A View Without A Room

Do you wonder what happens to the characters in a book after finishing the last page and putting it down? Although it is exciting to imagine how their lives would have turned out, our visions of their futures do not always align with those of the authors of sequels. A continuation of another author’s book is not always a good idea. There are hundreds of sequels and spinoffs inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Although a few are entertaining, they don’t live up to the original. Even the sequels written by the original authors fall far short of the primary text. The example that comes immediately to mind is The Testaments, the continuation of The Handmaid’s Tale which is entirely different in tone from its predecessor or Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman which reveals a very dark side to Atticus Finch compared to his portrayal in To Kill A Mockingbird. The readers do not want all the gaps filled. Endings are what make books amazing and some things are best left ambiguous or unanswered.  

I recently re-read The Room With A View by E. M. Forster. I was basking in that dreamy state of enchantment along with Lucy and George in the room with a view at the Pension Bertolini in Florence where they return for their honeymoon. Although Forster didn’t write a sequel as such, he returned to the characters fifty years later in an epilogue.

The book was published in 1908 and the author in 1958 imagined how their lives would have turned out. I had often wondered myself about the characters. Will they have children? Will they live happily ever after? In those fifty years they have lived through two world wars. I am a little nervous as I am not sure I want to know what happened to them. I am a die- hard romantic and didn’t want my illusions to be shattered but in the end, my curiosity got the better of me. 

Here’s the epilogue if you are interested in finding out how Forster envisioned the future of his characters. Warning: Read at your own peril. You risk disillusionment.  

