There are some books that are plain comfort food for the soul. One such book that holds a special place in my heart is The Room With A View by E.M. Forster. I recently read it for the third or fourth time. I’ve stopped counting. This uplifting story was perfect to revisit during the time of the pandemic. Quirky and effervescent are the two words that come spontaneously to my mind when I think about this novel. A Room With A View is a feel good romance and a coming of age story but it is also a lighthearted satire of the class conscious and snobbish English society of the Edwardian era.
Lucy Honeychurch is vacationing in Florence, Italy with her straitlaced cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett. They are disappointed when they fail to get a room with a view in the Pensione Bertolini, a place swarming with fellow English tourists. Forster seems to be poking fun at those tourists who have left England but have not really left England at all. A certain Mr. Emerson, a freethinking transcendentalist much like his American namesake Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his pensive son George, offer to exchange their rooms with them. Their behavior, polite by modern day standards is seen as ill-bred and presumptuous by the ladies but that does not stop them from accepting the offer which sets in motion a chain of events leading to unforeseen adventures together.
A lot has been said about the book already and most people know the story if not through the novel then through the sumptuous Merchant Ivory film based on it. I am assuming most readers are familiar with the plot and I have not stayed away from revealing details. In any case, I am not going to go into too much depth about the characters or the plot but dwell more on the personal reasons why I love this beloved classic of English literature that stands the test of time.
First and foremost, it’s a delightful romance. Lucy, the conservative English girl is drawn to George, an unconventional free spirit who is attracted to her and slowly brings out the passion buried within her. After a few encounters with him that culminates in a kiss that takes her by surprise, she and her chaperone, discomfited by the incident, beat a hasty retreat to Rome and back to England just when Italy had started to work its charm on her. Back home in Surrey, she is engaged to the priggish and pretentious Cecil Vyse. Call it coincidence or the intervention of Fate, George and his father end up renting a cottage in the same area Lucy lives and they are thrown back together. And then one day he takes her and kisses her again unexpectedly unlike Cecil who asked her for permission to kiss her. George’s sudden kiss in this current environment of the Me Too movement may seem inappropriate but no prizes for guessing what Lucy preferred! I was awestruck by the luminosity and lyricism of the description of that memorable kiss. I felt like I had walked into a painting by Monet or Renoir.
I love a good ‘muddle’. Needless to say, Lucy finds herself in a ‘muddle’, a word Forster loves and which makes its appearance in his other books too. Her life is thrown in turmoil. Should she follow her heart or conform to the dictates of Edwardian society bound up in convention and respectability? She doesn’t know what she herself wants as the repressed society hinders your ability to be true to yourself. You lie about your feelings to yourself as much as you lie to others. Even the chapters are humorously named as: “Lying to George”, “Lying to Cecil”,” Lying to Mr. Beebe, Mrs. Honeychurch, Freddy, and The Servants”and “Lying to Mr. Emerson”. The tension between emotion and reason is the crux of the plot as Lucy slowly awakens to who she truly is. The insular English life as represented by Charlotte and Lucy and some other lodgers at the boarding house is a life that affords no view- a life of not just physical confinement but limited thinking. The Emersons and Italy open up windows for Lucy to view the world in all its splendor and awaken in her new ways of thinking.
I could relate to Lucy Honeychurch. The story may seem dated to the modern reader but for me it brings back flashbacks of my life in India in the eighties and nineties, a period that was no different from the England of the eighties and nineties of the 19th century. Yes, we were socially behind a hundred years or more. That’s why most Indians can relate to Jane Austen and her plots dealing with matchmaking and matrimony. Marrying well to achieve domestic and financial security was the goal as opposed to marrying for love.
I was also around the same age as Lucy Honeychurch and could identify with her predicament. Just as Lucy was engaged to Cecil, there was tremendous pressure on me from my family to accept a proposal of marriage from a so called respectable family. I knew in my heart of hearts that it wasn’t the right thing to do. Yet I was afraid of the consequences of declining the offer and of disappointing my family. Luckily for me, I was presented with the opportunity to escape to Europe for a few months which gave me time to postpone the decision on which my future would be based. As I tend to pick up books based on the places I am visiting, I found myself on a train in Europe reading A Room with a View at a most opportune moment of my life.
And there I was in Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, a city suffused with light and beauty and romance. I had no Baedeker guide with me like the English pensioners but was a flaneur in the city with no set agenda. Like Lucy I was a sheltered girl traveling to Italy from a repressed country of Victorian morality – a country where much ado was made over a kiss or a boy walking alone with a girl just as it is in A Room With A View. And perhaps that’s why the novel resonates some place deep within me.
It has a charming and eccentric cast of characters. They are depicted with humor, satire and irony. Yet they are not caricatures. There are no good or bad characters. The insufferable Charlotte who thwarted the young couple’s attempts at romance, redeems herself in the end by bringing them together. At least that’s what the goodhearted and forgiving George believes. George realizes that he has the same desire to govern a woman as Cecil and other men and he wants to make sure that his internalized sexism doesn’t come in the way of Lucy having her own thoughts. Even the despicable Cecil graciously steps out of Lucy’s way when she calls off the engagement.
The book has wonderful passages. While reading, I marked many beautiful and thoughtful lines. The last two chapters simply took my breath away. The senior Mr. Emerson is my favorite character and seems to espouse his creator’s liberal outlook on life. He appears odd to the others but he is the most original character in the book who believes in the equality of the sexes and in the glorious power of love and truth and might I add, the pure and unadulterated joy of bathing naked in a pool. My two favorite passages from the book are both from the second last chapter of the book which is a paen to love and an exhortation to live your truth. Mr. Emerson is instrumental in urging Lucy to follow her own heart and declares:
It has important life lessons. As I was walking at sunset in the city bathed in golden light, I saw youngsters hold hands on the Ponte Santa Trinita. Or steal a kiss on the stairs of the Piazzale Michelangelo. Love was in the air. Love was everywhere. I knew what I had to do when I returned home. Perhaps it was Florence or A Room With A View or both the city and the book it inspired that taught me to have the courage to face my feelings and live with authenticity. In the end, Lucy decides to stay away from the safe choice of marrying Cecil and takes a risk by marrying George who belongs to a much lower station in life. Like Lucy I learned that being true to yourself comes at a cost. She has to elope with George as her family is against the match but she has the confidence that those who care for them will forgive them in due course. I didn’t know what the future had in store for me. There was no George yet in my life but all I knew was that he was worth waiting for and that by listening to my heart, I would eventually live my bliss.
A beloved college professor now deceased had introduced me to Forster through A Passage To India. In that novel, I was touched by the mutual silent and intimate understanding between Mrs. Moore and Aziz. Forster’s novels are essentially about human communication and connection or the lack thereof. All of his oeuvre can be summarized in the oft quoted lines “Only Connect” in the epigraph to Howards End. In fact, Forster has had such an impact on me that “Only Connect’ has become my own mantra to live my life.