Tuesday, January 31, 2012

1900s- a room with a view (1908)

I said in my previous post that I didn't understand E.M. Forster's books, and that's not entirely true. In fact, I found A Room With a View quite accessible, and really in many ways a straight-forward story. But I felt, as I did with Howards End, that I wasn't quite sure what he was getting at, that somehow Forster and I do not exactly get along. The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, on the other hand, is quite straight-forwardly puzzling, starting, as it does, as a thriller, and progressing to farce, before unexpectedly turning into a religious allegory. I'm not really sure where to go with that, so I'll review A Room With A View instead, and hopefully get some thoughts in order. I'd love to hear what other people thought as well, and whether I should be so flummoxed. I'd like to talk about the ending too, so be warned! Unfortunately I left this a bit late to write, and late night blog posts are not my most considered blog posts. But it's better than no blog post, right?

A Room with a View starts in Florence, where Lucy and her older (and somewhat more staid) cousin Charlotte. Excited as she is, the first night is not shaping up well- the hotel and the people in it seem so very very English, Lucy and Charlotte have not been given their promised rooms with views, and worse still they are overheard complaining about this and a stranger actually offers to swap rooms with them! The stranger is Mr. Emerson, travelling with his son, with a dislike of convention and a seeming inability to see why that makes him unpopular among the other English travellers. But Lucy is more torn, between the kindness shown by Mr. Emerson and the tensions of the more conventional travellers, between a kind of annoyance at his son and a feeling of empathy. She and the son, George, experience a moment of connection when Lucy witnesses a murder, and later another when they got lost at a picnic and he kisses her in a field of violets.

I really enjoyed this book, at least at first, and a lot of that was down to the character of Lucy Honeychurch. She was such a likeable character, torn between her sympathy for people and enjoyment of the world and the need to adhere to convention. Always polite and aware of what she should do, but sometimes rebellious all the same. Her foil is her cousin Charlotte, constantly 'thinking of others' to the point that she causes others great discomfort, constantly thinking of 'the right thing to do' to the point that it creates ridiculous complications, and seemingly determined to spend her time in Italy mostly in the hotel, to the annoyance of the more adventurous Lucy.

What I did not enjoy so much was the sudden shift in the second half of the book (fast-forward a few months and Lucy and Charlotte are home in England after visiting Rome, with Lucy now engaged to Cecil Vyse, a somewhat pretentious and aggravating young man). I'm just not a fun of sudden lurches forward in narrative. It bothered me last year in The Pastor's Wife, and it bothered me here. But that is not a terrible crime, eventually it is possible to readjust to the new time-frame. And the story continues in fine form, with Lucy and her mother and brother being lovely and a bit silly, Cecil being obnoxious, the clergyman Mr. Beebe (first encountered in Florence) sympathetic and humorous, the Emerson's as revolutionary as ever and Charlotte irritating as always, as Lucy realises reluctantly her attraction to George Emerson and her unsuitedness with Cecil. And then, another thunderclap! George and Lucy are married, all the sympathetic characters have turned their backs on their former friend/family member and the unsympathetic ones are redeemed. I found it difficult to believe that Lucy's loving mother and brother would cut her off like that, even if I could believe it of Mr. Beebe. I really did like, though, the twists that occur with Charlotte's character, the way they come to think that maybe they underestimated her, after all. Sadly for me, the edition I was reading included an epilogue written in the 1950s, which gave a small summary of the lives of George and Lucy up till then. I wish I never read it, I think it's much better to leave things at their ending and let the reader speculate than tack something on that tells you everything and yet does not feel like part of the book. I would recommend not reading that part if you get the chance to avoid it, finish on the happy ending!

Anyway, it was not this that confused me, after all. It is just that I can never quite figure out what Forster is trying to say, he pokes so much fun at everything. At the end of Howards End I did not really know what he was saying about women, or art or class I suppose. Should women marry the annoying man with the large house and dote on him, or live unconventionally and have babies and be excluded from society? *ahem* I know that's a little specific, but I was not that happy with Margaret's decisions. But! That's a totally different book. Writing this review it seems simple enough: it's a book that points out the restrictiveness of social conventions, and instead wants to celebrate the free human spirit. But it's the sly humour that gets me, that makes me unsure, sometimes, of quite who Forster is laughing at... Maybe I am overthinking it?

In summary: I would recommend this book, it's light and fun but at the same time quite serious. On the whole, I enjoyed it. But definitely don't read the epilogue/appendix.


  1. Anonymous2/2/12 04:27

    Hmm, new format. Style AND substance?

  2. That's the plan! I've got the style, now working on the substance. The background photo was taken on the drive down to Canberra, by the way. :)

  3. I read this in 2007, and couldn't decide whether or not I liked it - it sort of seemed to wind round and round without really heading anywhere. Not that I need a novel to have a 'point', as it were - I adored Howards End and that wasn't particularly conclusive, as you point out.

    Forster is a tricky one, isn't he!

    1. Thanks- it is nice to see I'm not alone in my feelings towards Forster, he is such a tricky one!