A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

A Room with a View was the Hungry Hundred Book Club book for May. The group leader, Rachel, started off the discussion at the well-attended meetup with an interesting question:

Is A Room with a View primarily a love story, a coming-of-age story, or social commentary?

Since the book has elements of all three, the answer to the question says as much about the reader’s perspective as it does about the book itself. How much people enjoyed the book depended very much on what they thought it was trying to do and what they thought it did well, thus the question served not only to kick off the discussion but also to guide and shape it.

At the end of the discussion, we rated the book. It garnered perhaps only one rating of five stars, but many of three or three-and-a-half or four, as well as a couple of very low ratings (0.5 and 2). The reason for the less-than-spectacular average rating seemed to be that Forster was undeniably good, yet didn’t measure up to other writers.

During the discussion, someone mentioned a Guardian article based on a lecture by Zadie Smith on the fiction of E.M. Forster. The article compares Forster’s work to Austen’s.

Forster ushered in a new era for the English comic novel, one that includes the necessary recognition that the great majority of us are not like an Austen protagonist, would rather not understand ourselves, because it is easier and less dangerous.

Zadie Smith, in pointing out this message in Forster’s work, is saying in part that what Forster was doing was different from what others were doing, and that he was good at it. I agree.

See below for my opinion on whether A Room with a View is a love story, coming-of-age story, or social commentary and what I got out of it. (If you’ve never read the book or watched the movie, note that this post gives away the ending.)

A Room with a View: Love story, coming-of-age story, or social commentary?

If stories are made of setting, character, and plot, then the social commentary gives us the setting, the coming-of-age-story gives us the character, and the romance gives us the plot.

A Room with a View: Love story

I decided that A Room with a View is a love story, partly because the 1985 British film (which I have not seen) is characterized as a romance, but also, I think, because I’ve trained myself to focus on plot.

Others at the Hungry Hundred Book Club meetup said that A Room with a View absolutely was not a love story, or that it was at best a lousy one, because the characters had no passion or did not move them emotionally. These critics were not able to sway my opinion.

In the novel, Lucy and George fall in love after a strange shared experience. Lucy is wandering the streets of Italy alone and witnesses a fatal stabbing, then faints. When she revives, she finds that George has carried her away from the scene. She does not know exactly what happened while she was unconscious, and feels quite awkward about the situation.

Lucy’s strange fainting incident reminded me of an incident central to Forster’s Passage to India. An Indian man escorts a young British woman into a cave, but once inside, something happens to distress her. If memory serves, the movie features a colony of bats streaming out of the cave. The remainder of the book deals with the consequences of whatever it was that happened in the cave.

Lucy’s experience, though it didn’t involve a cave of bats, nevertheless left a deep emotional imprint, one that haunts her:

She could not have believed that stones, a Loggia, a fountain, a palace tower, would have such significance. For a moment she understood the nature of ghosts.

She tries unsuccessfully to avoid George, not understanding—or perhaps refusing to acknowledge—how valuable their shared experiences are to them both. She succeeds in getting herself engaged to a snob named Cecil who doesn’t understand her any better than she does herself. Cecil doesn’t know it, but he likes Lucy because her awkward interactions with George permanently changed her.

Italy worked some marvel in her. It gave her light, and—which he held more precious—it gave her shadow. Soon he detected in her a wonderful reticence. She was like a woman of Leonardo da Vinci’s, whom we love not so much for herself as for the things that she will not tell us.

To play a joke on a local landlord back in England, Cecil invites George Emerson and his father to stay at a nearby rental house. By interacting with the Emersons, Lucy discovers that she finds Cecil unbearable, and heroically ends her engagement, even though her entire social circle (apart from the Emersons) expects the marriage to take place soon.

“There are days when one sees clearly, and this is one of them. Things must come to a breaking-point some time, and it happens to be to-day. If you want to know, quite a little thing decided me to speak to you—when you wouldn’t play tennis with Freddy…. Of course, it isn’t the tennis—that was only the last straw to all I have been feeling for weeks.”

Subsequently, the narrator, in a garden scene, tells us that “more than dahlias had been broken off by the autumn gales.” Charlotte the spinster remarks (seemingly of the flowers) that “It is always terrible when the promise of months is destroyed in a moment.”

At first, Lucy doesn’t admit—or even consciously realize?—that she loves George, only that she does not love Cecil. She does not want people to think her engagement to one man ended simply because of some other man.

“If a girl breaks off her engagement, everyone says: ‘Oh, she had someone else in her mind; she hopes to get someone else.’ It’s disgusting, brutal! As if a girl can’t break it off for the sake of freedom.”

The wish for “freedom” or “independence” is a lie, however.

“I want more independence,” said Lucy lamely; she knew that she wanted something, and independence is a useful cry; we can always say that we have not got it.

Poor Lucy is trying to kill the most worthy sentiment she’s ever had.

Love felt and returned, love which our bodies exact and our hearts have transfigured, love which is the most real thing that we shall ever meet, reappeared now as the world’s enemy, and she must stifle it.

Lucy almost leaves to seek refuge in Greece from both her annoyed family and her unpredictable admirer, but with the help of some good advice from Mr. Emerson, she winds up happily married instead. Phew!

