It was book club again last night, and Ms Thrifty and I had already exchanged our views about E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View in the bookshop on Monday. I love the book, one of Forster’s funniest and sunniest stories. ‘I can’t imagine how anyone could dislike it,’ I said to Ms Thrifty. ‘But I know I’ll get to book club and find that people do.’
Well it was ever thus. We divided into two camps, four who enjoyed it against three (all who either abandoned or skim read it) who didn’t. It was, apparently, boring. And Lucy was silly.
Well of course Lucy is silly. If Lucy isn’t very young and unformed and foolish, if she isn’t unduly influenced by the superficial and the conventional, if her own desires aren’t opaque and confusing to her, then you wouldn’t have a coming of age story at all. You’d have a Lucy Tackles The World and Wins story. Completely different!
So, A Room With A View opens to a scene in Florence, Italy, in the Pension Bertolini, where Lucy and her chaperone cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, have just arrived. A typical Forsterian muddle is taking place. Having bemoaned the lack of a view from their rooms, Charlotte is cast into social horror when a father and son team, the Emersons, offer to exchange rooms with them. Charlotte, who has an entertainingly vast and complex system of social etiquette, feels they cannot be beholden in this way to complete strangers, and worse, men of a socially inferior class. Whilst the moaning was entirely valid and permissible, a resolution to the problem removes the genteel delight in melancholy, and would involve Charlotte being truly grateful, a position that her ‘poor relative’ situation in life makes intolerable for her. The men insist, and eventually the ladies exchange rooms, with Charlotte then honing in on the larger of the two, for the wholly irrational reason that it previously belonged to the young son. For Lucy to occupy it subsequently might indicate a mixing of the sexes that verges on the improper.
Everything that happens in the novel is a sort of expansion of the themes and issues in this opening scene. Forster delights in gently teasing his uptight characters, caught in social webs of their own making. During their time in Florence, Lucy will be introduced to a wider society than she has ever known before, and abroad (where exciting things always happen in Forster’s novels) the rules are less rigid and clear cut than at home. Perhaps for this reason, she is forced to witness nature red in tooth and claw, not the polite simulacrum of life that is considered correct in England. A young Italian is stabbed in front of her as she tours the sights of the city, and George Emerson is there to catch her when she faints. This event is a source of shame and perplexity to Lucy, who cannot process the deep and rich emotions it provokes. But when George kisses her during an outing to the countryside, the battlelines seem more obviously drawn. In a move that sits cleverly on the boundaries of protective instinct and overreaction, Charlotte Bartlett bundles Lucy away to Rome.
The narrative picks up the story with Lucy now back home enjoying the comforts of Windy Cottage, her charming, eccentric home, and recently affianced to that 1900s geek, Cecil, whom she met in Rome. But the consequences of her holiday romance stretch further than she could have imagined when Cecil, in a bid to annoy the snobbish local Lord of the Manor, offers empty cottages to the Emersons whom he meets in the National Gallery. It is clear that Cecil is a bad match for Lucy, for although he loves her, he wishes to mould her into his own vision of womanly perfection. And Lucy has a tricky choice, which for the most part she attempts to deny to herself. Should she stay with Cecil, whose suffocating propriety will stifle all that has the power to be liberated within her, but whose rich family offers her a good match, or is she able to perceive her real love for George, whose family situation is not a good one in terms of class and breeding? Forster is on the side of the angels here, rooting for Lucy to act spontaneously, to give in to passion rather than polite convention, and to exchange a society bound by mimsy, life-fearing insistence on delicacy of behaviour, for one that values moments of beauty, moment striking for their natural generosity, warmth, vitality and authenticity.
What I admire most about Forster’s novels is his brilliant characterisation. He has the knack of creating people who may well be infuriating but who do it in an extremely amusing, believable manner. Like Jane Austen, he presents us with friends and relatives who would probably be nightmares in real life, but who manage to be endearing in his pages. I love Mr Beebe, the diplomatic parson (‘It was one of Mr Beebe’s chief pleasures in life to provide people with happy memories’) who does everything he can to clear Lucy’s path and smooth over her troubles, but who disapproves of all her love relationships. And Charlotte Bartlett is an amazing creation, the irritating spinster who draws attention to herself by extravagant and unnecessary gestures towards self-sacrifice which she can never quite see through. This is Forster’s happy book, his light-hearted holiday book, in which nothing really bad ever happens to anyone (apart from the stabbed Italian). It’s my kind of comfort reading, and the sort of book I’d reread for boosting morale, but alas, not everyone finds it to be so.