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A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

A Room with a View (lovely title) by E.M. Forster reads like two different books. In part I, our heroine, Lucy Honeychurch and her family and friends are cautious travelers in Italy observing all the niceties that protect a young woman’s reputation while giving her a taste of the world.  Two major interruptions occur--she witnesses a stabbing and she is abruptly kissed by a fellow lodger, George Emerson, who had a hand in getting her away from the scene of the crime.  Otherwise Lucy evidences little intelligence, little maturity and no particular reason to be taken seriously.  She’s a bit of genteel fluff and her guardians are really hangers-on and, one guesses, subject to furtive impulses of lesbianism.  George, likewise, isn’t filled out.  He’s a flat character, somewhat impulsive, who gives no account of himself and shuffles around with his aging and not healthy father.  There’s Florence to admire, of course, and eventually Rome, but these are not English folk one would want to know.

In Part II there’s more of the same as Lucy gradually becomes betrothed to an empty cynic named Cecil who has money and presumes that a flower such as she belongs in his garden.  As luck would have it, though, the Emersons, father and son, rent a house in Windy Corner, where Lucy lives and is being wooed and won by Cecil. They’re a great match, just the right status and money.  But...George takes advantage of Lucy on a walk in the woods to give her another kiss.  This doesn’t appear to have been a searching kind of kiss, it’s more of a surprise kiss, and Lucy doesn’t realize that it means a) she must break off with Cecil and b) take up with George for quite some time.  

She does achieve this realization, however, and like Henry James’s Isabel Archer, who draws the opposite conclusion about what she must do with her life, she grows up right before our eyes.  These scenes are wonderful for the force and concision of how she dismantles Cecil, scolds George, and thinks she has had done with them both.  Even Cecil, granting her criticism of him, recognizes his shallowness and does it well. But...the elder Emerson is yet to be heard from, and when he gets a chance, he puts the question of love to Lucy in bold, romantic, imperative terms: she must admit running from George is a mistake, they were meant for one another...and indeed, this is what occurs: George and Lucy make an engaging pair back in Florence on their honeymoon.

You can tell from what I said so far that I thought about chucking this novel several times during its much ado about nothing phase of Part I.  No character was interesting. Florence wasn’t even interesting.  I wondered how E.M. Forster could have engaged himself in a pale imitation of Jane Austen.  But then Part II began to change things, and once again, when Lucy lets go, it’s wonderful.

My criticism would be that the foreshadowing of a self-confident, articulate Lucy is almost nonexistent, and the same is true of the vague, kiss-prone George.  When they finally arrive, two thirds of the way through the book, they’re palpable, admirable, honest, direct and believable, but the book would have more impact, it seems to me, if there were something more consistently subversive and uncomfortable about Lucy in Part I and if there were anything at all about George in Part I except a certain sensitivity and clumsy boldness.

Set against A Portrait of a Lady by Henry James or most of Thomas Hardy, A Room with a View trails behind until the final sprint.  Then it almost catches up.

 

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