A Review of E M Forster’s A Room With A View

I found A Room with a View to be, if not in the absolute top rank, nevertheless a very worthwhile piece of literature. Aside from being a sensitive study of a woman who often doesn’t know herself well enough, it is a trove of social and esthetic observation.
Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

For many of us New Yorkers since Sept. 11, 2001, a “view” means being in a high place where you don’t feel safe, looking out at something that … is no longer there. In E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, a “view” is also associated with danger and an upheaval in the order of things … not in the physical, but in the social sphere.

Is this connection the reason that I started ARWAV? Consciously, my choice seemed happenstance. But unconsciously, who knows? I *do* know that I had been trying to get into Anna Karenina, but after getting through Part One and then some, I simply concluded that it is not right for me, at least at this stage in my literary path. “Great novel” though it may be, it seemed too conventional, and perhaps somewhat soap-opera-like in its parade
of multiple marital infidelities.

This was my first E.M. Forster, and though it too is conventionally written in a fashion — a “novel of manners” as the online Columbia Encyclopedia [1] puts it — it was much more
on my current wavelength. EMF (1879-1970) was a British author who spent a good deal of time abroad (Italy, Greece, Egypt), as one would well guess from reading ARWAV (1908), whose first part
is set in Italy. He was a member of the famous “Bloomsbury” group which also included Virginia Woolf. EMF’s writing is not experimental or “modern” like Woolf’s (whose To The Lighthouse is one of my peak reading experiences), but I think few would deny that he has a fine literary style. EMF’s most celebrated novel is A Passage to India, which I hope to read eventually… especially since I enjoyed his foreign locale so much in ARWAV.

My edition was paperback and one of the “Vintage International” series. The typography was a bit large and bold for me; it could well have been reduced, resulting in a more compact package.
Perhaps since I bought the book second-hand (at my neighborhood thrift shop of course) it was old enough to still have the wonderful binding in “signatures”, meaning that as one bends the
pages back so it lies flat, the book gets to feel more and more comfortable and accommodating as a physical object … as opposed to more or less slowly starting to fall apart, as do volumes with
“perfect” (ha) binding, whose pages are glued in singly. But …balanced against the delight of the binding, is the discovery (fortunately once I had completed reading) that the blurb on the
outside back cover completely gives away the ending! You have been warned.

ARWAV is composed of two parts; Part I is set in Florence. Quite a few years ago, I was in that city, during a summer when I played in the Spoleto Festival orchestra. Perhaps even stronger
than my memory of the incredible art there, is my recollection that Florence seemed just like an American college town, what with all the young tourists from the USA. In ARWAV, Florence is
seen from the perspective of a group of British tourists, huddled together in a “pension” where even the woman in charge has a Cockney accent! The leading character is the young woman Lucy
Honeychurch, who is accompanied and chaperoned by her older cousin Miss Charlotte Bartlett. Lucy’s circle is repressive and excessively proper; the word “stomach”, for example, cannot be mentioned in mixed company. And much worse, her group is suspicious and rejecting of any outsiders — whatever their merits — who do not share their over-genteel manners.

But outsiders they must face, for also in the close quarters of the pension at this time are Mr. Emerson and his troubled son George. As the story opens, Mr. E. overhears Lucy bemoan to
Charlotte the fact that she was not, as promised, given a room with a proper view of the Italian scene outside. Breaking into this conversation (and not properly introduced), he immediately
offers to exchange his and his son’s rooms, which do have a view, with Lucy and Charlotte’s. As you might suspect, this proposal — innocent and well-meant, but not considered within the
delicate social norms — causes great consternation, and suspicion of the Emersons’ motives. The subsequent ostracism and defamation of the Emersons has much more to do with Lucy’s circle than with the Emersons themselves. As EMF so memorably puts it, we don’t have to go out into the rough-and-tumble world to find threats, since “real menace belongs to the drawing room”.

Part I of ARWAV renders with sensitivity the opposing forces that are at work within Lucy. Will she end up going with her “matronly” side, keeping with the ways of the snobbish society
she grew up in, that rejects outside influences no matter how healthy and good? Or will she achieve a clearer vision into herself, and see what lies out there in the rest of the world (as
exemplified by George and his father)? Dragging Lucy back, as it were, are Charlotte and the rest of her circle. But what is working in the other direction is the warm-blooded Italian temperament that Lucy is in the midst of once she leaves the English enclave that is her “pension”. Walking alone one afternoon on a Florence street, she is a witness to a fight between two men that results in one being killed. This is Lucy’s first chance to be thrown together with George, who happens also to be nearby. Later, a coachman with a romantic nature stage-manages another encounter between the two of them, in a beautiful landscape. But very soon party-pooper Charlotte appears, “brown against the view”, to claim Lucy back to her side of things … back to the “room”, as it were.