A View without a Room
A Room with a View was published in 1908. Here we are in 1958 and it occurs to me to wonder what the characters have been doing during the interval. They were created even earlier than 1908. The Italian half of the novel was almost the first piece of fiction I attempted. I laid it aside to write and publish two other novels, and the returned to it and added the English half. It is not my preferred novel – The Longest Journey is that – but it may fairly be called the nicest. It contains a hero and heroine who are supposed to be good, good-looking and in love – and who are promised happiness. Have they achieved it?
Let me think.
Lucy (Mrs George Emersen) must now be in her late sixties, George in his early seventies – a ripe age, though not as ripe as my own. They are still a personable couple, and fond of each other and of their children and grandchildren. But where do they live? Ah, that is the difficulty, and that is why I have entitled this article ‘A View without a Room’. I cannot think where George and Lucy live.
After their Florentine honeymoon they probably settled down in Hampstead. No – in Highgate. That is pretty clear, and the next six years were from the point of view of amenity the best they ever experienced. George cleared out of the railway and got a better-paid clerkship in a government office, Lucy brought a nice little dowry along with her, which they were too sensible not to enjoy, and Miss Bartlett left them what she termed her little all. (Who would have thought it of Cousin Charlotte? I should never have thought anything else.) They had a servant who slept in, and were becoming comfortable capitalists when World War I exploded – the war that was to end war – and spoiled everything.
George instantly became a conscientious objector. He accepted alternative service, so did not go to prison, but he lost his government job and was out of the running for Homes for Heroes when peace came. Mrs Honeychurch was terribly upset by her son-in-law’s conduct.
Lucy now got on her high horse and declared herself a conscientious objector too, and ran a more immediate risk by continuing to play Beethoven. Hun music! She was overheard and reported, and the police called. Old Mr Emerson, who lived with the young couple, addressed the police at length. They told him he had better look out. Shortly afterwards he died, still looking out and confident that Love and Truth would see humanity through in the end.
They saw the family through, which is something. No government authorized or ever will authorize either Love or Truth, but they worked privately in this case and helped the squalid move from Highgate to Carshalton. The George Emersons now had two girls and a boy and were beginning to want a real home – somewhere in the country where they would take root and unobtrusively found a dynasty. But civilization was not moving that way. The characters in my other novels were experiencing similar troubles. Howard’s End is a hunt for a home. India is a Passage for Indians as well as English. No resting-place.
For a time Windy Corner dangled illusively. After Mrs Honeychurch’s death there was a chance of moving into that much loved house. But Freddy, who had inherited it, was obliged to sell and realize the capital for the upbringing of his family. And unsuccessful yet prolific doctor, Freddy could not do other than sell. Windy Corner disappeared, its garden was built over, and the name of Honeychurch resounded in Surrey no more.
In due course World War II broke out – the one that was to end with a durable peace. George instantly enlisted. Being both intelligent and passionate, he could distinguish between a Germany that was not much worse than England and a Germany that was devilish. At the age of fifty he could recognize in Hitlerism an enemy of the heart as well as of the head and the arts. He discovered that he loved fighting and had been starved by its absence, and also discovered that away from his wife he did not remain chaste.
For Lucy the war was less varied. She gave some music lessons and broadcast some Beethoven, who was quite all right this time, but the little flat at Watford, where she was trying to keep things together against George’s return, was bombed, the loss of her possessions and mementos was complete, and the same thing happened to their married daughter, away at Nuneaton.
At the front George rose to the rank of corporal, was wounded and taken prisoner in Africa, and imprisoned in Mussolini’s Italy, where he found the Italians sometimes sympathetic as they had been in his tourist days, and sometimes less sympathetic.
When Italy collapsed he moved northward through the chaos towards Florence. The beloved city had changed, but not unrecognizably. The Trinita*0224* Bridge had been destroyed, both ends of the Ponte Vecchio were in a mess, but the Piazza Signoria, where once a trifling murder had occurred, still survived. So did the district where the Pension Bertolini had once flourished – nothing damaged at all.
And George set out – as I did myself a few years later – to locate the particular building. He failed. For though nothing is damaged all is changed. The houses on that stretch of the Lungarno have been renumbered and remodelled and, as it were, remelted, some of the facades have been extended, others have shrunk, so that it is impossible to decide which room was romantic half a century ago. George had therefore to report to Lucy that the View was still there and that the Room must be there, too, but could not be found. She was glad of the news, although at that moment she was homeless. It was something to have retained a View, and, secure in it and in their love as long as they have one another to love, George and Lucy await World War III – the one that would end war and everything else, too.
Cecil Vyse must not be omitted from this prophetic retrospect. He moved out of the Emersons’ circle but was not altogether out of mine. With his integrity and intelligence he was destined for confidential work, and in 1914 he was seconded to Information or whatever the withholding of information was then entitled. I had an example of his propaganda, and a very welcome one, at Alexandria. A quiet little party was held on the outskirts of that city, and someone wanted a little Beethoven. The hostess demurred. Hun music might compromise us. But a young officer spoke up. ‘No, it’s all right,’ he said, ‘a chap who know about those things from the inside told me Beethoven’s definitely Belgian.’
The chap in question must have been Cecil. The mixture of mischief and culture is unmistakable. Our hostess was reassured, the ban was lifted, and the Moonlight Sonata shimmered into the desert.

At first I regretted reading this piece. I was disappointed…no, I was disenchanted. I wanted to freeze that moment for eternity when Lucy and George were on their honeymoon whispering sweet nothings and smothering each other with kisses.

I find out that George and Lucy were happily married. They had three children but no house to call their own. “Windy Corner disappeared, its garden was built over, and the name of Honeychurch resounded in Surrey no more..” is one sad little sentence. But surely you can build a home without owning a house?

George, a conscientious objector during World War 1 decided to enroll  when World War 2 broke out.”He discovered that he loved fighting and had been starved by its absence, and also discovered that away from his wife he did not remain chaste.”Oh no! So he was unfaithful to Lucy. So much for the sweet love story! My cousin pointed out that “he did not remain chaste” could refer to the fact that he loved fighting and enrolled in the war. But the words “away from his wife” make me believe otherwise.

Some things did not change. Good old Mr. Emerson, my favorite character of the original novel was still confident that Love and Truth would see humanity through. The sanctimonious Charlotte who sort of redeems herself in the end of the novel by bringing the couple together leaves her money to Lucy. Forster believes in her innate goodness when in parentheses he states that even if that were hard to believe, he would never have thought anything else of Cousin Charlotte. 

