Traveling to Italy with E. M. Forster

A Room with a View

E. M. Forster

Originally published: 1908, UK

199 pages

Cover image of E. M. Forster's  A Room with a View novel

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Rating: 3 = Worth a Try

Oh, Edwardian England, where boys are silly and girls are taught to be proper.  When Lucy Honeychurch goes to Italy (chaperoned by a spinster cousin, of course) she does not expect to become cultured and learn more about herself.  She especially does not intend, at this point in her life, to come across love.

Summary:

As was fashionable at the time, Lucy journeys to “the Continent” to absorb some culture and art outside of England.  She is accompanied by her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, a spinster who annoys Lucy with her gratitude for Lucy’s mother funding the trip.  While in Florence, their first stop, the women meet a brash Mr. Emerson and his gloomy son George at their hotel. They also meet a female novelist, Ms. Lavish, a burgeoning feminist, and two spinster sisters, the Ms. Allens.  After a secret kiss in a field, Lucy is forced by Charlotte to go to Rome where some friends of theirs are staying.  While there, Lucy is reacquainted with another young man, Cecil Vyse, whose two proposals she turns down.  Finally back in Surrey with her brother and mother, which man will Lucy choose?  Will her secret kiss in Florence stay a secret?

Excellent Bits:

Lucy

The main character, Lucy, grows in the reader’s esteem just as she comes into her own as an adult woman.  In the beginning of the novel, I wasn’t a fan of Lucy and found her dull and an empty “everygirl” character; however, as the novel progressed I was able to view Lucy as the complex, sure-minded woman she becomes.  This is not terribly surprising since the novel focuses on Lucy’s internal coming of age (Bonus: this story type is called a bildungsroman in literary criticism).  Forster does do a good job of making this coming of age story so believable that Lucy actually becomes a more likeable character as she comes into her own.

The Men

The young men in the novel are also excellent, but very different, characters.  George Emerson is a naturalist and initially gloomy.  Cecil Vyse is a snobby man of leisure (meaning, he doesn’t have to take a profession because he has family wealth).  Though Forster clearly means for the reader to like one and dislike the other, Lucy is conflicted, making Forster’s commentary on religion and many social and political issues of the era more entertaining.  In the end, the young men greatly affect the way in which Lucy makes sense of who she is and how she relates to the world around her.

Theme: Repression vs. Expression

Another triumph of A Room with a View is Forster’s exploration of repression vs. expression during this transition into the 1900s.  Women’s changing place in society is encouraged by Ms. Lavish’s independence and Lucy’s growing up, while it is also challenged by Charlotte’s social cautiousness and the repressed sexuality in British culture.  Lucy must choose if she will follow the example of Ms. Lavish, the eccentric beliefs of the Mr. Emersons, and the culture of Italy in expressing herself or if she will stay with the repressed cultural ideals of Charlotte, Mrs. Honeychurch, and Cecil.  I can certainly say that reading this book made me glad to be a woman in this day and age, and not in Edwardian England.

 

Dull Spots:

The Late 19th / Early 20th Century Novel

For people not as familiar with the 19th century novel tradition Forster is emerging from, A Room with a View may be a difficult read at times.  There are illusions to works that are not as familiar now (but at least my version had footnotes and endnotes for reference).  With this novel, Forster is working on breaking down the 19th century three-volume novel.  A Room with a View is in two volumes, though it does retain some of the traditional divisions (Part I to whet the appetite, Part II containing the climax, and Part III to resolve the action) with Part I containing the background and a crisis event and Part II containing the climax and resolution.  If you have read any 19th century (especially British) novels, however, then you are certainly up for this one (A Room with a View is more modern than Austen, Frankenstein, and Dickens).

Slow to Start

While the novel does include a fair amount of action, beautiful art, odd characters, and some philosophical discussions to keep you entertained, it does begin slowly.  Perhaps it is because I didn’t find Lucy very relatable at the beginning, but once Lucy and Charlotte left the hotel and began to explore Florence the novel really picked up.  So give yourself a few chapters to settle into the novel.

The Film:

WARNING: This trailer includes a bit of full-frontal male nudity in a pond bathing scene.

In 1985, a British film version came out also named A Room with a View.  It is a close adaption of the book with some parts combined and shortened, of course, to fit a movie length.  There are also some big names in this film, like Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham-Carter, Judi Dench, and Daniel Day-Lewis.  This was an early film for both Bonham-Carter and Day-Lewis, who were just breaking into acclaim when A Room with a View came out.

Finally:

Overall, if you like British romantic novels and/or history, A Room with a View is for you (and maybe the film, too)!

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