This year I am participating in a Turn of the Century Salon hosted by Katherine of November’s Autumn. The idea of this is to read books published around the turn of the century – between the late 1880s and the early 1930s. While I do seem to have read more books from this period than I initially thought, there are still a huge number of turn of the century authors whose work I haven’t explored yet and E.M. Forster was one of those that I was most looking forward to trying for the first time.
A Room with a View is the story of Lucy Honeychurch who we first meet on a trip to Italy with her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett. Lucy and Charlotte have just arrived at the Pension Bertolini in Florence and are disappointed to find that they have been given rooms with no view of the River Arno. Two of the other English guests – a Mr Emerson and his son, George – hear them complaining and immediately offer to exchange rooms, but instead of accepting their generous offer, the rules of Edwardian society mean that Charlotte is shocked and offended by what she considers their inappropriate behaviour. During the rest of their time in Florence, Charlotte and the other middle-class English tourists dismiss the Emersons as bad-mannered and socially unacceptable but Lucy has several more encounters with them and is intrigued by their different outlook on life.
Back in England, their paths cross again when the Emersons move into a cottage in Lucy’s village not far from the Honeychurch home, Windy Corner. Lucy is now engaged to Cecil Vyse, a cold, pretentious man she doesn’t really love, but who is considered to be a suitable husband for her. But with George Emerson living nearby Lucy must decide whether to be true to her heart even if it means breaking the social conventions of the time.
As this is the first E.M. Forster book I’ve read, I didn’t know what to expect so I was pleased to find it was much easier to read than I had been afraid it might be. I loved the wit and warmth of Forster’s writing and I enjoyed watching Lucy’s slow development from a young woman who allows other people and society in general to dictate how she should think and behave to one who finds the courage to be herself and live her life the way she wants to live it.
The beginning of the book with the portrayal of the English in Italy made me think of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim and as for the descriptions of Italy itself, they were beautiful and vivid:
At the same moment the ground gave way, and with a cry she fell out of the wood. Light and beauty enveloped her. She had fallen on to a little open terrace, which was covered with violets from end to end.
“Courage!” cried her companion, now standing some six feet above. “Courage and love.”
She did not answer. From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.
Forster has a sense of humour as well; the dialogue is often quite funny and he puts his characters into some amusing situations. I also loved the character names and the chapter titles (especially Chapter Six – “The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr. Emerson, Mr. George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them.”)
Published in 1908, A Room with a View was a perfect book to choose for the salon as it really does epitomise turn of the century society and a gradual move away from Victorian values into a freer, less socially constrained twentieth century.
Which of E.M. Forster’s other books should I read next?