In E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View, set in the early 1900s, Miss Lucy Honeychurch is traveling through Italy with her older cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, as a chaperone. They’re lamenting to each other that their rooms overlook a courtyard, when they were supposed to overlook the Arno River. An older man, Mr. Emerson, overhears them and joins the conversation. He and his son have rooms with a view of the river, and they don’t particularly care about the view. They’d be happy to switch rooms with the ladies.
However, Miss Bartlett feels this won’t do, it isn’t proper, and the offerer is ill-bred, so she declines. But a short while later the ladies run into Mr. Beebe, a rector they knew in England. They tell him the situation. He feels that, even though Mr. Emerson is “peculiar,” “has no tact,” and “will not keep his opinions to himself,” he’s not a bad man and it would be all right to accept his offer.
So the switch is made. Lucy runs into the Emersons in their visits around town. Though they are not refined, she feels they are kind. Mr. Emerson is irreligious, and George seems morose because “the things of the universe . . . won’t fit.”
On one of Lucy’s rare excursions alone, she laments that she hasn’t had any adventures. “Nothing ever happens to me.” But “Then something did happen.” She witnesses a murder and faints. As she wakes up, she finds that George Emerson has carried her away from the scene.
Later, several of the English tourists go on a day trip to the countryside, There, in a field of violets, George kisses Lucy.
Miss Bartlett comes across them and is mortified. She asks Lucy not to tell her mother what happened, fearing she’ll be blamed for not chaperoning adequately. They decide to go on the next leg of their travels.
Part 2 opens at Lucy’s home in England, where she has just accepted Cecil Vyse’s proposal of marriage. Cecil, as Lucy’s mother says, is good, clever, rich, and well-connected. But he’s also snobbish, arrogant, and controlling.
When a property in the area needs new renters, who should the new tenants be but the Emersons.
Thus Lucy is pulled in two different directions–the conventional and expected or the freeing and individualistic.
I probably won’t take the time, but I’d love to go back and trace every time Forster mentions a view in this novel. It comes up quite often. Cecil even says he connects Lucy with a certain type of view, while she responds that she always pictures him in a room, like “a drawing room without a view.” Obviously, he’s presented as close-minded and unopen to change, while she’s the opposite.
This was written at the end of the Victorian era, when some of the old social order was changing. Forster doesn’t seem to be saying all conventionality is wrong–one character, Miss Lavish, is often described by others as “original,” a little more free-thinking than most. She goes with Lucy in Italy for an “adventure” and takes Lucy’s guidebook away so they can see the “real” Italy and not the prescribed tourist’s view. But then Miss Lavish sees someone she wants talk to and disappears, leaving Lucy alone in a strange country with no guidebook. Later Miss Lavish shares an incident someone told her confidentially in her new novel. So she takes things a little too far.
At one point the author has Lucy wonder:
Why? Why were most big things unladylike? Charlotte had once explained to her why. It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored.
Then later, when Lucy has an outburst, Cecil thinks:
He longed to hint to her that not here lay her vocation; that a woman’s power and charm reside in mystery, not in muscular rant. But possibly rant is a sign of vitality: it mars the beautiful creature, but shows that she is alive. After a moment, he contemplated her flushed face and excited gestures with a certain approval.
George, by contrast, tells her, “I want you to have your own thoughts even when I hold you in my arms.”
I liked this description of the Honeychurch family: “So the grittiness went out of life. It generally did at Windy Corner. At the last minute, when the social machine was clogged hopelessly, one member or other of the family poured in a drop of oil.”
One beef I have with the story is that George does not seem at all attractive. What he says about her having her own thoughts comes later in the book. At first he’s shown as moody, odd, and not terribly communicative. He’s only shown as happy twice in the book. I also felt that Mr. Emerson didn’t always make sense to me when he was pushing Lucy towards George.
Unfortunately, I could probably never see a film version of this book because there’s a scene where George, Lucy’s brother, and the rector are “bathing” in a pond when Lucy, Cecil, and Lucy’s mother come upon them unexpectedly. When George speaks to Mrs. Honeychurch, “He regarded himself as dressed. Barefoot, bare-chested . . .” So they’re not running around naked. But I’m sure filmmakers would play this scene up. In fact, I looked up the parental guidelines of the one film I was interested in, and sure enough, they take it too far.
I’m counting this for the travel or adventure classic for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge. I’m thankful to another participant for giving me the idea. I really didn’t feel like a Jules Verne type of novel this year, and I was glad to finally become familiar with A Room with a View.