Fiction – Kindle edition; ManyBooks.net; 191 pages; 1908.
A Room with a View was E.M. Forster’s third novel. It is set during the Edwardian era and is about a young woman trying to escape the social conventions of the time to lead the kind of life she wants to lead.
An Italian setting
It opens in Florence, where Lucy Honeychurch is on vacation with her older cousin Charlotte Bartlett. (I have to say that the names in this novel are wonderful.)
Both women are disappointed that their rooms in the Pension Bertolini do not have views over the river. But when a fellow called Mr Emerson, who is staying at the hotel with his son George, offers to swap rooms, instead of thanking him for the kind offer, the women consider him impudent and ill-bred. (Those silly Edwardian manners, eh?)
This one act of generosity by Mr Emerson sets off a whole chain of events — including a murder — in which Lucy (and Charlotte) are ever-entwined with both the father and son, not only in Italy but back in England, too.
When the action shifts to Lucy’s childhood home — Windy Corner in Surrey, England — the reader must forgive one or two grating coincidences, because the Emersons move into a local cottage and suddenly there they are, just as they were in Florence, continually putting their foot in it and upsetting everyone’s sense of propriety.
Travel versus marriage
For most of the novel, Lucy struggles with working out what she wants from her rather cosseted life. Should she continue to travel and seek out adventure, or should she settle down and get married? When she finally accepts Cecil Vyse’s proposal of marriage (she refuses twice), her future looks mapped out for her. But it’s clear the match is not a good one.
Cecil, for a start, is probably the most pompous and snobbish character I have ever come across in a novel. (Honestly, he’s vile.) He’s described as “the sort who are all right so long as they keep to things — books, pictures — but kill when they come to people”. And his views on women suggest that he is going to have trouble keeping Lucy’s independent streak in check:
He daren’t let a woman decide. He’s the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he’s forming you, telling you what’s charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of to your own.
Lucy might not be educated but she has an enquiring mind broadened by travel — and she is set on being “a rebel who desired, not a wider dwelling-room, but equality beside the man she loved”.
By contrasting the repression of Edwardian society with the apparent freedom — and sunshine — of Italy, Forster gives Lucy a striking dilemma, because whichever path she chooses to follow will have negative consequences.
While A Room with a View is a kind of treatise about a woman’s right to be independent, it’s actually quite a light-hearted book filled with comic moments. Forster seems particularly scathing of tourists and there are some delicious references to the writing profession — ” ‘All modern books are bad,’ said Cecil, who was annoyed at her inattention, and vented his annoyance on literature. ‘Everyone writes for money these days.’ ”
Charm, wit and intelligence
As much as I appreciated the charm, wit and intelligence of this novel, I struggled to enjoy it.
I don’t think it helped that all the characters come across as frightful snobs (yes, I know that’s the point). Every time Cecil appeared on the page I just wanted to smack him (I’m not a violent person, honestly), and even Lucy, whom we’re supposed to cheer on, annoyed me because she failed to recognise that she was lucky to have the choice to either marry or travel — most women of that time would have had to succumb to the traditional route.
My views, however, are by the by — this book has been made into countless films, including an award-winning one by Merchant Ivory in 1985 which I’ve not seen. I suspect there are loads of you out there that absolutely love it, but for me, it was a lukewarm read…
‘A Room with a View’, by E.M. Forster, first published in 1908, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it describes the novel as a “brilliant satire of early twentieth-century middle England and its rigorously upheld social conventions”.
10 thoughts on “‘A Room with a View’ by E.M. Forster”
Good review…I know what you mean about Forster’s books, I’ve read a few and can’t honestly say I’ve enjoyed them as much as the writing deserves…I have seen the Merchant Ivory film, it is ravishing to look at, fabulous costume etc and Maggie Smith is priceless as Charlotte
I do recommend the Merchant Ivory film because there are so many wonderful actors in it. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the film but I’ve only read the book once.
…and I’m one of those who love it (and most of his work)!
I love A Room With a View. The film is brilliant too. Sorry you didn’t get along with it. I think that from a distance it’s easy to see the obvious, but when one is caught up in the actual events, as the characters are, things are not quite so clear-cut. Forster didn’t mind including a fair dollop of irony in his writing, which is one reason why I like his work so much.
Haven’t read it, but I loved Forster’s “Howards End” (both the novel and the M/I film).
I found it quite a lukewarm read too (although for different reasons – snobbery doesn’t bother me in fiction) – the film is interesting just to see how dreadful Helena Bonham-Carter was (she’d learnt to act by Howards End!) Incidentally, Howards End is also a much better book, in my opinion – like a modernised Sense and Sensibility, sort of. Also deals directly with the snobbery of its characters, which might please you 🙂
Would be interested in hearing which Forster you think I should read next… Do you have a favourite Forster?
You’re right, of course, about Lucy’s indecision… it’s easy for me on the outside looking in to cast judgement. And my “review” is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I wanted to be so much more scathing, but tried to be restrained. I don’t have an English degree and I’m not a fan of the classics anyway, so this book was way out of my comfort zone. But I did appreciate the wit and the intelligence and the more I think about it, the more I like the way Forster set up the plot and the interconnectedness between his characters, even if I didn’t much like those characters.
I have just read Where Angels Fear to Tread which probably wasn’t a good one to start with as it’s apparently not his best. I really enjoyed the first half and then I got bored…..really bored. I may need some persuading to read any more of his but if you do find a good one let me know.
love the moderenist cover ,I feel this is book that has flourished because of the film in a way not his best book I like his short stories read them and the real gems ,all the best stu