A Room With A View

No decent picture of my book cover to be had, but the film poster has the same image. How these actors stick in the mind when you read it!

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.


46 thoughts on “A Room With A View

  1. I must confess I find it very dispiriting when other readers just don’t get it — ie Lucy is silly etc. I had this problem when I joined in an online group read of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and many many people didn’t like it for the very reasons that I did. I don’t do group reads with that group any more – too depressing. This is a great review and reminds me how much I loved the book and the film too. Thanks.

    • It’s funny – I grew up around readers who took pleasure in being able to figure out a book, and who felt patronised if everything was handed over on a plate. So it’s quite a surprise to find in both book clubs I’ve ever attended a lot of readers who resent books that don’t just conform to what they expect and like. Is this a cultural shift? Or just a coincidence? I find it interesting in a way, although I don’t have any answers.

  2. Oh dear. It didn’t quite work for me – I admired the writing, but I couldn’t enjoy it particularly. And then I struggled my way through A Passage to India. And then, bloody but unbowed, I read Howards End – which was hilarious, and sometimes cutting, and which I adore! So I think it comes down to my problem with books about The British Abroad.

    • I should add that Lucy’s silliness (or otherwise) had nothing to do with my assessment of the novel! I don’t care about characters’ likeability, except in cases where a novelists clearly *wants* us to like a character who is despicable.

    • Ah but I respect your tenacity in carrying on with Forster’s books until you found one that did work for you. And I’m so pleased you’re not in the camp of ‘likeable characters only’. Actually, I would have been surprised if you were – more sophistication than that, yes!

  3. Normally I have no stake in anyone liking or not liking a book – so many personal peculiarities go into “liking” and “loving” – but not liking A Room with a View seems like an error of some sort. A miscategorization. The book is so enormously likable.

    When I was poking around romance novels, trying to figure out what the romance canon was beyond Austen, it surprised me that I never encountered A Room with a View.

    • Tom, I did appreciate this comment from you – ‘a miscategorization’ is perfect. And it’s an interesting question about romance beyond Austen and why Forster doesn’t warrant a mention. But then I think many men write romance novels and avoid the label, or maybe fail to be appreciated for the romantic (with a small ‘r’) qualities of their work.

  4. Oh, I totally didn’t understand this novel when I studied it at A level – Lucy annoyed me, the choices seemed not very important… Now as a thirty year old woman it all seems so much more important and poignant and I ‘get’ why it was on our syllabus. Must be due a re-read soon too. 🙂

    Interesting choice for a book group read.

    • It was part of a theme we’ve been having of coming of age novels – we read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and oh dear, something else I have completely forgotten! Never mind, it was a fun theme. And I do wonder how the books we get taught in school are so rarely understood by us in the ways that matter. I didn’t get a lot of my own set texts or at least the really important parts escaped me for many years!

  5. I love Forster. I don’t think he’s quite at the top of my “If you could only take the works of one writer to a desert island” list, but he’s very near it. How could anyone not like “Room with a View”? Watching Lucy grow up is one of the great pleasures of the book and if Mr Beebe was my local clergyman I might even start going to church again. The world is full of great mysteries and some of them I don’t think I will ever understand.

  6. You know I’ve seen and enjoyed all the Merchant Ivory films of Forster’s books but I have yet to manage to read the books themselves. I really must fix that as I know that I will love them.

    • You will! You will! I really want you to read one now – maybe Howard’s End. Or maybe this one. Hmm, well, whichever you can get hold of – I’m sure you’ll love them too.

      • Oh so hard! Umm, well, Howard’s End is a slightly darker read, about philanthropy that goes wrong. A Room With A View is much funnier and sunnier about youthful romance. So if you are feeling in need of a cheer-up, definitely A Room With A View, whereas if you want something with more substance, then it has to be Howard’s End. 🙂 I’d love to know what you think of either!

  7. Oh, I love A Room With a View!! It’s such a gloriously optimistic book and never fails to put me in a good mood with the world. Perhaps I was destined to be biased in its favour, for Italy is one of the great loves of my life, but still… Where Angels Fear to Tread did not produce the same exhilarating effect…
    Since the adaptation has been mentioned, I think the film captures the tone of gentle derision very well – I always laugh myself silly when George Emerson returns to his hotel room to turn the question mark/picture back to the wall again, or when he so earnestly yells “Truth… Beauty… Love!” from the branches of an olive tree, only to tumble from his perch in a most undignified manner!

