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 Michelangelesque George Emerson:
If Cecil Vyse is the sterile, frigid, even medieval, suitor of Lucy, George Emerson is anything but as his renaissance counterpart. Throughout the book he is compared to a Greek statue, envisioned as a figure in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, described as muscular, youthful and rugged, yet tender and angelic. How could Lucy NOT fall in love with him? Although society has raised her to value propriety above all else and conform to societal expectations, what Mr. Emerson, George’s father, teaches her in theory, George shows her in impulsive passion, aesthetic revel in nature, and the transfiguring power of beauty, truth, and love… the eternal “yes!”.
However, despite his youthful, healthy figure and his lofty ideas, he is afflicted by what Mr. Emerson refers to as “world sorrow”, a sort of existential angst, distressed by the notion that all of life is but “a blemish in the eternal smoothness”.
“A young man melancholy because the universe wouldn’t fit, because life was a tangle or a wind, or a YES, or something!”-Chapter 2, pg. 32
Mr. Emerson’s guides his son to follow his heart, value honesty and trust in love above all else, ignoring such social constructs as tact or delicacy. This free-thinking attitude challenges the codes of behaviour in place among their compatriots at the Bertolini pension thus they are cast aside as inappropriate, improper, and offensive. Lucy too is pulled by this pressure but nonetheless drawn to the Emerson’s, fascinated by their exciting view of the world. Mr. Emerson even suggests that Lucy may be able to help George if she tries to understand him, and herself in the process.
Beyond Lucy’s fascination with the Emerson’s philosophy on life, George offers her a new window into her own feelings and desires. He ignites in her an instinctive attraction and a certain “unknown emotion” which takes hold of her and grows in her heart, despite her best efforts to stifle it.
“She watched the singular creature pace up and down the chapel. For a young man his face was rugged, and- until the shadows fell upon it- hard. Enshadowed, it sprang into tenderness. She saw him once again at Rome, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, carrying a burden of acorns. Healthy and muscular, he yet gave her the feeling of greyness, of tragedy that might only find solution in the night. The feeling soon passed… born of silence and unknown emotion, it passed…”-Chapter 2, pg. 30
George kindles her curiosity and attraction on two intimate occasions in Florence. Once in the Piazza Signoria when she witnesses a man being murdered and faints. George miraculously appears, catches her, and carries her off to safety, fulfilling the role of the classic romantic hero. Then he throws her photographs into the river because they were covered in blood, revealing his passionate and impulsive nature. The second occasion is on a day trip to the country when Lucy stumbles upon him alone in a field of violets. As the lush, beautiful spring scene comes into view her Italian companion shouts “Courage and Love!”, she is “enveloped in light and beauty”, and George looks at her “as one who had fallen out of heaven”. Moved by the beauty of nature and the strength of his passion, he embraces Lucy and kisses her. The incident is abruptly ended by Lucy’s chaperone, Charlotte, who contrives to persuade Lucy to be offended by George’s forthrightness.
Lucy might have been able to forget about such exalted moments of romance upon her return to England, and certainly tries to with her engagement to the respectable Cecil Vyse, had it not been for the coincidence of the Emersons moving in next door. In a rememberable bathing scene at the “sacred lake” Lucy again stumbles upon George, this time with her brother and the vicar, swimming naked in the pond and playing like children. It is not only his nakedness which reignites her unintentional desire and love for him, it is the captivating wonder of nature and the freedom he embodies, cast against the rigidness of polite society.
In fact, they continue to bond over aesthetic pleasure in nature. Lucy once asks him what he thinks of the view at her home in Windy Corner, and he comments,
“My father says that there is only one perfect view- the view over the sky straight over our heads, and that all these views on earth are but bungled copies of it.”-Chapter 15, pg. 168
He flushes, her lips part, the sentiment embarks a sense of freedom and openness beyond the constraints of social conventions. Shortly after, George again passionately and impulsively kisses Lucy in the woods.
Emboldened by his love for Lucy, he confronts her, criticising her fiancée Cecil’s snobbery and proclaiming his love. As if she has seen the light, Lucy breaks off her engagement with Cecil yet continues to use all her effort in repressing the feelings she has for George, lying to herself and everyone around her.
Alas, Mr. Emerson sees through her “muddle”. He reminds her of the view in Florence, reminds her that love is eternal and there is no escaping it, love is truth and so it is virtuous, ultimately that love transcends all things including social class and pride.
“He gave her a sense of deities reconciled, a feeling that, in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world… He had robbed the body of its taint, the world’s taunts of their string; he had shown her the holiness of direct desire.”-Chapter 19, pg. 217
True love once embraced sets Lucy free and resolves George’s “world sorrow” as the universe answers with an “eternal yes!”. In the final chapter, titled “The End of the Middle Ages”, the lovers are reborn in the light of their love as they look out of their room with a view upon Florence, where the story began. Although Lucy’s family do not accept her choice, the view reminds her that the whole world is now in front of her. George, who was once the view of exciting, new possibilities beyond the “parlour room” of social constraints, now embraces the view alongside her of a life lived in the renaissance idealism of beauty, truth and love above all else.
So what wine would embrace the full spectrum of George Emerson’s melancholy, passion and freedom? What wine could express the transcending quality and the transfiguring power of truth, beauty and love? No ordinary wine. It must be complex, bitter-sweet, rich and warm.
I suggest the Tuscan dessert wine, Vin Santo, or holy wine, traditionally enjoyed with “cantucinni”, Tuscan biscotti. This wine is produced from a blend of white grapes, most commonly Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia, which have been dried for 1-6 months on straw mats before being turned into wine. After the grapes have been dried and pressed, the must is placed in wooden barrels where it undergoes alcoholic fermentation. It is then aged for at least three years, either in the barrel or the bottle depending on the producer.
The result is an amber coloured wine with rich aromas of hazelnut, caramel, dried figs and honey, full-bodied with a decadent sweetness and long persistence.
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