For Italy was offering her the most priceless of all possessions–her own soul.
I enjoyed this story very much, but had a bit of an issue with Forster’s writing style. He starts paragraphs with allusions to culture or history; off-hand phrases that seem to come out of nowhere and are hard to see how they follow. However confused this made me, oddly, it fit into the story of Lucy Honeychurch and the eccentric characters who made up the tale.
Lucy and her cousin Charlotte Bartlett have just arrived at a pension in Florence, Italy and are very unhappy, because they were promised a room with a view of the Arno River. Instead, their rooms open up onto a courtyard. So disappointed and agitated are they, their unhappiness with what was promised spills into dinner-time conversation, where the guests-all English, like themselves-give them their unasked for opinions, including the father and son Emersons, who insist they take their rooms, which do, indeed, look upon the Arno. From here begins the twists and turns of adventures, attractions and attachments that will change Lucy’s provincial outlook on life irreparably.
But, in Italy, where any one who chooses may warm himself in equality, as in the sun, this conception of life vanished. Her senses expanded; she felt that there was no one whom she might not get to like, that social barriers were irremovable, doubtless, but not particularly high. You jump over them just as you jump into a peasant’s olive-yard in the Apennines, and he is glad to see you. She returned with new eyes.
Forster has collected a wonderful group of English adventurers who expand Lucy’s notion of herself. As a young, beautiful, eligible young woman everyone wants to protect her, but Lucy is impulsive and wants to go out and see the sights. Besides, she has the indispensable Baedeker to guide her, so how can she go wrong? And though she witnesses a murder, gets lost (when she loses the Baedeker!), receives a stolen kiss from George Emerson, rather than folding into the protection of others, she returns from Italy emboldened and confident.
She is being courted by Cyril Vyse, who is considered a perfect match. But he is snobby and narrow-minded and does not treat the people Lucy has come to love very kindly and at the end, she cannot dismiss his arrogance.
When we were only acquaintances, you let me be myself, but now you’re always protecting me. 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?…I won’t be stifled, not by the most glorious music, for people are more glorious, and you hide them from me.
She is also unable to let go of the passion she felt when George kissed her in Italy, even though by society standards he is unsuitable. But she loves him and is attracted to the freedom in which he lives life.
Forster understands the society in which these characters live and especially the social conventions that designate a person’s class and what is expected in the way one lives or moves between them. He is witty and satirical and surprises the reader with the development of certain characters, not only Lucy, but with her cousin, Charlotte. Charlotte is set up as a roadblock to Lucy’s happiness, but in the end George has an amazing revelation about the true meaning of her actions, which Lucy comes to realize is true. And is Mr. Emerson really as uncouth and eccentric as people think or is his crazy thinking just misunderstood wisdom? And then there is George—tortured soul or a man with deep awareness of life that has, until Lucy, found no home?
In a book like this, where two people who love each other, but find all sorts of ways not to admit it, the ending is rather obvious. And I was not disappointed….
Some Personal Details
For years early in my working life I was a bookstore clerk. I had many a conversation around travel guides. Fodor’s, Frommer’s or Baedeker? The Baedeker, a German company, had the best photos, but Fodor’s or Frommer’s was almost always chosen. I suspected it was because Baedeker is harder to pronounce. At any rate, I loved this reference in A Room with a View and how much the characters relied on it. Memories!
The word empyrean came up as a very important description for Lucy when she plays the piano. I mention this here because I had just read JM Barrie’s play, Mary Rose, which is where I heard the word for the first time. What are the odds you’d come across the same new word two books in a row?!! Empyrean: Heaven, specifically the highest part of heaven.
It so happened that Lucy, who found daily life rather chaotic, entered a more solid world when she opened the piano. She was then no longer either deferential or patronizing; no longer either a rebel or a slave. The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected. The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort….
Though the prose at times was a little difficult for me, this was still a very satisfying reading experience. I think the biggest takeaway might be a warning based on the beginning quote at the top of this post: What happens in Italy, stays in Italy!
Title: A Room with a View
Author: EM Forster
Publisher: Dover Thrift Edition
Challenges: Classics Club, Back to the Classics