There’s always classics I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to yet, and summers are in part a chance to chip away at that long, long list (so many books! so little time). E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View was the latest to be ticked off the list, and it’s a nice one to get around to. Forster’s second novel, after Where Angels Fear to Tread, it’s a brisk, breezy, Austenesque volume that comes in under 200 pages: quick, spritely, and while it clearly breaks ground for later, more somber efforts like Passage to India, here Forster lightens the serious underpinnings of the novel with plenty of froth and flair.
The novel is a fairly straightforward marriage plot that unfolds in two sections: in the first, the naive and goodhearted Lucy Honeychurch is on holiday in Italy with her spinster cousin and chaperone, Miss Bartlett. The novel’s title comes into play quickly: the two women were not given a “room with a view” in Florence as promised, and another guest, Mr. Emerson, who is kind but unrefined, offers to change rooms with them. Fussy, mannered awkwardness ensues, mostly thanks to Miss Bartlett. A result of this exchange is that Lucy keeps encountering Mr. Emerson and his son, the handsome, serious George. Do sparks fly? Why yes! They do! Is George more boyishly uncertain than he seems under his gruff exterior? Is Lucy being nudged toward greater depths of feeling? Why yes, on both counts! This section culminates in both young people being swept away by emotion, and kissing on an excursion; Miss Bartlett sees this, and plays upon Lucy’s sense of propriety to get her away from the Emersons and off to Rome.
The second part of the novel picks up some months later, back in England; Lucy is being courted by Cecil Vyse, whom she met while in Rome. Is Cecil a tedious stick-in-the-mud who doesn’t appreciate Lucy as a full person with a soul of her own? You bet he is! Do the Emersons reenter the picture, upending Lucy’s plan to get married to a nice respectable man? Of course they do! Does Forster’s narrator have many dry comments to make on all this? Goodness yes, and I love that kind of thing. (This is perhaps the most Austenesque element of it all; if you like Austen’s sardonic narrators, you will appreciate Forster’s.)
Is this review perhaps a bit facetious? It is! but I don’t know how else to capture the light, bright tone of this book. Forster cares very much about Lucy as a character: she’s someone torn between a life of placid respectability in which her soul will never have a chance to flower, or a life of passion that she fears as much as she desires. The stakes are not the highest ever, but it’s clear she’s meant to be with George, who loves her piano-playing and who, like his father, believes that women should be comrades in the task of life, on par with their male counterparts, rather than Cecil, who is passionless and loves Lucy best when he can see her as an art object. Whereas George falls in love with Lucy in all her fumbling, earnest humanity, Cecil is unsettled whenever Lucy asserts her desires or opinions. (Also, the scene where Cecil at last kisses her after proposing is hilariously awkward.)
But as bubbly as the novel is, it reveals Forster’s deeper concerns: namely, that English society would grow and reform in ways that allowed all people to be their true selves; that the class divide would stop exerting such a stranglehold over English society; and also that people would find ways to connect and form relationships that would be truly meaningful, and enable them to grow emotionally and ethically. “Only connect” would be the mantra of his later novel Howard’s End, and you can see the roots of that here, in a novel where Lucy yearns to connect but is also terrified of what connecting would truly mean. I also love Forster’s kindness toward his characters: he forestalls a reader’s impatience with Lucy and the seemingly obvious solution to her romantic dilemma by noting, “A reader in Lucy’s place would not find it obvious. Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome ‘nerves’ or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire.”
Is it perfect? Well, not quite. The time jump between the two parts of the novel works, but certain odds and ends feel a little underdeveloped: George, for instance, feels a little underbaked as a character precisely because Forster has lavished so much care on Lucy. The vicar, Mr. Beebe, feels at times to appear out of narrative convenience rather than organic development. All the characters are a bit broad. But it’s only Forster’s second novel, and you can see him figuring out plot in this particular text in a way that will inform the later ones.
All in all, a worthwhile read, and a pleasure to have crossed it off my list. Looking forward to watching the 1985 film adaptation with the absolutely stacked cast of Helena Bonham-Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Simon Callow, and more! Also, Howard’s End is coming up soon, and this certainly whetted my appetite for it.