A Room With a View. E M Forster.

Forster, E M. A Room With a View. Edward Arnold London 1908. F; 3/22.

I read something else by Forster many many years ago and remember enjoying it but can’t recall the title. This one got me interested as I was reading Winman’s Still Life which has been called Room With a View lite, and there were lots of loose associations in that later novel with this one, especially the setting which is the city of Florence Italy.

Lucy Honeychurch, young and inexperienced, travels to Florence with her older cousin Charlotte as chaperone. There they stay in a very English guesthouse full of nothing but English folk, particularly George Emerson and his father. These two, looked down on by others in the guesthouse, offer to switch their rooms overlooking the river with Lucy and Charlotte who have been given rooms with no view. Lucy gradually warms to the artistic and traditional charms of the town, but witnesses a murder and is rescued as she faints by George Emerson. Later, touring above the city, George kisses Lucy which offends her. She and Charlotte pack up and leave for Rome.

Returning to her home in Surrey, Lucy accepts a marriage proposal from Cecil Vyse, and by coincidence discovers that the Emersons have moved into a house nearby. Lucy, vaguely dissatisfied with wealthy socially connected Cecil’s arrogant chauvinistic treatment of her and disturbed by her feelings for George, breaks off the marriage engagement. She then meets by coincidence the older Mr. Emerson in a church study, who convinces her that his son cares for her in a more sincerely passionate but respectful way. The story ends in a scene back in Florence with Lucy and George married and presumably happy.

This apparently straightforward coming-of-age and romance story started out for me awkwardly and with a variety of apparently unrelated and uninteresting events in Florence. But Forster’s gently sophisticated understanding voice gradually gathered the characters together as believably experiencing real life events including doubts about what’s really going on. At one point he breaks the fourth wall like this:

It is obvious enough for the reader to conclude, “She loves young Emerson.” 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. She loved Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases should have been reversed?

A bit like reading James’s Golden Bowl, we get to see here in a great storyteller’s picture of people’s lives a structured world where human relations however emotional proceed in a relatively orderly way. A beautiful simple metaphor like the title of this story can’t be misunderstood. Forster and his characters had no idea that a few years later after the War we would have been reading in Faulkner, Woolf and Hemingway a new kind of trouble and ambiguity.

But in a way the more things change the more the story sounds similar. Lucy’s exploration and discovery of morality and love might in a novel or TV series today have involved George literally picking her up and over mild protests taking her to bed (never mind the consent might now have to be stated not implied). But the way Forster renders the troubled course of her development is just as dramatic and familiar even though all George did was kiss her. I was impressed not for the first time that although we can’t realistically put ourselves in a picture of life lived over 100 years ago when a well-told story focuses on inner life changes, we can.

Life still looks “bewildering to practice” even when what we see out the window appears to be full of possibility.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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