Title: A Room with a View (1908)
Author: E.M. Forster
Publisher: Penguin English Library
Read: 19th April – 3rd May 2017
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
A Room with a View is a 20th-century classic that begins in sun-soaked Florence before retiring to the Edwardian English countryside and proved to be a rather pleasant surprise for yours truly, quite possibly because I had no expectations for this book and did not know a single thing about it until I opened the first page.
“Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice”
Exploring Italy with her overbearing spinster cousin/chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett, Lucy Honeychurch has her middle-class and thus far limited view of the world challenged by the sights and (yes) the views she sees, not all of them quite so picturesque or pleasant. Whilst staying at the Pension Betolini in Florence, Lucy is thrown into the paths of a cast of comically presented characters: a pair of (frankly annoying) clergyman, Mr Beebe and the interfering Mr Eager; adventurous and outspoken novelist Eleanor Lavish; Mr Emerson who might just be (whisper it in case they hear you) a socialist; and his romantic and free-thinking son George. That is, until a return to England means a return to Lucy’s home in Surrey and a return to the rigid, claustrophobic middle-class country life she knows, complete with pretentious fiancee Cecil Vyse. With Lucy’s world view latterly coloured by all that she has experienced in Italy, Forster’s A Room with a View reads part romance and part satire of the Edwardian England it so shrewdly presents.
” ‘It is fate that I am here,’ George persisted, ‘but you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy.’ “
As for the characters – they’re all very deftly and idiosyncratically presented by Forster. There is certainly no mistaking George Emerson for Cecil Vyse or Miss Lavish for Charlotte Bartlett. And I found Lucy to be a delight. At first, she seemed merely the typical Edwardian heroine found in such novels, but she soon grew into her own as she matured and grew in confidence and it was a delightful surprise to see that happen over the course of the novel. As she started to become more self-aware and sure of her convictions, she truly became a heroine I would gladly recommend you read about.
“The armour of falsehood is subtly wrought out of darkness, and hides a man not only from others, but from his own soul. In a few moments Lucy was equipped for battle.”
The setting of Florence is incredibly evocative. Fortunately, I happened to read A Room with a View when England was enjoying some surprisingly warm weather, so that could only have helped along my enjoyment. However, Forster’s descriptions of Italy are practically sun-soaked and the narrative does a brilliant job of placing you right there with Lucy, traipsing around the cobbled streets and enjoying the sights and sounds of Italy. I must admit, after that, I was a little sad to have to return to England and Windy Corner (as Lucy’s family home is known) but luckily the characters behaved equally as ridiculously and funnily in England as they were in Italy. If anything, you’re laughing at a bunch of them rather than with them, but it’s enjoyable either way.
“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?”
Likewise, and on a more serious note, A Room with a View presents a particularly intriguing era in English history. The Industrial Revolution had seen massive social changes occur in the makeup of Great Britain, as new technologies changed the way people lived and worked. The newly dawning Edwardian era saw the ushering out of previously held Victorian ideals and more liberal values started to take root in society. There was greater movement in terms of class and gender, with women’s status and calls for suffrage becoming key components of the time. It is in this context that Forster writes. In this novel, you see Lucy and Charlotte venture off to Italy largely at liberty to do so and explore to their heart’s content – cousin Charlotte acts as Lucy’s responsible chaperone in this venture, but isn’t particularly successful at being responsible or dignified herself. This isn’t quite a Jane Austen novel where young women ought to be accompanied in public by older female companions, male relatives or suitors, and marriage is the all-consuming concern of mothers – those concepts still linger intrinsically within the class Forster depicts but it isn’t the same be-all-and-end-all. Instead, socialists are the ones to watch out for – perish the thought of accidentally being seen with one of them!
“It is so difficult – at least, I find it difficult – to understand people who speak the truth.”
I had to deduct stars from what would otherwise have been a high rating for one very key reason – Cecil. In my heart of hearts I know that Cecil Vyse is designed entirely to be equal parts dull, pretentious, and annoying as hell, which is a good thing because he’s well designed by Forster to be all of those things to the umpteenth degree. Luckily, however, given the satirical and critical tone of the narrative voice throughout, it’s easy to comprehend that this is a purposeful characterisation choice made by the author. It doesn’t make him any less annoying though, and I cheered internally any time he made an absolute fool of himself. What is quite unforgivable is quite how self-centred he is – he only really looks at Lucy or pays her any real attention once she has shunned him and he realises maybe she’s a person with a voice and a head on her shoulders. Wow, you don’t say, 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!’ “
Ultimately, my overwhelming impression on finishing A Room with a View is one of very pleasant surprise at how relevant and readable E.M. Forster’s work remains. I have to admit that, prior to reading this, I didn’t know anything about E.M. Forster, and I hadn’t read many Edwardian-era writing; it is certainly something I am now interested in exploring further, past this rather optimistic and light example, even if that means I will have to meet some Cecils along the way.
“Of course, this is the barest outline. There will be a deal of local colouring, descriptions of Florence and the neighbourhood, and I shall also introduce some humorous characters. And let me give you all fair warning: I intend to be unmerciful to the British tourist.”