Here is another book that is difficult for me to view objectively, since my grandfather —born a few years after this novel was first published and from a similar autodidact milieu as its hero— also rejoiced in the name of George, worked as a railways clerk in the Greater London area, and was a man of deep thought and feeling. (Although there was a difference in intellectual interests: the novel’s George is keen on German literature, but our George was mystifyingly into Proust). However, even I must admit that in the game of two parts contained in ARoom with a View, the first, Florence-set hundred or so pages are far stronger than the rest of the story, which takes place back in England. In the context of an Italian pension run by a vigorous Cockney signora, Forster develops and sustains a sparkling, sly social comedy that later stalls on home ground.
At the time of writing this review, the novel is —unbelievably— exactly a century old, yet in its observations of the English abroad it can still feel alarmingly current. Apart from the hero and his father, the novel deals in archetypes: there are those who preen themselves on their expert knowledge of gloriously cultured surroundings (at which gormless newcomers can only goggle); those who find their chosen holiday location distinctly and alarmingly foreign, such as the hapless, passively aggressive Charlotte Bartlett; and, of course, those who fancy themselves to be “shaking off the trammels of respectability,” like the daring ‘lady novelist’ Miss Lavish. Finally, there is our main focus, innocent and rather colourless Lucy Honeychurch, who is usually at sea (incidentally, it is extraordinary how well Forster evokes the psychological reality of being a young gel, with its mixture of uncertainty and bold decisiveness, without ever having been a young gel himself), but is watched over by the sanguine, puckish parson Mr Beebe, who observes and is entertained by all the others.
Forster clearly draws on his own experiences when capturing the delighted and wondering gaze of the English traveller confronted with the intricacies of Continental life for the first time, and remarks, following a passage describing social life around the Arno river, “Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.” This is an implicit rebuke to the mentality made very obvious in the film version, in which middle-class English people visit Italy to coo over its heritage, but have little time for its current reality and people. Alternatively, like Miss Lavish, they try to engage enthusiastically with the contemporary country, but tumble over their own conviction of superiority (“Look at that adorable wine-cart! How the driver stares at us, dear, simple soul!”) To these travellers, Italy is exotic, seductive, and ultimately baffling, due in part to the fact that they do not speak the language. There are moments of outright hilarity, such as when Miss Lavish explains that Lucy will be safe from the forward Italians because they understand about the English: “A dear friend of mine, Contessa Baroncelli, has two daughters, and when she cannot send a maid to school with them she lets them go in sailor hats instead.”
All the guests at the pension quickly sort themselves into a pre-programmed hierarchy, but are affronted by the forward Emersons, the aforementioned George and his endearing father, who are certainly not stock figures and resist all attempts to control them. From the outraged perspective of the other, firmly bourgeois tourists, they are too common (Miss Lavish mistakes them for commercial travellers), too free-thinking, and far too impulsive. Indeed, given Lucy’s upbringing, which has emphasised balance and moderation in all things, it is not surprising that she initially identifies their affinity for emotion as a distinct threat. The crux of the difficulty between Lucy and the Emersons is expressed early on, when George explains to her that his father “ ‘is kind to people because he loves them; and they find him out, and are offended, or frightened.’ ‘How silly of them!’ said Lucy, though in her heart she sympathised.” She soon retreats in perturbation when the old man attempts to give her kindly advice. The Emersons’ instinctive and unmediated access to life and culture is counterbalanced by their unnerving instinct for cant: when a stuffy, clearly Victorian tour guide at Sante Croce explains how the church “was built by faith in the full fervour of medievalism, before any taint of the Renaissance had appeared,” old Mr Emerson retorts, “Built by faith indeed! That simply means the workmen weren’t paid properly.” Forster is unusual among middle-class English twentieth century novelists in his quest to portray lower-class characters as fully realised human beings, and here, as with Leonard Bast in Howard’s End, he almost completely succeeds.
For those who have seen the Merchant Ivory film, it is important to note that there is a key difference between it and the book. Superbly acted and paced though the film is, it manages to reduce Lucy’s choice between bourgeois intellectual Cecil Vyse and glorious George to the question of zero sex appeal versus hot stuff. This is unfortunately one-dimensional, since the conflict between Lucy and George is in fact subtler and more profound, to do with the admissibility of deep emotion and an essentially earnest approach to life and people, as against Cecil’s superior posing and misanthropy barely concealed by arrogant wit. Forster’s satire becomes especially biting in the case of Cecil, a self-proclaimed lover of Italy who views himself as dangerously Byronesque, a wolf surrounded by English sheep, but is in fact a fatally conventional man. Like much of Forster’s fiction, the elemental George-Cecil tug-of-war is an extended meditation on the famous lines from Howard’s End, “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” The heart of A Room with a View is Lucy’s struggle to resist absorption into the overwhelming love and (importantly) equal respect offered by the Emersons: as George comments to Lucy of Cecil, “He daren’t let a woman decide. He’s the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years.” When satirising Lucy’s family, Forster is gentler but also pointed, identifying the narrow-mindedness of that section of the Victorian and Edwardian middle class who prided themselves on their Radical politics (which —as Lucy artlessly explains— means that her family always voted for Gladstone, “until he was so dreadful about Ireland”) while also believing that one should scrupulously avoid the “wrong sort” of people.
Although A Room with a View’s comedy is unbalanced, the novel is still engaging, a fascinating survival from that now very remote time before the First World War which nevertheless highlights some amusing continuities --not least that an Italian tourism industry catering specifically to English travellers has been operating for a very long time. No doubt a Cockney Signora and a similar pension can be found somewhere in Florence today. --Isabel Taylor