Forster writes about the characters as if they were real. While bringing up Cecil, he writes: “He moved out of the Emersons’ circle but was not altogether out of mine.” In Alexandria at a party when they are hesitating to play Beethoven as German music might compromise them, someone refers to an officer who believed that Beethoven was Belgian and Forster believes they must be talking about Cecil. How delightful is this little snippet of information! It makes us see Cecil in an entirely different light. Forster’s characters are not intrinsically good or evil but human and as fabulous as flawed. 

Was this postscript necessary? Reading it is akin to attending a reunion of friends after decades and catching up on news and gossip. We might feel that it ruins the romantic note on which A Room With A View ends. But on reading it again, I quite like the outcome. Forster portrays life and life comprises of love, marriage, wars, birth, death..in other words-adventures and misadventures or ‘muddles’ to use his own preferred word. Lucy and George are a happy couple and still in love. Life came in the way. Marriage is not an ending but a beginning. If they had outgrown their love, I would have been disillusioned. But love takes on different expressions as you go through the trials and tribulations in life. Even if we assume George had been unfaithful to Lucy, he was away from her at war. There is no excuse for infidelity but like the saying goes ‘All is fair in love and war’. Let’s not forget that A Room with A View exudes a certain gentleness and optimism as it is a story written before the wars.  

I think if Forster had elaborated on this epilogue we could easily have had another A Room With A View with a similar happy ending. It could have retained the very apt title of the epilogue, A View Without A Room.  Neither George nor Forster are able to locate the room with a view when they go back to Florence. It doesn’t matter if the room is there or not. Love is not necessarily diminished by the tragedies of life, on the contrary, it is often strengthened. The room is no longer there but the view exists and that’s all that matters. 

What are your views on A View Without A Room? Do you think Forster should have left well alone or do you like the new view? 

A Rose By Many Other Names

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Zéphirine Drouhin- Antique Bourbon Rose

I’m taking a slightly different turn on my blog today. I had submitted an article a few years ago for a contest on a gardening website where we had to write an essay based on the famous lines from Romeo and Juliet about a rose by any other name smelling just as sweet. Unfortunately the contest was called off as they didn’t have enough participants. Roses will be blooming soon in my garden. They are already awakening from their winter slumber and putting out new shoots and leaves. I thought it would be timely to post the essay I had submitted pertaining to gardening but inspired by literary lines.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Juliet declares these impassioned lines in Act 11, Scene 11 of Romeo and Juliet. There is a feud between the noble families of Capulet and Montague but for Juliet, Romeo would still be perfection incarnate with a different family name and she would still love him wholeheartedly. But would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Fragrance is not exclusive to roses. We just have to smell a jasmine or a hyacinth or get a whiff of a lilac or a sweet autumn clematis to know that there are other alluring scents in the world of flowers. Besides, the scent factor varies a lot among roses. A rose can be virtually scent- free or it could have the most intense and intoxicating perfume on earth. Take a look at any rose catalog and you would think they were describing the aroma of an old wine. A rose could have a spicy fragrance with hints of cedarwood and vanilla or a deliciously fruity fragrance reminiscent of raspberries.

Fragrance is not the only quality of roses. Color, form and habit are equally important to the gardener. Nowadays we can’t really say that a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. The name rose has become generic. There are thousands of roses in mind-boggling varieties: hybrid tea roses, grandiflora, floribunda, miniature, climbing, antique and rugosa to name just a few. How do we distinguish between the different varieties of roses? By their names of course. The names are often majestic and meaningful and reveal their outstanding characteristics.

I must confess that many a time I’ve bought a rose solely for its fancy name ignoring all its other attributes like disease resistance and hardiness. Who can resist the allure of a romantic name like ‘Moondance’ or ‘ Sweet Intoxication’? Or roses that transport us to faraway places like ‘April in Paris’ or ‘Tahitian Sunset’? ‘Mister Lincoln’ and ‘John F. Kennedy’ named after famous Presidents would appeal to history buffs. A religious person might be inclined to buy ‘ Pope John Paul II’ or ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’. I once bought ‘Queen Nefertiti’ from the David Austin Roses catalog only because the rose sounded regal and exotic. Her Majesty has certainly lived up to her name, rewarding me every year with exquisitely scented apricot blooms.