    • I liked the film too, and thought it a very faithful portrayal of the story. I’ve also read Where Angels Fear To Tread, and while I did enjoy it, I completely agree with you that it’s not A Room With A View. I found myself smiling all the way through those early chapters!

  8. I was going to mention the Merchant Ivory films and glad that Stefanie did. Yes, I’ve enjoyed their film adaptation of Forster’s works, in particular, A Room With a View (your poster here) and Howards End. They sent me to read the books after watching. I’ve enjoyed Forster’s humour. You can get a sense of it even just from the chapter titles in Room with a View. I remember that they are very funny in a subtle way, announcing what’s going to come in the chapter. And thanks to the excellent portrayals of the characters on screen, there’s no character that I don’t like when I read the book after.

    • Arti, the characters really stayed with me, so when I read the book, I recalled the Merchant Ivory actors. When I first read the book, I had yet to see the film, so it’s interesting how easily I adapted to the film’s portrayals. If they had not been so faithful, I’m sure I would have overwritten them. And I love the chapter headings too.

  9. I read this novel at an impressionable age and it has always been dear to my heart although in fact it’s a long time since I last read it. I lived in Florence for a few months before I went to university for reasons unconnected with Forster, but doing so cemented my affection for the book. ‘Sunny’ is a lovely word for it.

    • Oh how lovely to have lived in Florence! That must have been delightful, and to have read Forster’s book about that time would have been an impressive experience indeed. Sigh. That strikes me as very romantic!

  10. Have never read it, long to read it after your review, and notice that you’re reading The Woman in White in your sidebar. Wonderful, wonderful novel (in my opinion)! Did you ever finish Gone GIrl? Were you as disappointed with it as I was?

    • I am sure you would enjoy it! It is such a good-hearted novel. The poor Woman In White is having a breather at the moment, until my brain returns. But I did finish Gone Girl and have just reviewed it. I think that sort of novel, dependent on ever more extravagant twists is almost impossible to conclude well, and the ending shows that. I thought there was much to admire in the earlier sections, but was a bit sorry that psychological realism was sacrificed for the plot twists. So, a mixed response for me – I sympathised very much with your point of view.

  11. Wow, it’s been such a long time since I read this that I can barely remember anything about it. That’s not a reflection on the novel, but on my brain. I remember I liked it, though – must reread it now. Thanks for refreshing my memory!

    • I have a seven year rule – for seven years I can mostly recall the outline of a novel, the characters and so on, but after that time, the weight of new material pressing down from above is such that the book is reduced to mental slush. I don’t believe anyone can remember a book for longer unless you have to teach it or write about it!

  12. Well, there’d be no need for democracy if we all agreed. But that’s just politics. As far as art goes, were I in an art criticism class in Kandahar, I might be the only one to find beauty in depictions of the human form. Given the chance to champion an unpopular view, I’d muster my best western decadence and argue for everything from da Vinci to Hefner. Litlove, your post did a brilliant job. Those who disagreed have nothing to lose but their veils.

    • Ah, but am I unreasonable in wanting people to disagree for good reasons, rather than poor ones? That’s the foundation of all my lit criticism – of course readers have a million different reactions to books, but they have to justify them just a little. If you don’t have a basis of fact or reason, then opinion is just pantomime – oh yes it is! oh no it isn’t! Although of course it’s comforting to think that no matter what the artwork, someone somewhere will appreciate it! (and of course someone somewhere won’t) .Bless you for your kind words, dear friend.

  13. One of the things I like about the film is that it does make the humor obvious to a late 20th-century audience; I know a number of people who enjoyed the humor of the novel after seeing the film first.

    • Then bravo for the film! I know what you mean – making something visible often means giving it an existence it never had before. And I found my son, a reluctant reader, was often more prepared to try a book after he’d seen the film of it. He was then anticipating little events he’d enjoyed and so on, and it pulled him through any slow descriptive parts!

