As one of Forster’s most beloved novels, “A Room With a View”, published in 1908, is in many ways not just a satire of English Edwardian society but also a classic coming of age story, or some may even say a classic romantic comedy. It is perhaps because of this multifacetedness that many readers over the years have come to love the book. Forster’s light touches of wit, cynicism and comic relief are a delight to read paired with amusing chapter titles such as “Music, Violets, and the Letter ‘S'” and “How Miss Bartlett’s Boiler Was So Tiresome” and colourful characters with silly names such as “Lucy Honeychurch”, “Miss Lavish” and “Cecil Vyse”. Plus, what’s not to love about an eclectic group of tourists exploring sunny, picturesque Italy?
However, to only see the book as a comedy is to only appreciate half of it. The hilarious scenes woven throughout the story are coupled with moments of extreme conflict between ideals, values, social classes, and social conventions, with the dear “Lucy Honeychurch” caught in the crossfire, torn between two worlds and struggling to find herself in either of them. In fact, the contrast between comedy and tragedy is just one of the story’s dichotomous themes: lightness vs. darkness, passion vs. propriety, liberalism vs. restraint, self-expression vs. self-repression, clarity vs. muddle, outside vs. inside, views vs. rooms, and, in short, renaissance idealism vs. medieval oppression.
If “medieval” is understood as the dark ages, the interruption of cultural achievements inherited from the Greeks and Romans, where people where expected to blindly accept the teachings of the catholic church and be obedient members of society, then the “renaissance” is rebirth and lightness, inquiry into the truth and the nature of ourselves, the spread of individualism and humanism, the celebration of beauty, and a return to nature. What better way to explore the heart of a young girl in Edwardian England caught in a love triangle with the Gothic “Cecil Vyse” and the michelangelesque “George Emerson”?
In the following series of posts I will explore these three characters and pair a Tuscan wine to each based on their personality and inner struggles throughout the book.
Lucy in a muddle in the middle
The opening scene of the book is the arrival of Lucy and her chaperone, Miss Bartlett, in Florence at the pension Bertolini. A quabble quickly ensues over the fact that they were not given a room with a view as promised. Disappointment and displeasure continue as Lucy soon realizes that far from the exciting trip to a foreign country she had imagined, the pension is full of English people, some of which she knows from home.
Nonetheless, she is determined to enjoy herself and readily takes up the Emerson’s offer of exchanging rooms, for theirs does have a view, despite Miss Bartlett’s opposition as the gesture, and the Emersons, are lacking in decorum. Lucy’s rebellious spirit is soon revealed when she plays the piano in the pension, inspiring the remark by Mr. Beebe,
“If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her.”Chapter 3, pg 36
This is indeed the central question from which Lucy’s journey pivots. Will she embrace her inner nature and desires, choosing to live in the light of her heart’s content, or will she chastise herself into ad hearing to the societal expectations put upon her, living in the darkness of a life dictated by convention?
If she was hoping to be transfigured by Italy, as she is by music, it is the Emersons who show her it’s possible. On a chance meeting with Mr. Emerson, Lucy is encouraged to free herself from the shackles of propriety and Victorian restraint in order to know herself better.
“You are inclined to get muddled… Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them!”Chapter 2, pg. 31
Lucy is drawn to the Emersons throughout the book, perhaps in spite of herself, because they show her a view of life that is vibrant, exciting and uninhibited, moved not by money or social stature but by the passionate revels of beauty, nature, and love. However, her curiosity is constantly checked by her chaperone, her compatriots, and perhaps even herself. In order to know her self, as Mr. Emerson suggests, she must first think for herself, something this naive, sheltered, well-meaning, young girl has never been asked to do.
Well-meaning as she is, upon her return to England she accepts the proposal of the very respectable Cecil Vyse, fulfilling her social duty and making her mother proud. Yet, her peevish temper and desire for something more, for something to “happen” to her, get the better of her despite her struggle to contain it. Coincidence would have it that the Emersons move in next door, and so she can no longer avoid, repress or resist what her heart knows to be true, however unconventional the implications may be.
Her naivety and lack of self awareness paired with her rebellious streak of strong will make her ultimately an enduring character. She is at once the room looking out at the view of potential happiness and fulfilment as her spirit is the beautiful, free and natural view amongst the rooms of English drawing room etiquette. Just as her external appearance and decorum is the room that holds the view of her inner free-spirited soul which she is compelled to pear into.
If you are looking for a wine that embraces the juxtaposition of Lucy Honeychurch’s character, why not try a young and vibrant Morellino di Scansano from Tuscany? (I suggest Cantina Vignaioli del Morellino di Scansano, Roggiano DOCG, the wine a drank while enjoying the film.) Produced from sangiovese grapes, it is characterised by complex aromas of forest fruits and spices with subtle tannins and juicy acidity. At the height of its youthful exuberance it is never overbearing, pleasantly plump and incredibly approachable, yet nonetheless with a rebellious streak of spice.
TO BE CONTINUED
Next, the gothic statue that is Cecil Vyse…
Forster, E.M., “A Room With a View”. New York, Signet Classics, 1986.
Derbyshire, Stephanie, “A Room With a View: Just an Edwardian Rom-Com?”, 2020 https://www.english.cam.ac.uk/cambridgeauthors
Forward, Stephanie, “A Room With a View: Class, Convention and the Quest For Clarity”, 2016. https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature
As usual Danell you have written a post of great depth, both analytical and inspirational. I have not read this book nor Howard’s End, but I have read Passage to India. I have just downloaded it to read on my kindle, though I suspect I will enjoy Howard’s End more.
Your analysis and focus on the polar opposites listed I will keep in mind as I read it, hopefully as a positive aid, because I frequently focus mostly on plot and characters rather than features such as you have listed. Maybe I’m just not tuned in to these more subtle nuances 😉
LikeLiked by 1 person
My friend recommended the book for its description of Italians, but it really is a delight to read through and through. I haven’t read more from the author yet (besides watching the mini-series of Howard’s End). I usually let the whole book wash over me when I read- plot, characters, nuances- then I reflect on it further. My friend studied English literature so she’s great to talk to. Anyways, let me know what you think of it! (I’ll try not to give too much away in future posts.)
LikeLiked by 1 person