 

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David Austin English Rose – Queen Nefertiti

I also have a predilection for roses named after famous authors and literary characters and again, it is the David Austin collection that fulfills my fantasies. ‘Jude the Obscure’ and ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles’ fit the bill perfectly as I am a big fan of Thomas Hardy. There is ‘Gentle Hermione’ from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ named after Tennyson’s poem and ‘The Pilgrim’ from The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. Then there is the crimson rose ‘William Shakespeare’ named after the Bard himself.

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David Austin English Rose- Tess of the D’urbervilles

However the sweetest smelling rose in my garden is ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’, a fuchsia pink antique French rose. It puts on a spectacular show every June in my zone 5b garden and continues blooming sporadically through the summer into the fall. The most remarkable characteristic of ‘Zéphirine’ is that it is virtually thorn- free and can grow in semi-shade unlike most roses which require full sun. The only drawback is that it is susceptible to black spot and powdery mildew. The very name Bourbon for this class of climbing roses conjures up images of powerful monarchs. 

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Zephirine Drouhin- Antique Climbing Rose

‘Zéphirine’ itself is quite a rare and unusual name. The word ‘zephyr’ could refer to a light breeze or remind us of ‘Zephyrus’ the Greek God of the west wind. This rose is also known by other names like ‘ Mme. Charles Bonnet’ and ‘La Belle Dijonnaise’ ( the beautiful lady from Dijon). ‘Zéphirine’ has the quintessential old rose fragrance. It is the distinctive scent of ‘attar’ or the essential oil extracted from the petals of a rose. I have my own pet name for ‘Zéphirine’. Madame Zeffy as we lovingly call her at home can be quite temperamental and moody. There are days when her perfume is elusive. She needs the perfect warmth and humidity to release her captivating fragrance.

I know that ‘Zéphirine’ will have an enchanting fragrance with any other name but it is her name that makes her sound ethereal. Despite Juliet’s fervent declaration, it is on account of their names that the story ends disastrously for the star-crossed lovers. A rose will always be known for its beauty and redolence but the short and sweet one-syllable name enhances the charm of a rose and imbues it with character. Could you imagine a rose being called a thistle? Somehow it doesn’t have the same effect.

~ Jayshree

All Booked Up!

kindred.jpgI’ve found my kindred spirit and I’ve never even met her. I’m sure many avid readers felt and would feel the same while reading Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, an enchanting collection of essays on the love of books. It is essentially a book about books and a treat for all bookworms. As a voracious reader myself, I could relate intimately to the experiences of Anne Fadiman, the author. A daughter of two well-known writers, she had an upbringing that revolved around reading books in a house spilling with books. She and her brother even used to build a playhouse out of their Dad’s twenty-two volume Trollope collection. Many of these essays were published separately in Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress before being published collectively in this volume. The joy of reading permeates through the essays and I savored each and every one like a rare delicacy, lingering over every tidbit.

For Anne Fadiman books are more than paper and print; they are an integral part of life. The essays tackle topics as varied as the love of long words, proofreading, plagiarizing, the pleasure of reading aloud, shopping for used books, reading books in their actual setting, cherishing writing instruments with the preferred color of ink and the perfect quality of the nib and gastronomic references by famous writers. The essays are heartfelt and humorous. In “Marrying Libraries”, she narrates how she and her husband only considered themselves really married when her books and his books became “our books” occupying the same shelves.

They say that only a bibliophile can understand another bibliophile and Anne Fadiman is a woman after my own heart. I could recognize myself over and over again in her obsession with the written word. How do I relate? Let me count the ways:

She loves words so much that she pores over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual, the only thing in the apartment she has not read at least twice. I could understand the frustration and restlessness of being without any reading material. I am the sort who would read anything and everything. I even read the dictionary to amuse myself just as Anne Fadiman reads mail order catalogues for fun. In a hotel room for want of a book, I have reached out in desperation to the Bible on the night- stand.

In “The Joy of Sesquipedalians”, Fadiman describes her family’s love for long words. The members of “Fadiman University” would spout sesquipedalians at the drop of a hat and watch quiz shows together, each member having his or her own area of expertise and often arriving at the correct response before any of the contestants. She could just as well be talking about my family watching Jeopardy together.