  14. Forster must be one of my one of my ten favourite novelists and this one of my 10 or 20 favourite books. How anyone cannot like it or find it boring is hard to imagine. Just let’s hope it will never be turned into a modernized version with bondage episodes for the sake of those who find it boring. I love it and, yes indeed, his characters are marvellous. They would certainly be a tad obnoxious in real life.

    • Caroline, I did laugh at your mention of bondage (the love scenes between George and Lucy that the book forgot! And what a ghastly misreading of the story they would be…) and then feared for A Room With A View, as I could just see some bright spark at Clandestine Press with a purple pen hovering over it. I am so glad to find another Forster fan, though. I think he’s a delight.

  15. I *love* this book. It’s one of my favorites, but then I think pretty much that Forster can do no wrong, so maybe I’m not the best person to ask. Reading your post gave me goosbumps to relive such a wonderful story. It is sunny and charming and very comforting–and so well done, too. All rolled into one…what more can you ask for? 🙂

  16. This was one of those times when I had read the book before I had seen the film. I went to see the film with low expectations (and rather liked the Merchant-Ivory production) because I was ambivalent about the book – I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was boring, but I did feel, soon after reading the book, that nothing much had happened in the story.

    Then, I realized that the moment I admitted the above to myself, I had assaulted Forster’s delicacy as a storyteller. In my memory now, after having read it several years ago, the story is less about events than about the cultural and social setting in which they occurred. This was also the case with A Passage to India.

    I feel like bunching those two novels together, but keep Howard’s End separate. While reading that book, I was repeatedly frustrated with the story arc, but I ended up liking the finished novel very much. It sort of grew in my mind later on.

    • Polaris so interesting to read your different responses here, and not at all surprised that someone of your sensitivity would be able to track his changing relationship to these novels. You are quite right that Forster is a delicate storyteller; it’s a perfect word for him, and A Room With A View (I still have A Passage to India to read) is very much about characters struggling to manage unwieldy social conventions, seen through the eyes of an ironic narrator. Howard’s End does feel different – more is at stake there, and more is lost. I wonder how his other novels fit into this dual structure – or whether they are very different? I haven’t read Maurice or The Longest Journey.

  17. Love, love, love A Room with a View, and wore out a video of the Merchant-Ivory film as a teenager too. It is definitely a feel good book.

  18. I adore this book and read it for the second time while actually IN Florence, which was superbly fun. My dad used this book as a way to move me toward more serious reading in my teens, hoping it would push me toward the Brontes, Austen, Dickens and etcetera. It did. And the movie version of the book was fabulous to watch when I was that age as well!

    • What a great choice by your dad! And I love the thought of actually reading this novel in Florence – that must have been wonderfully atmospheric. I read this for the first time at 19, away at university for the first time. I remember waking up in the middle of the night from a bad dream, switching the light on and reading it for a while. It made me feel completely safe and secure again, and the whole experience has remained with me for the rest of my life.

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  20. I’m another big fan of ‘A Room with a View’–both the book and the movie. If I’m really gloomy, either will cheer me up, but the quickest fix, I admit, is the naked ‘bathing’ scene from the film. That is one of my favorite film moments of all time, from when they strip down and jump in the water to when Lucy and Cecil happen upon them. The novel has darker edges than the movie, I think: just slightlly more shadows. I recently reread Zadie Smith’s essay on E. M. Forster: it’s pretty much the platonic ideal of that kind of essay, I think, beautifully combining thoughtful commentary on him as a writer with more personal responses and wider contexts.

  21. He’s one of my Must Read Everything authors and I only have Howard’s End left. That used to make me very nervous, and I have been “saving” it, but now that I realize just how poor my memory is for the plot details of books that I read, I am less anxious and expect that I’ll squeeze it in before the end of the year. Reading of your enthusiasm, and that of many of the commenters here, has nudged it up the stack substantially. And, after all, there is always the immense pleasure of re-reading!

  22. I’m so very glad to hear that this is a “funny and sunny” book! I had never watched the film for the reason that I wanted to read the book first. But then I never got to the book. Yet. I had only read A Passage to India and liked that very much, and I do want to read everything Forster’s written. Your review just makes me want to pick this one up because there are days when I’m craving a classic which is a romance which is light but not fluffy. This sounds perfect.

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