E. M. Forster: A Room With a View


I went with a group of people to see the movie A Room With a View when it came out in 1985, and we were nearly the only ones in the theatre. We went during the afternoon, which is typically a slow time, but I doubt a British movie set in 1905 would draw much of an audience at any showing, even with discounted prices. The movie-title and story-plot come from a novel by the British writer E. M. Forster.

If you like the scenic parts of Italy, the opera music of Puccini, and can imagine yourself walking the streets of Florence before the birth of the automobile, pneumatic drills, and sirens—before the advent of modern noise, in other words—the story-line might have some appeal for you. And with a cast like Helena Bonham-Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis and a witty, intelligent script that stays true to the novel, A Room With a View might make a deep impression on you, like it did to me. Its subtle insights and humane truths may undercut the viewer a bit. Many people don't like that sensation and know sort of a priori to avoid movies like A Room With a View.

The story concerns Lucy Honeychurch, a twenty-something woman from England who visits Italy with her chaperone Charlotte Bartlett, an older family friend who has never married. Witty dialogue carries the story through a silly mix-up regarding rooms. The Britons had asked for rooms with a view of the Arno River in Florence. After much silly haggling, they women get their rooms. They go on tours of Florence with other guests of the hotel.

I have three copies of the book A Room With a View. Each has an introduction written by someone with an established reputation. I don't usually read introductions, but I thought I might need to, this time, just to see what contemporary established writers say about Forster. Mona Simpson, a novelist and the sister of the late Steve Jobs, did the introduction for one edition. Simpson writes that Forster concerned himself with South African Apartheid; she acknowledged that he was gay, and made it clear that she could teach English literature if she needed a job.

Simpson is familiar with most of Forster's contemporaries and their treatment of female characters. She names some characters from novels by George Eliot and Henry James. In fact, her introduction brims over with knowledge about British novelists; but Forster does not appear to engage her personally. She talks about him with an academic thoroughness, and that's all.

For one thing, Simpson might not care for the way Forster pokes fun at the tetchy, competitive, educated English upper-class and the off-putting games they play; and the elements of his story that vex the educated English can challenge or vex the same class of people in this country. They will read it as Simpson does, as just another book assignment, more head-knowledge.

Room will appeal more to a young-at-heart audience, turned on by the story's unbearably romantic vibes, and the dark, seemingly "civilized" forces that work against romance, even when the beauty of nature most encourages it. Forster offers the reader a humane, insider's view of people wanting to fall in love, and reacting to a love interest. You will throw out all your how-to books.

In one chapter, a group of Britons tour the beautiful Italian countryside. Forster gives the chapter a teasing title: "The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr. Emerson, Mr. George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them." In the movie, Julian Sands plays George Emerson to Bonham-Carter's Lucy Honeychurch. George is smitten when he sees Lucy in a meadow, strides up to her, takes her in his arms, and kisses her.



The moment is so dramatic, the viewer knows the kiss will dominate the story. How the characters react to the kiss will determine whether it ends happily or not. While the kiss stirs Lucy and George and turns their world upside-down, they are too timid to do anything about it; and social strictures stand beside them to pounce negatively on their budding romance. George is raring to go, but he lacks social skills and adult orientation. Lucy dithers fatally, bedeviled by personal inertia. The resolution of those forces will determine the novel's outcome.

Forster's portrait of Lucy Honeychurch secures the novel's classic status. The title A Room With a View says it all—her search for a Jungian "room," (C. G. Jung, Swiss psychologist) her mental space that gives her a sense of self, a psychological home, an ego-enforced point of view, giving her a sense of direction and intentionality.

Lucy Honeychurch's chaperone in Florence, Charlotte Bartlett, is an unmarried, middle-aged friend of the Honeychurch family who behaves with a haughty, reserved politeness. When Lucy expresses her disappointment over not getting a room with a view of the Arno River, Charlotte takes up her complaint until she does get one.

Julian Sands as George; Maggie Smith as Miss Bartlett

Again, the "room," as Carl Jung wrote about it, contains the sum of her personhood. From it, Lucy looks out at the world. In her case, the room has not coalesced; the "view" remains unfocused. She does not understand herself and cannot see a direction for her life. As Forster reveals to the reader again and again, "Lucy did not know what to do, or even what she wanted to do."

How does a person represent himself in an intimate setting? How does he talk coherently about his feelings about his family, his aspirations in life, or life-changing experiences without some kind of emotionally-charged reference points? How does he get his ducks in a row, so to speak?

Solitude oppresses Lucy. She needs others to confirm her views of anything. "It was dreadful not to know whether she was thinking right or wrong." She only feels comfortable in "the world of rapid talk, which was alone familiar to her." She hardly knows how to represent herself, except to repeat what others have said. To cover the gaps, she performs for people, but the lack of an authentic voice and a genuine personality make her timid and uninvolved.

Realistically speaking, isn't that like most people? They get their personal talking points from their families, from their peer groups, and from the media. Forster does not tell the reader if Lucy has a peer group, or any friends at all. Forster also makes oblique references to Lucy's father, who died when she was a child. He describes her upbringing as "born of silence and an unknown emotion."