Every library has an odd shelf according to her containing books unrelated to the rest of the library. Her odd shelf houses books on polar exploration and expedition narratives. How odd that my odd shelf at home also has books on exploration, the only difference being that my adventures are about Jim Corbett’s thrilling hunting expeditions in tropical jungles!

Fadiman recounts the excitement of diving into the stash of adult books from our parents’  libraries! My uncle, a compulsive collector of books, had the habit of hoarding them everywhere in his apartment- pell-mell with no method to the madness ( although I’m sure that he knew exactly where each one was located.). His apartment was overflowing with books- on bookshelves, on the window sills, on tables and even on the floor. Books propositioned me from every corner and as a teenager I remember the thrill of furtively stumbling upon Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita in much the same way Fadiman came upon her father’s copy of Fanny Hill and learned about sex from it.

One of my favorite essays is “Inset a Carrot” in which she describes how her family members are compulsive proofreaders and check for spelling and grammatical errors on a restaurant menu. Her mother has an envelope of hundreds of clippings from the local newspaper containing errors. Anne Fadiman once made corrections to an edition of Speak, Memory and mailed it to Nabokov himself. I understand her pain and share her affliction. I remember being shocked to discover that Emily Dickinson confused “it’s” and “its” in many of her poems and wrote to the editor about it. The editors, I later discovered, were aware of the errors but wanted to leave her work untouched. I was equally disturbed to see a literary celebrity like Hemingway write ” I feel badly” in one of his major works. It was probably a case of hyper-correction not knowing that linking verbs are modified with adjectives and not adverbs. I can imagine some readers rolling their eyes. As Fadiman puts it “ I know what you may be thinking: What an obnoxious family! What a bunch of captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies!” I agree with her but I think for a true grammar nerd such errors are sacrilegious and you just can’t help the urge to fix them. And unfortunately, as Fadiman quips, there is no twelve-step program for this affliction.

Some readers may think she is pretentious and anything but a common reader. The title of the collection of essays is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays entitled The Common Reader, who in turn, borrowed the phrase from Samuel Johnson’s Life of Gray where he writes about the common reader who is different from the scholar and the critic and reads purely for pleasure. Anne Fadiman comes from a privileged background that was undoubtedly pivotal in fostering a deep love of books in her. To me she comes across as an intellectually curious and erudite person who loves learning for learning’s sake.

In “Never do that to a Book”, she recounts how her brother Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table in a hotel in Copenhagen and found a note from the chambermaid: “Sir you must never do that to a book.” Fadiman makes a distinction between the courtly and the carnal reader. A carnal book lover will scribble notes in the margins, dog- ear the corners, fold and crease the papers and even break the spines. In this aspect I differ from Fadiman and belong to the courtly lover category as in India we were taught never to deface a book. If you accidentally stepped on one, you would touch it and put your fingers over your eyes as an apologetic gesture.

Along with the bliss of reading, the essays are suffused with a zest for life and the warmth of a loving family. In the essay, “Scorn Not the Sonnet”, she narrates how her father on losing a considerable amount of his vision, laments the fact that he will no longer be able to read or write as before. She gently reminds him that Milton wrote Paradise Lost after he became blind and the father-daughter duo reconstruct, in a heartwarming moment, as much as they can, the sonnet “On his Blindness” from memory in the hospital and she reads the rest to him later over the phone. She and her husband who, needless to say, is a bibliophile too, read Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey to each other as a bedtime ritual. The essays also have interesting snippets about other authors and famous people and their relationship with books.

It’s always reassuring to know that there are many other crazy book addicts in the world and that you are not alone. I enjoyed reading these charming essays and the icing on the cake was a final section with a recommended reading list of books about books. As if my list were not long enough already! One lifetime will not be enough for all the books I want to read. I really hope that there is an afterlife and that there is a library in heaven or hell or even better that the theory of re-incarnation is true and that we will be able to enjoy many reading avatars.

P.S. What is your relationship with books? Are you a courtly or a carnal reader? Do share your experiences in the comments.