My perusal of E.M. Forster’s classic novel began with such good intentions. With wholesome, faintly academic fervor, I embraced the prospect of reading the imperishable “A Room With a View” after several months of contemporary fiction. I love modern novelists, but I was ready to return, for a moment, to 1908, the year the novel was published. And, this was a book, I’d been told by many, that everyone must read, one of those timeless, inimitable pieces of literature that should not only be read thoroughly but absorbed with reverence for its merit and splendor. Settling on my couch, flanked by a cat and a cup of tea, I opened the book, fully prepared for merit and splendor.
Like Forster’s young heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, my initial reaction to the opening pages was pragmatic and studious. I strolled through the paragraphs much like Lucy strolled through the glorious churches of Florence, painstakingly searching for the praised frescoes of Giotto with the aid of Baedeker, her indispensable guidebook. I ventured into Forster’s prose with the air of a somewhat nervous tourist, armed for sightseeing. Ooh, look at his wonderful diction, succinct and yet so evocative! And how artlessly he deploys his humor! Ah, such skill and mastery. I chuckled with appreciative laughter over sentences like this one, describing the fussy British chaperone:
Miss Bartlett was already seated on a tightly stuffed armchair, which had the colour and contours of a tomato. She was talking to Mr. Beebe, and as she spoke, her long, narrow head drove backwards and forwards, slowly, regularly, as though she were demolishing some invisible obstacle.
Oh, Mr. Forster. With deft strokes, he paints a sharp and accurate portrait of the British upper classes abroad — eager for a Fashionably Exotic Adventure, but priggish and suspicious of foreigners, unwilling to completely leave their comfortable Britannia behind.
As I journeyed further into the novel, however, my deliberately studious intentions fell away as the warmth and charm seeping from the pages stole over me, much like the inherent allure of Italy steals over Lucy, when she finally puts aside her Baedeker. I forgot to look for indelible prose or passages of particular educational value and began to fully enjoy the book, swept up by some indefinable magic and fully immersed in the novel. The story at first appears to be quite a simple one — a young girl travels to Florence and falls in love — but Forster reveals elements of human nature’s complexity that ring so true, the reader almost feels the characters’ emotions. Lucy Honeychurch is prim on the exterior, passionate on the interior, desperately ready to love and yet unable to admit to herself the existence of that love. George Emerson is quiet, intuitive and capable of the deepest, sincerest feeling. The character that will doubtless make many female readers sigh wistfully, as I did. His fervent protestations to Lucy, so sincere and untainted in their expression, are exquisite; set against the contrasting backdrops of sun-drenched Florence and drizzly England, their love unfurls and flutters in the adverse winds of plot, darting through the pages with intensity.
I cannot believe that any review can truly do this book justice. Its effect on the reader is so wonderfully and subtly infectious that it’s almost impossible to describe. All I can say is that I returned to this book each time with a thrilling leap of expectant happiness at what its pages would uncover next. Like a clear ray of sun tucked between the darkest of clouds, “A Room With a View” intoxicates the reader with a delightful sense of optimism – through Lucy’s eyes, we too feel we have strayed through the streets of Florence and returned slightly changed, unable to look at the world in the same old way. It is, I believe, one of the best books I’ve ever read and I was terribly sorry to turn over the last page and find myself staring at the blank back cover, my adventure over.
On a separate note, I’d also like to recommend the 1986 Merchant-Ivory film version of “A Room With A View” with Helena Bonham-Carter. I saw it after finishing the book and, while the experience was nothing compared to the joy of reading it, it’s a rare, lovely adaptation. I particularly enjoyed Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of an impossibly priggish character — spot on with Forster’s description. But, of course, read the book first!