The second and final part of ARWAV is set back in England, where we see Lucy at home, and no longer subject to George, his father, or the passions of Italy. Instead, she becomes engaged to the
aristocratic and aloof Cecil Vyse, who, unlike George, meets with the approval of her family. Although I certainly did not mind finishing the book, I must say that I don’t think this part of
ARWAV works as well as the first part did. The room/view theme, which was subtle and intruiging in Part I, becomes too labored and repeated, I think, in Part II. Also, Part I has the foreign
locale, which creates so many interesting scenes and opportunities for the English characters. Some of the characters in Part II, on their home ground, can be a bit wearying. (Does it help to be British to appreciate them?) Part II also makes use of coincidence in perhaps a slightly obtrusive way.

I can, however, suggest that the reader attempt to figure out what the climax of Part II will be. It is the flowering, one might say, of certain plot “seeds” that were planted in Part I.
If you agree that Part II is less engrossing than Part I, this mental game might help sustain your interest. I myself did not foresee what was going to happen; but I feel that I should have!

I wonder if it ever occurred to EMF to limit his book to just Part I. Without much modification to this section I think, he could have made it into a novella, that unusual and intruiging form which is longer than a short story, but too short to really be a novel. (Does a novella have other requirements besides length? Looking up the term [2] suggests this. How do others view this issue?) Embarrassedly, I can think of only one example of a novella-length work right now — Melville’s Benito Cereno — but that happens to be one of my favorite literary works in *any* form, short, long, or medium!

Having recently read Samuel Butler’s great work The Way of All Flesh, it was fun to come across Butler references in this novel. TWOAF is in the Emersons’ book collection, whereas the Rev. Beebe (of Lucy’s circle) has “never heard of it”! (In all fairness however, it should be said that TWOAF was not published till 1903, just 5 years before the appearance of ARWAV.) Also, George’s father quotes to Lucy from the writing of a “friend” (Butler himself?) the familiar line of Butler’s that “Life is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along”.

Speaking of the violin, I was (perhaps especially because I am a musician myself) struck by how much EMF used Lucy’s musical side to delineate her character. As it turns out, she is able to
express her more interior self sooner and better at the piano, than she can anywhere else. And perhaps in future when someone says they don’t understand me, I can quote to them the Rev.
Beebe’s notion about musicians:

He had a theory that musicians are incredibly complex, and know far less than other artists what they want and what they are; that they puzzle themselves as well as their friends; that their psychology is a modern development, and
has not yet been understood.

I also am grateful to EMF for re-stimulating my interest in the amazing art of Giotto. One of ARWAV’s Florence scenes takes place in the church of Santa Croce, where we find Giotto’s fresco
of “The Ascension of St. John” [3]. Mr. Emerson, usually so right about things, does not find this image agreeable to him:

“Look at that fat man in blue! He must weigh as much as I do, and he is shooting into the sky like an air balloon.”

To me, this is precisely the wonder of this painting: despite John’s all-too-human bulk (so compellingly rendered), he is nevertheless inexorably drawn upward by the all-conquering divine force.

Nov for some miscellaneous items. Lucy as she goes about Florence feels lost without her trusty Baedeker. This is a series of travel guides (still in print as I just saw at my local library), which seems to have been of some importance in those days. It would be of interest to look through the Baedekers of the early 20th century (and the 19th century as well) to see what the conventional esthetic wisdom was back then.

Then there is the word “empyrean”. Used in ARWAV, it is also often found in Paradise Lost, which I’ve been reading on and off recently. It has become one of my favorite words. From context, I sort of know what it means, but (foolishly and superstitiously) am afraid to look it up, for fear that too precise knowledge will spoil something about this word for me.

I cannot conclude without mentioning the “Mackintosh squares”. The character Miss Lavish, the novelist and well-armed traveler, carries with her these pieces of rubberized material, which serve to “protect the frame of the tourist from damp grass or cold marble steps”. Travel-supply stores, take note!  To sum up: I found A Room with a View to be, if not in the absolute top rank, nevertheless a very worthwhile piece of literature. Aside from being a sensitive study of a woman who often doesn’t know herself well enough, it is a trove of social and esthetic observation. This novel is available online at no charge [4]. Some of Forster’s other novels, notably A Passage To India (1924), are apparently not costlessly downloadable; presumably they are still under copyright.

[1] via http://www.bartleby.com/
[2] http://www.xrefer.com/results.jsp?shelf=search+all&term=novella
[3] http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/tours/giotto/peruzzi.html
[4] http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/
Tom Frenkel <taf2@nyu.edu>

For more information about A Room With a View or to purchase a copy, visit:
Room With A View