George, an inconsistently headstrong character, blesses his luck:

And the people who had not meant to help—the Miss Lavishes, the Cecils, the Miss Bartletts! Ever prone to magnify Fate, George counted up the forces that had swept him into this contentment.

All the other characters and incidents in the story, thus, contributed to the success of the romance. Even the obnoxious spinster Charlotte is forgiven, is handed a helpful role to play in finalizing the match:

“She is not frozen, Lucy, she is not withered up all through. She tore us apart twice, but in the rectory that evening she was given one more chance to make us happy. We can never make friends with her or thank her. But I do believe that, far down in her heart, far below all speech and behaviour, she is glad.”

How can the romance be “merely a plot device” if everything else is bent to its purpose?

A Room with a View: Coming-of-age story

If A Room with a View were primarily Lucy’s coming-of-age story, the focus at the end would not be on the protagonist’s marriage but on her ability to form an opinion, a worldview, of her own. Perhaps her awakening would occur in the aftermath of a tragically missed opportunity.

Lucy could have missed, and almost did miss, the chance to marry the character the author clearly thought she should. Last month, the Hungry Hundred Book Club read The Remains of the Day, which has something to do with self-knowledge embraced too late in life, so it was not at all obvious that Lucy’s story was going to end well.

When Lucy begins to lie to everyone, not least of all herself, her mother notices some change in her behavior and says she has started to resemble Charlotte, who exasperates those around her with her empty, fussy talk.

It was no good being kind to Miss Bartlett. [Lucy] had tried herself too often and too recently. One might lay up treasure in heaven by the attempt, but one enriched neither Miss Bartlett nor any one else upon earth.

Central to the coming-of-age part of Lucy’s story is the concept of the muddle. “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice,” the narration says.

Waste! That word seemed to sum up the whole of life. Wasted plans, wasted money, wasted love, and she had wounded her mother. Was it possible that she had muddled things away? Quite possible.

Forster’s mouthpiece is old Mr. Emerson, whose advice, amounting to “YOLO”, transforms Lucy. He sees right through her, and helps her—finally!—to see through herself.

“Take an old man’s word; there’s nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face Death and Fate, and the things that sound so dreadful. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror—on the things that I might have avoided. We can help one another but little. I used to think I could teach young people the whole of life, but I know better now, and all my teaching of George has come down to this: beware of muddle. Do you remember in that church, when you pretended to be annoyed with me and weren’t? Do you remember before, when you refused the room with the view? Those were muddles—little, but ominous—and I am fearing that you are in one now.”

Some say Lucy is a weak character, but I can’t see her as one. A weak character would not have been able to get out of the muddle with an unruined soul, advice or no advice.

A Room with a View: Social commentary

If A Room with a View were primarily social commentary, a condemnation of a society excessively bound by convention, surely Forster would have ended the book by trapping his protagonists in propriety, leaving them unable to live as their true selves. (See? See how needlessly terrible these people are to one another? How impossible it is to escape such a milieu?)

Since this is a light novel and not a dark one, Lucy and George manage to overcome the obstacles society throws in the way of their love. That the romance succeeds to me means it is more important than the social commentary.

I don’t have any quotations demonstrating social commentary per se because the excerpts I found most meaningful were not the incidental observations Forster made about the behavior of the people around Lucy. Whatever Forster had to say about the society in which Lucy lived, I felt it was the background to the story and not the story itself.

A Room with a View: The importance of authenticity

Perhaps some readers are unwilling to see the story as a love story because it’s not actually about love. It’s about something much more intellectual, but which is, in Forster’s view, essential for love to flourish: truth. “[W]e fight for more than Love or Pleasure; there is Truth. Truth counts, Truth does count,” insists Mr. Emerson.

Sad, then, that Forster lived in a society that did not permit him to express his own love authentically.

Authenticity for houses

The late Mr. Honeychurch had affected the cube, because it gave him the most accommodation for his money, and the only addition made by his widow had been a small turret, shaped like a rhinoceros’ horn, where she could sit in wet weather and watch the carts going up and down the road. So impertinent—and yet the house “did,” for it was the home of people who loved their surroundings honestly…. One might laugh at the house, but one never shuddered.

The Honeychurch house (“Windy Corner”) is authentic, whereas the two semi-detached villas (“Cissie” and “Albert”) are trying to be what they are not and succeed only in being eyesores. What’s true of houses must also be true of people: we’re better off being what we are than pretending to be what we’re not.

Authenticity for tourists

Much is made of Lucy’s reliance on her Baedeker guidebook. It is a concrete symbol of her inability to think for herself. More broadly, the book, carried by countless other tourists, represents conventionality and a kind of transparently ignorant pretentiousness. Those who carry the guide seem to say, “We are here to appreciate great art, and page thirty-seven paragraph two says this fresco is great, therefore we appreciate it!”

When Lucy winds up wandering around without her guidebook, a whole new world opens up, and she sees it with her own eyes and not Baedeker’s:

Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy. She puzzled out the Italian notices—the notices that forbade people to introduce dogs into the church—the notice that prayed people, in the interest of health and out of respect to the sacred edifice in which they found themselves, not to spit.

