A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
Published by: Book-of-the-Month Club
Publication Date: 1908
Format: Hardcover, 319 Pages
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin Miss Charlotte Barlett have arrived in Florence, but their rooms in the Pension Bertolini do not have the promised for views, instead overlooking a rather insalubrious alleyway. Overhearing their dilemma at the dinner table, the rather forward Emersons, a father and son, offer them their rooms. Miss Barlett thinks this is beyond proper, but the good Reverend Mr. Beebe says there could be nothing wrong with their accepting the offer. It might have been put indelicately, but it is a beautiful gesture. So Lucy and Charlotte get their views. They also get a lot more than they bargained for with the eclectic denizens of the pension, who all seem to have taken a dislike to the Emersons. One day Lucy ventures forth with a female writer, Miss Lavish, who soon deserts her and Lucy takes up with the Emersons. She doesn't understand everyone's dislike of them, they seem quite nice, if a little outspoken. There will be two incidences with the younger Emerson, George, before she leaves Florence. Both will shake her, one might forever change her heart. But back in England Lucy finds herself reverting to who she was prior to Italy. Boring and conventional she becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse. Her and Cecil have known each other for years. Their alliance is expected, even inevitable. Until Cecil does something silly and it brings the Emersons back into Lucy's life. She can not deny what happened with George. But can she put it behind her, marry Cecil, and just get on with her life? Or will her life take an unexpected turn and embrace the passion she found awakening in Italy?
The first time I read A Room with a View I was not much older than Lucy Honeychurch. I experienced Italy for the first time in her footsteps and was enchanted. In fact, I think this book would make a lovely companion piece to an art history class because of the reverence it has for art and history. But for all that is right in Italy, there is much flawed back in England. Re-reading this book all these years later, while I might not identify as strongly anymore with Lucy, I still feel the flaw in the ending. It isn't that I object to Lucy and George ending up together, they obviously belong with each other. I object to the fact that as soon as Cecil has been kicked to the curb the ending is just thrust at us and the book is over. Just because the ending is inevitable doesn't mean I don't want to read the steps inbetween Mr. Emerson ferreting the truth out of Lucy and Lucy and George eloping. It almost feels as if the book has been expurgated and we're missing all this story that should be there. Did Forster feel unequal to the task or did he just grow bored with the story? Plus why is Lucy's family mad at her about the elopement? They seem the type of family who would champion love and yet they aren't talking to her over her marriage? WHY? Plus we never get to really see Lucy and George as a couple. We know far more about Cecil then we do about George and I feel that George needed to be made less of an enigma. Give us more of a reason to love him than that he is not Cecil, which I will admit does strongly recommend him. I just feel that this struggle that Lucy has been facing of her life in a muddle which she has finally broken free of is nullified by the quagmire that the ending is. And this isn't even addressing those editions that include the epilogue. Seriously, if you want to be quickly jaded about life and the inevitability of human nature to destroy all that is good, look up the epilogue. At least there is one thing I can agree with Forster about the ending, omit that epilogue. Too bad he wasn't successful enough with getting it fully excised like he was with the epilogue for Maurice.
While I lack the open eyed naivety I had when younger, though to a lesser degree than most, there is still something about being caught up in new experiences and new ways of seeing things which is at the heart of A Room with a View. Expanding your mind and letting these new ideas sweep over you. If you can capture just a bit of that opening up that Lucy experiences, you will be the better for it. The idea that struck me most this reading was the idea of doing something beautifully or doing something delicately. When the Emersons offer Lucy and Charlotte their rooms in the pension, it isn't a delicate gesture but it is a beautiful one. Society might even think it a little outre for the ladies to accept the offer, which is why Charlotte dithers about the idea. But the gesture is done because it is right, because it is beautiful, because it's their hearts desires to have "a room with a view" even if they won't admit it to themselves or the Emersons. I think this hits on something that is a universal truth in our society. On the whole, we do what is right, what is proper, what is acceptable. We donate to the set charities, we support the right causes, we don't make a stir. But what if instead we did what was right in our very bones? Grand gestures that might not be politically correct but that have heart and beauty in them? Bring something good into the world, not because it's what is expected, but because it is what is unexpected. Little or big gestures, something every day. What would the world turn into if every day someone did something beautiful for another human being? It would be a kind of grace.
