My rating: 4 of 5 stars
E.M. Forster's A Room with a View is set in Italy and England during the Edwardian era of the 1900s, a time that was less repressive than the Victorian era but still not entirely divorced from its traditionalistic values. The novel opens in the charming and exciting city of Florence, where "all kinds of other things are just outside," but the viewless room in which Lucy Honeychurch finds herself is fashioned so closely after an English drawing room that she feels as if she were still "in London." As Lucy and her cousin Charlotte lament their lack of scenery, two men - Mr. Emerson and his son, George - suddenly offer them their room, which has a view. Yet Charlotte rejects their offer flat-out, "repressing Lucy" throughout their conversation with the Emersons, concluding a brief yet revelatory scene that sets up much of the context and characterization the later events of the novel continue to develop.
Forster writes that "there is much that is immortal in this medieval lady," but that "in her heart also there are springing up strange desires." Lucy, as he says, "does not stand for the medieval lady." She refuses to "be stifled," "would really like to do something of which her well-wishers disapproved" and wants to "care for liberty and not for men." However, she is too easily swept under the domineering arms of her cousin Charlotte, who certainly falls somewhere on the 'medieval lady' spectrum. At the extreme end is Mrs. Honeychurch, Lucy's mother, who thinks that "if books must be written, let them be written by men." For Charlotte,
It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored.
This is a quote that I reread multiple times because I cannot say that I disagree with all of it. I wholly believe that a woman's mission can be to achieve for herself; however, it is also true that a woman in the Edwardian era would struggle if she "rushed into the fray herself." The first line of Charlotte's statement, however, does show that she is not as repressive as she often appears to be. This is an observation that is also made at the end.
Before all that happens, however, Lucy first locks herself into an engagement with the dreary and conservative Cecil Vyse, who considers it a "test of refinement" to "[despise] the world as a whole," believes that "women revere men for their manliness" and always feels "that he must lead women, though he knew not whither and protect them, though he knew not against what." Unsurprisingly, every time Lucy thinks of Cecil "it's always as in a room" with "no view."
Which brings us back to the men who offered her a view in the first place (got to love that symbolism), the Emersons. Of all the characters in the novel, Mr. Emerson harbors the most advanced and modern ideas. He is against the church, is confident that men and women "shall be comrades" and - instead of praising some divine power - believes in the "holiness of direct desire" - love. It is from him that we hear the boldest, most quote-worthy statements about love:
“It isn't possible to love and part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.”
Mr. Emerson is thus the greatest optimist in the novel. On the contrary, his son George is a "young man melancholy because the universe wouldn't fit." When George throws Lucy's blood-stained photographs into the river, we get a sense of his vulnerability. And it is this gesture, as well as his awkwardness, that moves Lucy because such behaviour shows her that "men were not gods after all, but as human and as clumsy as girls; even men might suffer from unexplained desires, and need help."
George and Cecil show us that "men fall into two classes – those who forget views and those who remember them, even in small rooms." Indeed, Mrs. Honeychurch and Lucy also show us that women fall into these classes, too. A Room With a View is a timeless read because we will always be surrounded by Cecils and Mrs. Honeychurches, albeit under ever-evolving political and social circumstances. The ending of this book and the new friends that I have met this year give me hope that more and more people in the world will remember the importance of views, want to have them and not be afraid to accept them when they are offered.
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