The quotation begins on a comic note (“pernicious charm”) and ends on one (“No spitting!”), but the point is to applaud Lucy for undergoing a genuine experience rather than an empty, anxious, dutiful one. In contrast, Miss Lavish, the novelist, literally insulates herself from contact with her environment using a square of mackintosh. Miss Lavish’s mackintosh squares are stupidly pedestrian, whereas the Italian notices are appropriately exotic. Partly I love this quote because I love signs.

Authenticity in romance

Perhaps the book’s detractors do not understand the quiet drama inherent in giving up, switching off, and turning away, or the strength of will required to deliberately subvert one’s better judgment. Perhaps it is the style Forster uses to describe such struggles that underwhelms. Personally, I think Forster does a fine job.

It did not do to think, nor, for the matter of that, to feel. She gave up trying to understand herself, and joined the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words. The armies are full of pleasant and pious folk. But they have yielded to the only enemy that matters—the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue. As the years pass, they are censured. Their pleasantry and their piety show cracks, their wit becomes cynicism, their unselfishness hypocrisy; they feel and produce discomfort wherever they go. They have sinned against Eros and against Pallas Athene, and not by any heavenly intervention, but by the ordinary course of nature, those allied deities will be avenged. Lucy entered this army when she pretended to George that she did not love him, and pretended to Cecil that she loved no one.

Authenticity within oneself

For the romance to succeed, Lucy has to gain and act on knowledge of herself. At first, after gaining it, she acts counter to it. Bad idea.

“You’re tired of Windy Corner.” This was perfectly true. Lucy had hoped to return to Windy Corner when she escaped from Cecil, but she discovered that her home existed no longer. It might exist for Freddy, who still lived and thought straight, but not for one who had deliberately warped the brain. She did not acknowledge that her brain was warped, for the brain itself must assist in that acknowledgment, and she was disordering the very instruments of life.

I’m interested in truth, lies, illusions, mistakes, and that murky realm called “bullshit”. Some convincing writers say lies are to be avoided whenever humanly possible, while others, equally convincing, say that lies are not only human, but natural and necessary. Forster’s view is clearly that lies are soul-destroying.

A Room with a View: What else can we say?

It’s a short book, but there’s lots to muddle through.

Cecil’s epiphany

The parts of the book I liked least were those relating to Cecil. The character exists so that he can be rejected by Lucy, who thereby becomes a more enlightened being, but Cecil himself seems to undergo a bit of enlightenment, too, and I don’t think Forster gave him enough time and space to do so.

When Lucy describes Cecil to himself, using George’s exact words, Cecil’s self-defense mechanisms completely break down. “True, every word. It is a revelation. It is—I,” he says. I find his acceptance of criticism less than credible. No individual with an ounce of pride could perform such an abrupt about-face.

“[Y]ou’re the sort who can’t know any one intimately…. You were all right as long as you kept to things, but when you came to people…”

Cecil takes no time to ponder these painful observations before acknowledging them as accurate. Even if he felt the words were true, it’s hard for me to believe he would say so, and I don’t think anyone so completely rejected would go so far as to thank the person who burst his bubble, which is precisely what Cecil does.

Maybe if the book were longer, and we saw more of the story from Cecil’s point of view, Cecil’s development could be better motivated. Under the circumstances, I found the change in his attitude too sudden.

The theme of a woman’s place

The novel can be fruitfully analyzed from a feminist point of view, though I do not propose to do so with any kind of thoroughness.

Lucy asks herself:

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.

It’s not clear how far from this definition of ladylike Lucy can possibly deviate. As George’s wife, will she achieve anything herself?

There’s evidence that Lucy is an admirable feminist heroine: she rejects the role assigned to her by Cecil, who expects her to rely on him for all her opinions. There’s also evidence that she’s not such an admirable heroine: she only overcomes obstacles when prompted to do so by the Emersons.

George is a problem. He kisses Lucy unexpectedly. Do we admire his manly impulsiveness, even though we would probably not want to be kissed without warning by our own acquaintances? He’s depressed and possibly even suicidal before he retrieves Lucy from the site of the stabbing. Do we rejoice that love has given his life meaning, even though in real life we’d probably consider his absolute dependence on Lucy unhealthy?

Some female readers will condemn the romance of George and Lucy (Lucy and George?) because of doubts such as these, but it’s hardly fair to judge the characters of a novel according to modern sensibilities as if the author were a contemporary of ourselves.

The motif of the view

The “view” mentioned in the title refers in the most literal sense to an incident near the start of the book, in which the Emersons generously swap hotel rooms with Lucy and her companion, but that’s far from all it refers to.

People are like rooms; people can look at a view, stand in front of it, or become part of it by going outdoors; views are like opinions; light coming in, sight, is like knowledge or understanding; travel gives us different views and perspectives….

There’s a lot there that’s worth a closer look.

When and Why I Read A Room with a View

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for May 2018.

Genre: Fiction (English literature)
Date started / date finished: 07-May-2018 / 12-May-2018
Length: 149
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 2641
Originally published in: 1908
Gutenberg link: A Room with a View