it did in real life. The upper classes (as well as those who aspired to the upper class, in Charlotte's case) tried to retain their old social values, while the working classes sought progress. And though he never says it explicitly, Forster suggests that those touting progress and reform were more sensible than those who clung to the old ways. This is especially clear in the depictions of Cecil Vyse and George Emerson; Cecil is portrayed as being boorish and lazy, and nearly opposite of George Emerson, whose quiet strength ultimately wins Lucy's heart.
The whole piece is supposed to show the contrast between the shallow, conventional "high society" and the radical free-thinkers who oppose them. But these free-thinkers, supposedly so in touch with Nature and Truth and Love come across as sometimes tiresome, sometimes plainly mad.
I also found the love story entirely unconvincing -- what on earth did Lucy see in a foul-tempered brute like George?
I could write more about the subtle misogyny of this work, but it would just raise my blood pressure, so I'll let it lie.
At least the writing was stylistically elegant and enjoyable to read.
Also: can't beat Forster for beautiful description and interesting character conflicts, even if the characters involved are George-style ideological megaphones. I enjoyed those parts of this book a LOT. All in all, I think I still prefer Passage to India, though. That doesn't mean, however, that you shouldn't all go out and read this book right away. You all SHOULD. It's mandatory if you speak English and have a soul, apparently. And no wonder-- it's fine fine stuff.
Some men can envelope a woman like a room, a room without a window, without a view. That’s Cecil Vyse. Her fiancé is a handsome gent from a respectable family – mediaeval, “Like a Gothic statue. Tall and refined… Well educated, well endowed, and not deficient physically.” This man checks off like a grocery list of traits to look for in an ideal husband in the Victorian ages, but alas he is soulless, “the sort who can’t know any one intimately.”
Lucy, our resident Victorian rebel, finds in George Emerson, the man who literally offered his room with a view in the Bertolini Pension during a chance meeting while vacationing in Florence but also becomes the man who offers her the life she wants – to be with a man who is capable of sharing his life, open and picturesque, like a room with a view. Tada!
In all honesty, the book is simple in plot. The fun is in reading the time it represented. I’m not sure I like having “the comic muse” and “the reader” included in the writing. I also didn’t get into the book immediately. A bit slow, a bit dulled by early 1900’s female conventions. But clearly, Lucy is at the verge of bursting at the seam with individualism. From Father Emerson to Lucy early in the book, “… Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.” When her betrothed “laughed at her feminine inconsequence” and concluded her frowning is “the result of too much moral gymnastics”, how does one learn what she really wants and accept who she really is? Father and son Emerson and a questionable “prematurely aged martyr” of a cousin/chaperone Miss Charlotte Bartlett will help Lucy find the way.
“The Ghoulish fashion in which respectable people will nibble after blood.”
On Men vs. Women:
Freddy (Lucy’s younger brother upon meeting George): “How d’ye do? Come and have a bathe.”
“Oh, all right,” said George, impassive.
Mr. Beebe was highly entertained.
“’How dy’ye do? how d’ye do? Come and have a bathe,’” he chuckled. “That’s the best conversational opening I’ve ever heard. But I’m afraid it will only act between men. Can you picture a lady who has been introduced to another lady by a third lady opening civilities with ‘How do you do? Come and have a bathe’? And yet you will tell me that the sexes are equal.”
“The Garden of Eden,” pursued Mr. Emerson (father), “which you place in the past, is really yet to come. We shall enter it when we no longer despise our bodies.”
Mr. Beebe disclaimed placing the Garden of Eden anywhere.
“In this – not in other things – we men are ahead. We despise the body less than women do. But until we are comrades shall we enter the garden.”
On ? – heck, I don’t know. It’s just beautiful, a paragraph that I would never be creative enough to write:
“That evening and all that night the water ran away. On the morrow the pool had shrunk to its old size and lost its glory. It had been a call to the blood and to the relaxed will, a passing benediction whose influence did not pass, a holiness, a spell, a momentary chalice for youth.”
On the concept of doing minimum harm in life, but enjoying it nonetheless:
“There is a certain amount of kindness, just as there is a certain amount of light. 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.”
