Book Review: A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (1908)

This book is a classic in English literature, and there is no doubt about it. Forster takes us into the year of 1908 in a lyrically poetic fashion that will forever be regarded as masterful. It is also considered to be Forster’s most upbeat and optimistic book based on its language and plot.  In my opinion the book should be read more for its language and narrative voice rather than the plot. However that does not mean the plot isn’t good, but that in today’s society, it would not be considered to have “high stakes”. Which is why I believe that there are three ways to read this book: 1) its language, 2) through the lens of a reader in 1908, and 3) through the lens of a reader in 2013.

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A Room with a View begins with Lucy Honeychurch and Miss Bartlett on vacation in a Florence hostel. Miss Bartlett is complaining about the view she has from their rooms, while Lucy is discouraged by the sheer Englishness surrounding the place. Tenants Mr. Emerson and his son George Emerson offer to switch rooms, which Miss Bartlett sees as an affront, and a means to be indebted to them. The transaction finally takes place, leaving Miss Bartlett upset, and Lucy intrigued. Lucy meets them again, after being abandoned by Miss Lavish, and novice novelist who is also staying at that particular hostel. The Emersons are shunned by general society, but Lucy is still interested but wary, resolving to stay away from the family and more specifically George. It is not until she, Miss Bartlett, Miss Lavish the Emersons, and Mr. Beebe and Mr. Eager, clergymen, go on a ride of the country when Lucy is kissed by George in a field of flowers and is caught by none other than her cousin and chaperone Miss Bartlett! They immediately leave for Rome the next day, promising not to tell the incident to anyone, and plan to meet with the Vyses, an upper class family who are friends of Lucy’s family. When Lucy returns home to England she becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse.

Lucy is absorbed into Cecil’s upper class world, and when the Emersons come to live near by, she becomes evermore intent on becoming to perfect wife for her fiance. George senses this change, but keeps a polite distance, allowing a friendship to bloom between them. But one day, Cecil is reading a novel aloud about a girl being kissed in a field of violets by a man. Lucy immediately recognizes the work of Miss Lavish and the betrayal of Miss Bartlett. George, overcome with love for Lucy, kisses her once more while Cecil is otherwise occupied. Later, Lucy and George discuss this offensive act, and George defends himself saying that he loves her and that she will never be able to be free with Cecil. Lucy demands him to leave, which he does, but his words have effected her, for right after she breaks off her engagement. Unable to be near George, she decides to go to Greece with the Miss Alans, two ladies she met in Florence. Right before she is about to leave, she encounters Mr. George who finally makes her face the truth; that she is in love with George. The story then jumps to after the elopement of Lucy and George, explaining that Lucy’s family were not exactly thrilled with their coupling. The novel ends with the newlyweds together absorbed in each other, as well as their surroundings.

Some might say this type of plot is overdone, I say simple but effective. Forster sets the initial meeting between the girl and guy, Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson, in city of Florence, Italy, known for its beauty and romance. The imagery used in the exposition is pure poetry itself in prose form. This is accented with sharp wit that gives life to the characters and setting. The very second paragraph has the reader ensconced in the wonderful world Forster has created: “She looked at the two rows of English people who were sitting at the table; at the row of white bottles of water and red bottles of wine that ran between the English people; at the portraits of the late people, heavily framed…” and it goes on. In one sentence the reader not only gets the setting, but Lucy’s reaction to it and it’s “English” taste.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. As we go further into the story and encounter George and his father, philosophy sprinkles the pages in a way that is prolific, but not verbose. When we meet Cecil Vyse, an extremely haughty man the language becomes dry and brittle with a hint of mocker which immediately alerts us to the general opinion of him. Lucy begins to follow suit, allowing herself to be changed and the language surround her becomes drab. But it lights up once more when George enters the picture, ending with the gentle words describing a beautiful view.

The forbidden kisses shared between the two protagonists are the main catalysts of the story. George Emerson kisses Lucy in a field of violets, aiding Lucy in her decision to become engaged. Later on, George kisses Lucy again, which helps Lucy in her decision to break the engagement. To the world of 1908, these kisses are absolutely scandalous,  though with varying degrees (this is the age of Woman’s Suffrage). To our modern views, it is almost absurd for two kisses to be of such importance in a person’s life. But this is a wonderful thing! It exposes the world of repression that women were living in. It explores the intricacies of the social etiquette that should be conducted when three different classes clash. It is a piece of history wrapped up in poetical prose.

Despite the beautiful language, the topic at hand is very serious. The story is a romance, but it is also socially and politically aware. It is a story about two young people forced into the clothing that society has chosen, ironed, and presented to them. And while the couple do get together in the end, they are isolated from their families, which essentially means that they are isolated from their societies. Forster was all too aware of the tensions between classes, genders, and the expression of one’s sexuality even if it is as innocent as a kiss. But he masks that with imagery that is all too easy to wrap oneself in. This is not a bad thing, because the novel is rich in language as it is in plot, and should be read by anyone interested in a love story, poetry, and even the social struggles. But it is not hard for the reader to be more involved with the language and the romance rather than the overwhelming struggle against outside forces. In essence, the reader becomes engrossed in the room, rather than the view. My hat is tipped to you, E.M. Forster.

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