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.
The Gothic Statue that is Cecil Vyse:
“He was medieval. Like a Gothic statue. Tall and refined with shoulders that seemed braced square by an effort of will, and a head that was tilted a little higher than the usual level of vision, he resembled those fastidious saints who guard the portals of a French cathedral. Well educated, well endowed, and not deficient physically, he remained in the grip of a certain devil whom the modern world knows as self-consciousness, and whom the medieval, with dimmer vision, worshipped as asceticism.”-Chapter 8, pg. 94
If Florence is the home of the renaissance, it is only fitting that the Gothic statue that is Cecil Vyse appears in the eighth chapter of the book, called “Medieval”, once Lucy has returned to her home in England. In fact, in many ways he is the personification of Forster’s criticism of English society at the time: unbendingly prudish, excruciatingly self-conscious, clothed in the darkness of propriety, convention and affectation, where how well one appears in society is more important than how one thinks or even feels. However, far from casting Cecil as the villain, the reader is led to feel almost sorry for the man as they witness the awkward relationship between him and Lucy develop.
It was only on Cecil’s third attempt of proposing that Lucy accepted, and her final “yes” was just as ambiguous as her two “no”s. Even Lucy’s family and friends don’t quite know what to make of the engagement, despite it being such a socially viable match, much to the disappointment of Cecil who expected dignified congratulations and was met with less than civil confusion instead. But perhaps it is understandably so that the good-humoured, warm-hearted people at Windy Corner, the Honeychurch’s home, have trouble feeling at ease with Mr. Cecil Vyse as his experience there is marked by constant irritation. He seems to be absorbed in contempt for his surroundings, disdainful of its lack of distinction and concerned with finding ways of improving it as he imagines his future life with Lucy- a contempt which is also a source of pride,
“Of course, he despised the world as a whole; every thoughtful man should; it is almost a test of refinement.”-Chapter 8, page 100
An irritated man makes for irritating company, but the reader may become more sympathetic towards him if they consider that his frigid and inflexible ideas about the world are also painfully inflicted on himself. Just as he tries to shape Lucy into the presentable woman she should be, he is also measuring himself up to the ideal refined man, acutely aware of his failings and missteps. Because of this, nothing in his behaviour is ever natural, and even a spontaneous gesture of love, such as a kiss, becomes a contrived imposition.
Wanting to be revered for his supreme masculinity by the flower-like Lucy, it occurs to him that he should kiss her. He asks her permission, fumbles towards her, embraces her in an awkward motion that involves an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction and does the deed, immediately recoiling in shame.
“He considered, with truth, that it had been a failure. Passion should believe itself irresistible. It should forget civility and consideration and all other curses of a refined nature.”-Chapter 9, pg. 115
As off-putting as his self-consciousness may be, it is also his singular redeeming quality. When Lucy’s mounting frustration over his desire to conform her to his ideal of a woman leads to an outburst breaking off the engagement, he finally sees her and himself for who they truly are. If Lucy had only been admired as an artistic possession before, hearing her thoughts and feelings is a revelation.
“He looked at her, instead of through her, for the first time since they were engaged. From a Leonardo she had become a living woman, with mysteries and forces of her own, with qualities that even eluded art.”-Chapter 17, pg. 183
Instead of reacting with indignation and anger towards Lucy’s rejection of him, due to his affected nature and incapability of intimacy, he graciously thanks her for the insight, accepts the impossibility of her love, and promises to improve. As he graciously takes his exit, his humbleness affords him one last moment of glimmering redemption,
“On the landing he paused strong in his renunciation, and gave her a look of memorable beauty. For all his culture, Cecil was an ascetic at heart, and nothing in his love became him like the leaving of it.”-Chapter 17, pg. 186
Cecil’s “medieval” shortcomings pave the way for Lucy’s own “renaissance” of the heart. Their interlude together is the deepest darkness before the light of sun rise. He is the room that frames the view of true love, passion, freedom and happiness that Lucy so desires.
And so, in gratitude to his contribution, let us focus on the more positive qualities of his character when pairing a wine. He is dignified, cultured, respectable, and refined with an acute precision. Elegant, composed and gracious even in moments of emotional turmoil. A pristine sophistication that merits one of the most classy wines, if not the classiest, in Tuscany: Brunello di Montalcino.
Made from a specific type of Sangiovese, Brunello or Sangiovese Grosso, only grown in the area of Montalcino, this wine is characterised by plush aromas of cherry, blackberry, violets, and espresso evolving into dried figs, leather and chocolate as it ages. In fact, it is best drunk after 10 years of ageing in the bottle, when the high amount of tannins and acidity become more integrated and refined, just as Mt. Cecil Vyse would want.
TO BE CONTINUED
Next, The michelangelesque George Emerson…
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