Lucy’s farewell to Cecil:
“’When we were only acquaintances, you let me be myself, but now you’re always protecting me.’ Her voice swelled. ‘I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult. Can’t I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second-hand through you? A woman’s place! ….. Conventional, Cecil, you’re that, for you may understand beautiful things, but you don’t know how to use them; and you wrap yourself up in art and books and music, and would try to wrap up me. I won’t be stifled, not by the most glorious music, for people are more glorious, and you hide them from me. That’s why I break off my engagement. You were all right as long as you kept to things, but when you came to people –‘ She stopped.”
Her journey begins in Italy along with her fussy chaperone and cousin Charlotte, the two lamenting over the lack of a view in their room. The Emersons impulsively offer to switch rooms, which offends Charlotte and the older ladies present. The Emersons don't understand that social rules deem it shocking for unmarried ladies to put themselves under the obligation of men they are not introduced to. After much pressing and awkwardness, Charlotte reluctantly accepts the switch. From then on, the Emersons' fate becomes entwined with Lucy's. Lucy and George seem brought together by fate: through witnessing the murder of an Italian passer-by, through the carriage driver' miinterpretation of Lucy' poorly translated request to be take to "the good man" (meaning clergyman), through Cecil's cruel joke on Lucy's neighborhood by securing the uncouth Emersons a home promised to more respectable ladies, and through Charlotte's actions. Cecil and Lucy have no such fatalistic connection. Ultimately, Lucy must make a choice between each man and the vastly different lives they represent.
Forster is magnificent with scenery, especially depicting the sensuousness of the Italian countryside. He does great justice to his heroine by depicting her as more a child being repressed by her society. She has hidden passions of her own, as revealed by her piano-playing that stirred the romantic feelings of a clergyman. Despite these feelings, religion is depicted as a repressive force. It is another clergyman that, during an outing to the countryside, forces the carriage driver's girlfriend to get out in the middle of the journey when the couple is caught kissing. These clergymen are English, and the country's presence in Italy is the source of much repression. In England, the repression is almost suffocating: it is at her home there, Lucy is stifled by her engagement with Cecil. Only when in Italy is Lucy free. Italy represents passion, sensuality, and openness, the polar opposite of England. Forster daringly suggests that society de damned, follow your heart wherever it takes you. It is a beautiful sentiment, rendering this one of the most romantic novels of all time. Wonderfully written whether tackling romance, humor, or conflict, this novel is worth rereading.
Lucy Honeychurch is a young Victorian woman who travels to Florence, Italy with her cousin Charlotte as chaperon. There they meet a host of English people also on holiday, including the Reverend Beebe who has just taken up a position in Lucy's home village, a flamboyant woman novelist named Eleanor Lavish, and the Emersons, a father and son. On arrival at their pension, Lucy and Charlotte find their rooms are not what had been promised. Most importantly, there is no view. The Emersons offer to exchange rooms, creating a comedy of manners as Charlotte abhors feeling obligated to anyone, not the least people like George and his father, whom she judges to be "common." However, there is an attraction between Lucy and George, which Lucy tries to deny. On returning home she is courted by the arrogant and class-conscious Cecil Vyse, and agrees to marry him as a way of putting her attraction for George out of her mind. But of course that's not the end of the story, and when George and his father appear on the scene in England, Lucy has to come to terms with her own feelings and the importance of making choices guided by one's own sense of right and wrong.
I tried to consider this book on its own merits: does Forster's novel stand on its own? I simply couldn't do it. The film is so true to the book; much of the dialogue went directly into the script. I can't quite say why, but I am fairly certain that if I hadn't seen the film I would not have enjoyed this book as much as I did. So I am left giving this book a respectable rating, while urging anyone who has not seen the film to do so ... you will not be disappointed.
However, as soon as Lucy is to discover herself, think for herself another ugly human condition takes hold, one that is perhaps even worse than not knowing oneself, and that is denying one’s nature, suppressing one’s thoughts, intellect, and truth. A particular incident of passion and beauty overwhelmingly felt and helplessly expressed by the young George Emerson sends Lucy and her witnessing cousin into a tizzy over protecting Lucy’s virtue. Lucy does not want to be “muddled,” and thus, she escapes, leaves Italy for Rome, eventually returns home to Windy Corner, and engages herself to a “medieval” man, a man George Emerson insists pleadingly to Lucy as that who “should know no one intimately, least of all women.” For Lucy and George do meet again as coincidentally he and his father move into her town through the malicious intervention of Cecil, Lucy’s fiancé, who had briefly met the Emersons once before though neither party was aware of the other’s connection to Lucy at the time. Lucy, in order to keep the incident and her connection to George Emerson hidden from Cecil and her family, lies to herself, those dear to her, and to the Emersons’. But of course nothing good ever comes from putting up a façade for others and lying, especially to oneself, and Lucy, confronted by George for denying their love and wasting herself – thoughts, begin, and soul upon a type of man who “kept Europe back for a thousand years,” digs herself deeper and deeper into a “muddle.”
