Monday 30 November 2015

#CBR7 Book 127: "A Room with a View" by E.M. Forster

Page count: 211 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 22 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Sometime in the first decade of the 20th Century, young Miss Lucy Honeychurch is in Florence with her older, constantly worrying cousin Charlotte Bartlett as companion and chaperone. When they discover that the rooms they've been assigned have no nice view, Lucy is disappointed. An older gentleman, Mr. Emerson, offers to trade them, as the rooms he and his son were given have lovely views. "Ladies care about that sort of thing, men do not". Miss Bartlett is worried about the impropriety of the trade, that accepting the rooms may leave them in debt to these strangers, but is convinced by other guests, and Lucy gets her view.

During her stay in Italy, Lucy discovers art and architecture and when she manages to escape the overbearing presence of her cousin, she quite enjoys herself. Luckily, Charlotte makes friends with the vaguely ridiculous lady novelist, Eleanor Lavish, so seems a bit distracted much of the time. Lucy has several encounters with the Emersons, who seem to have fairly radical notions for the time, both of social and gender equality. George, the son, seems to be of a rather gloomy and melancholy disposition, but the father is always cheerful and friendly.

While on one of her rambles, Lucy witnesses a man being stabbed to death in square, swoons and wakes up in the arms of young George Emerson. Later, during an outing in the Florentine countryside, George kisses Lucy on a hillside covered in violets, but they are interrupted by a shocked Charlotte before anything else can happen. Miss Bartless whisks her charge off to Rome before anything else untoward can happen, and Lucy and George don't see each other again.

Several months later, back in England, Lucy accepts the marriage proposal of Mr. Cecil Vyse, the third time he asks her for her hand (the first having been in Rome and the second in the Alps). Lucy's brother Freddy is none too happy about this turn of events, as he finds Cecil a stuffy and pretentious bore, but Mrs. Honeychurch is pleased for her daughter, as the Vyses are in a more rarefied social circle than the Honeychurches. Lucy's future looks set to be predictable, respectable and rather dull, with her thoughts, tastes and opinions carefully curated by her future husband. Then the Emersons unexpectedly let a house in the neighbourhood and Lucy is suddenly torn as to what she really wants.

I loved the 1985 Merchant Ivory film version of A Room with a View, with Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy, Julian Sands as George, Maggie Smith as Charlotte Bartlett and Daniel Day-Lewis at his most pompous as Cecil. At least I did when I saw it, many years ago. It's a visually stunning film and seemed ever so romantic, despite the slow pacing. I had never read the book, so when my Monthly Motif Challenge for November called for a book written before 2000, this seemed like a good opportunity. Sadly, while I'm sure it deserves its position as a literary classic and most likely brilliantly skewers the stuffy ideals of Edwardian society, I was hoping for more of a stirring romance and was quite disappointed, and bored by the book.

There are very few encounters between Lucy and George at all, and to make matters worse, later in the novel, when the kiss in Florence is discussed between Lucy and Charlotte, it seems to suggest that George only kissed Lucy on the cheek. I honestly don't see why this would cause such terrible consternation, with the event being brought up again and again over the course of the book. Charlotte just cannot leave the event well enough alone and even gossipped about it to Eleanor Lavish, who stole it and put it in her next lurid novel, also set in Italy. That a reading from said novel prompts George to kiss Lucy again, this time in a shrubbery, elicited a lot less excitement when there was the possibility that he may just have pecked her on the cheek again.

Of Lucy's suitors, Cecil is clearly the worst (in every sense of the word), although it is clear that that is exactly what Forster is going for. George isn't that much of an appealing catch either, mainly morosely slouching through beautiful Florence having to have his father plead his case for him with Lucy. He doesn't really put up that much of a spirited competition once he returns on the scene in England either, except the aforementioned shrubbery kiss and to exclaim in disgust that Lucy actually wants to marry pompous prig Cecil.

Not that Lucy is all that much to cheer for either. She's a bit wet, really. She does have the excuse of being a young woman in a time and society that didn't exactly value brains, independence or pluck in females. Her visit to Italy clearly starts her down the path of thinking for herself, until returning to England makes her believe she'd be better off just conforming. All the while, her most prominent character trait seems to be that she's a skilled pianist and her fondness for Beethoven seems to symbolise the hidden passions that might be unleashed, should only the right person come along. I only wish that Forster had shown me that George actually had anything worth stirring that passion in him.

I'm now actually afraid to go back and re-watch the film, in case I just imagined all the smouldering romance of it. I'm sure this is a very good book, but it is not at all what I was expecting, and hence I cannot rate it higher than I have. Your mileage may vary.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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