But to know what is beauty versus what is delicate you need to know yourself. That is where the younger me really latched onto Lucy and her journey. She is just starting out to see the world and to come to terms with who she is and what she wants out of life. She is looking at art and trying to decide whether she likes it or whether she is supposed to like it. She is trying to see what kind of people she should surround herself with. To her the Emersons are good people, yet to others they are uncouth. Who is right? What is her opinion? Most people struggle with these concepts all their lives. They don't know who they are or that they are constantly changing and evolving. Lucy gets easily muddled. She gets swept up into events and situations that she doesn't know how she got there or how to get out of. Can you imagine actually going to Greece on a moments notice with people you don't really like just to avoid one person? I actually kind of can. How many times has this happened to me? Not Greece in particular, but countless other trips or jobs or changes in routines. I have spent too much time doing one thing to avoid another and getting muddled beyond hope. To be young and impressionable again, I don't think I could stand that. But there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Something that will form you, be it art or literature, or in Lucy's case, music. Little does she know that it is in how she plays music that she is baring her soul. Forster himself puts it so eloquently: "Does it seem reasonable that she should play so wonderfully, and live so quietly? I suspect that one day she will be wonderful in both. The water-tight compartments in her will break down, and music and life will mingle." And that is when she will rise above the muddle and know who she is.
Which all brings me to why I dislike Cecil so much. It's not that he's a prig and pretentious and hates all the good in people and just wants everyone to suffer so he can laugh at them, though that is all true. I dislike Cecil because he uses Lucy's muddle to his advantage. She doesn't know what she wants out of life and therefore Cecil uses her impressionability to try to mold her into who he wants to marry. He cares not for her family or her friends, they are all fodder for him. He isn't delicate or beautiful in his gestures, rather thwarting everyone and spitting in the eyes of all. As Lucy points out, his declining to do something as simple as make a four for tennis would make everyone happy, yet he takes pleasure in denying them this and then interrupting their game with dramatic readings from bad novels. He doesn't even really see Lucy. He sees her as an ideal. A painting that will perfectly adorn his life and that he can force into the mold. Whenever she really shows any glimmer of her true self Cecil thinks she is joking, because this isn't what he had envisioned. Cecil is a despicable human being who isn't worthy to be slim on my shoes, and yet he serves the purpose of the moment. In one moment he is the shield for Lucy to keep George at bay. In another moment he is the reason George is her soulmate. Because, as I've mentioned before, George isn't really explored as a character, he is perfect for Lucy because he is everything Cecil is not. George lets Lucy find out who she is, lets her make her own decisions, because he is the anti-Cecil and the man for Lucy.
The one character though that I find the most interesting is Miss Charlotte Bartlett. She is the stock character of literature who is the spinster who is always concerned with propriety, appearances, and not being an inconvenience, while being the exact opposite. Seeing as Forster is such a fan of Austen you can easily see her mold in Emma and Miss Bates. As I get older I relate to these characters more and more. No, it's not my descent into spinsterhood and the eventual owning of a cat army, it's that these characters, with all their flaws, are the most human, the most sympathetic. Despite how many times while reading A Room with a View you might want to smack Charlotte, unlike Emma Woodhouse and her smack down of Miss Bates, you could never do such a thing because you pity her. The highlight of her life is how by saving Lucy from the advances of George she has actually given herself relevancy to someone she cares deeply for. Yes, it's exasperating and pitiful, but in her own way she is being proper and delicate and helpful. Yet, it's her beautiful gestures at the end that transforms her into someone who is to be more then just pitied. Lucy's mother hints at how much Lucy is like Charlotte, which Lucy rebels against. But Charlotte gives Lucy a chance, something which she probably never had. She doesn't warn Lucy about Mr. Emerson's being at the rectory, though she knew. It is through Lucy and Mr. Emerson meeting there that Lucy and George end up together. Though Charlotte denies knowing of his presence, it is my opinion that she decided to do something beautiful. She lied to facilitate love. She let Lucy have a chance at happiness, despite all her previous attempts to thwart it, propriety be damned.
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
A Room with a View by E.M. Forster