Forster’s use of light and shadow, of casting Cecil as a man capable of being seen only within the confines of a room, and Lucy, a woman who needs a room with a view of the greatness, and George as the great outdoors, as that view which Lucy craves – all this is brilliantly portrayed by Forster throughout the novel. The only issue I had was in the flow of the reading and that is perhaps due to my own lack of knowledge. I could not understand the English phrases and the use of the colloquial language of the time period, as well as the many of the historical, religious, and literary references made in both the English and the Italian language. All of this made it frustrating to continue to read steadily, for I had to stop several time to research a bit, but towards the second-half of the novel I did get used to the phrases, language, and dialogue, and as the pace of the novel picked up, as well, I found myself more and more entrapped. Forster handle’s the plot and explores the mind, the suppressed being trapped by itself, society, and class-restrictions so well that one is left satisfied.
In Part 2, Lucy has returned home to Windy Corner and Summer Street, where she becomes engaged to the insufferable Cecil Vyse. Lying to herself and everyone around her about her true feelings, as well as her unconscious desire to be an independent woman who is permitted to fully own those feelings, Lucy is in danger of becoming a member of the "vast armies of the benighted," as Forster describes it. She is not true to either her head or her heart, and so marches along in a fugue state. Some people live their whole lives that way (hello, Charlotte!), which would be the greatest of tragedies, Forster implies.
Forster's characters make this story come alive. Each one is a complex, real human being. The reader senses that, even while Forster gently pokes fun at all of his characters, he feels genuine affection toward them. And he allows them to surprise us. Even the ones we've dismissed as snobbish and insufferable are allowed to say something insightful or perform a compassionate act. And so they come to seem like real people to us, people we are glad to have known.
A Room With a View is worthy of a reading and a rereading. It is a book to make you both think and feel.
In fact if you have seen the delightful film you pretty much know what you are getting; wonderful characters from the supercilious suitor to our naive passionate heroine, wry humour, some wonderful observations on English society and the clash of cultures, plus a bit of romance. You also get some great writing, a mostly tight paced plot and unfortunately an odd ending that seems a tad stuck on, but really that's not too much of a fault.
Recommended to those looking for a brief taste of Edwardian fiction, lovers of romance and those just wanting an enchanting, dreamy read.
This was definitely a case for me where the film totally surpassed the book. I loved the film - those gorgeous Florentine views, the fanning of the flames of desire between Lucy and George, the humorous dialogue played out so well by Bonham-Carter in particular. But the book fell so flat! The first 150 pages bored me rigid - it was only in the last 50 that it got mildly interesting.
I get that Forester wanted us to feel Lucy's growing sense of boredom and desire to feel that wonderment in life, but I felt entrenched in the dullness of her world. The characters she engaged with were largely pretentious and emotionless, and I just couldn't feel anything for any of them. Even the budding romance between Lucy and George left me cold. There was so little interaction between them it was hard to feel from those 4 or 5 short encounters any building of the desire between them.
It was obvious by page 20 what was going to happen in the end, and I was just glad to reach that point so I could shut the cover forever and move on.
2.5 stars - yaaaaawwwwwnnnnnnnnnn
Finally, Lucy goes home and accepts Cecil. He sounds like a pill but she’s deluded enough to think she loves him. Then the Emersons show up to rent a cottage in the neighborhood. Weirdly enough, Cecil knows them also and rather than let two old spinsters have the house, he suggested the Emersons. Lucy’s younger brother (or maybe he is older – I couldn’t tell) makes friends with George and one day at their house he happens upon Lucy in the garden and kisses her.
This is not the first time. It had happened once before in Italy but it was a secret. This time she can’t let it go and when she tells him off he declares his undying love for her. He also declares his dismay at her preference to marry Cecil. “You don’t mean to marry him?” He cries. He lists all of Cecil’s shortcomings and they are all spot on the mark. This actually has its desired effect and Lucy breaks the engagement. She tells herself over and over it’s not because of another man. But it is. It’s not overt, but it’s fairly obvious that George & Lucy should be together. At the end they are.