Lucy needs a personal "room with a view"—a personal viewpoint from which she can interact with others. She lacks an organized personality, reinforced with personal reference points. The advent of a romance brings her problems to the forefront. Condemned by a lack of authenticity, she veers toward a personal crisis.
Although George Emerson's kiss in the Italian meadow still resounds in her, Lucy allows herself to become engaged to another man who is totally different—Cecil Vyse. As his name suggests, Vyse is the controlling type. He tells Lucy what to think and what opinions to have, convinces her about all things proper and improper, and is fastidious, domineering, resentful, and haughty. The uncultured masses of the world vex him especially.

Helena Bonham-Carter as Lucy; Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil

With light, deft strokes, Forster sketches the psychological profile of Cecil as a pathologically timid man, under his mother's control. With Cecil, his mother "was mechanical, and behaved as if he was not one son but, so to speak, a filial crowd." Forster's words suggests an unfocused, distant sort of relationship. Like Lucy, Cecil has no father.

Cecil is basically the male counterpart to Lucy; but as a male, the timidity has a different influence on his character. He reacts with pompous hostility to a crass, alien world and judges it negatively. He lacks the necessary ego-strength to understand it and uses a cultured demeanor to hide from a passion-driven, engaged life. Like Lucy, he appears to have no friends or peer-group. No doubt, his timidity would interfere with his ability to make friends. In spite of many unlikeable qualities, the reader doen't need lots of prompting to sympathize with Cecil.

Forster begins his novel Howard's End with an admonitory epigraph: "Only connect!" You can read A Room With a View in the same light, the development of a healthy selfhood through associations with other people. Man, the most vocally social of all the animals, needs a regular diet of personal inputs from others.

Maybe Lucy understands that Cecil can only control her, that she will never grow in a relationship with a man like him. At any rate, she decides to break off their engagement. Even as she attempts to explain to him why she has done so, she can only repeat the reasons other people have given her. The reader feels more sympathy for Cecil, at this point, than for the flustered Lucy, who can't speak independently for herself.

Conscious of her insensitivity, Lucy's spiritual crisis deepens. Forster describes her state-of-mind in dark, negative terms:

    She gave up trying to understand herself, and joined the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor                  the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words.

Forster describes these "armies" as "full of pleasant and pious folk." It saddens me to think of the people who have gone that "pleasant and pious" route, who try to act nice and be tolerant of others' opinions, but who have no sense of resolve about anything. At age 68, I have known that kind of person often enough.
Forster continues:

   (T)hey have yielded to the only enemy that matters—the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and              vain will be their strife after virtue. As the years pass, they are censured. . . . (T)heir wit becomes cynicism, their                          unselfishiness hypocrisy. . . .
    The night received (Lucy), as it had received Miss Bartlett thirty years before.

When Forster writes that Lucy has sinned against passion and truth, he means that she actually tells one falsehood after another. Odd to think how he connects passion and truth. Can't have one without the other. Without passion, Lucy tells lies sort of routinely. Appropriately, Forster gives the title to Chapter 16, "Lying to George." Chapter 17 is "Lying to Cecil." Chapter 18 is "Lying to Mr. Beebe, Mrs. Honeychurch, Freddie, and the Servants." Lucy tells falsehoods distractedly, weaving a false fabric. She finds she cannot stop, and retreats farther into discordant realities. It's a scary scenario. Forster's homespun sort of psychoanalysis never loses its edge.

Rather than face the turmoil of falling in love again, Lucy resolves to leave home, move to London, get a job, and vanish into the crowd. She tells her mother:

   "I've seen the world so little—I felt so out of things in Italy; one ought to come up to London
   more—not a cheap ticket like today, but to stop. I might even share a flat for a little with another
   "And mess with typewriters and latch-keys," exploded Mrs. Honeychurch. "And agitate and
   scream, and be carried off kicking by the police. . . ."
   "I want more independence," said Lucy lamely; she knew she wanted something, and
   independence is a useful cry. . . ."
   "Very well. Take your independence and be gone. Rush up and down and round the world,
   and come back thin as a lath with the bad food."

Forster's intuition that feminism would serve as a sort of haven for personless girls, to give them a sense of self or resolve, wows the hell out of me.
Mrs. Honeychurch listens to Lucy, then comments cryptically, "There you go."
Lucy asks, "I beg your pardon."
"Charlotte again," Mrs. Honeychurch said, "her very words."
Forster writes that Lucy clenched her teeth. The last thing she wanted was a comparison of herself to Charlotte—that prim, personless apparition, thirty years down the road.
Lucy leaves the house to visit the local church rector, Reverend Beebe. He is not home, and instead, she finds George Emerson's father in ill-health, waiting to return home. His words to Lucy have an caring, elegaic sweetness that brings her to tears. 

Denholm Elliott as Mr. Emerson

      "I taught (George)," he quavered, "to trust in love. I said: 'When love comes, that is reality.'
      I said to him, 'Passion does nolt blind. No. Passion is sanity, and the woman you love, she is
      the only person you will ever really understand.'. . . .
      "Miss Honeychurch? Shall we slip back into the darkness for ever?"
      "I don't know," gasped Lucy. "I don't understand this sort of thing. I was not meant to
      understand it."

Mr. Emerson knows he is going to die. Before he does, he tries to impart a final piece of wisdom on Lucy:

    "Take an old man's word; there's nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face
    Death and Fate and the things that sound so dreadful. It is on my muddles that I look back with
    horror—on the things that I might have avoided. . . . Though life is glorious, it is difficult. . . .
    You must learn the instrument as you go along."

I don't think I can add a word this conclusion. What a caring, humane book! It's one of my favorites of all time.