This is a tough one, because I’m feeling pretty conflicted about A Room with a View. On one hand, I’m pretty sure I didn’t like it—despite being only 220ish pages, it took me a long time to read, because I kept putting it down and looking for other, more interesting things to distract me. On the other hand, this is not a bad or poorly-written book. I can see what E.M. Forster is trying to do; I have seen other writers tell similar stories and knock my socks off. So what do George Eliot or Thomas Hardy have over Forster for me?
The plot is tedious and dull, and that’s likely my chief problem. Lucy Honeychurch is an eligible young lady on vacation in Italy with her chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett. She ends up associating with an ensemble cast of characters, one of whom makes a move on her and kisses her (scandalous!). When she returns to England, she accepts the third marriage proposal from a persistent suitor who is not suited to her at all. Then the cad from Italy intersects her life again, and of course, there is suspense as Lucy tries to figure out if he has feelings for her (or if she has feelings for him) and if anyone other than Charlotte knows of, and could reveal, that Italian indiscretion.
It’s pretty standard fare as far as these types of stories go. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many stakes here (beyond, perhaps, Lucy’s reputation were her out-of-school kissing to become common knowledge). The supporting characters, like Charlotte and Mrs Honeychurch and Freddy, Lucy’s brother, tend to be fairly flat, stock types who don’t offer much in the way of conflict. There is no one, central figure who dominates the page and stands out as a strong antagonist. Not even Cecil, who is indeed trying to project his idea of what a woman should be on to Lucy, really deserves such a label.
I felt like I was trapped in the prequel to an Agatha Christie mystery. I kept waiting for someone to drop dead and Poirot to burst onto the scene with Hastings and Japp, so he could start using his little grey cells to figure out that, egads, Emerson is no murderer—it was Mr Beebe all along! A good murder would really have lightened the mood, I think, and made A Room with a View more bearable. That or maybe some kind of natural disaster plunging the family into penury.
But no, Forster instead offers up a very bland look at English country life circa 1900, the British Empire riding high into the twentieth century with the rumblings of the Great War still far off on the European horizon. Lucy can go for a jaunt around Italy all she wants in the first half of the book, then noodle about her neighbourhood, playing tennis and mulling over marriage … and it’s just. so. boring. Maybe it’s my misanthropic distaste for socializing, but I just can’t bring myself to care or be interested in the quotidian happenings of these various characters.
The book picks up a little towards the end, and it certainly has some moments. Lucy has a pretty badass moment in Chapter 17, “Lying to Cecil”, when she explains why she has gone off marrying him:
“… When we were only acquaintances, you let me be myself, but now you’re always protecting me.” Her voice swelled. “I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult. Can’t I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second-hand through you? A woman’s place! You despise my mother—I know you do—because she’s conventional and bothers over puddings; but, oh goodness!”—she rose to her feet—“conventional, Cecil, you’re that, for you may understand beautiful things, but you don’t know how to use them; and you wrap yourself up in art and books and music, and would try to wrap up me. I won’t be stifled, not by the most glorious music, for people are more glorious, and you hide them from me. That’s why I break off my engagement. You were all rigth as long as you kept to things, but when you came to people—” She stopped.
You go, girl! There, now you’ve read the best part; I’ve saved you the trouble of having to read the whole book.
I also like how this chapter and subsequent chapters are titled, “Lying to …”, giving us explicit acknowledgement that Lucy is deceiving herself and others about her feelings. There is a level of introspection here, which, combined with the above speech, definitely elevates A Room with a View above the frivolity of mere romance.
Yet Lucy is about all that is interesting about this book, as I mentioned above. George is no Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth. As far as I’m concerned, Lucy would be better off burning everything down and moving to Canada.
Hmm. Not a bad fanfic idea….
Anyway, Forster’s writing just doesn’t get to me. It’s an incompatibility of style and of plotting rather than ability, though. I can recognize that Forster is trying to do interesting things here, and I see why other people might find this book captivating. It does not speak to me, though. Some books, the right books, will transport you into their world and make you never want to let go. And when you’ve read enough of those, you know immediately when you’ve cracked open a book that won’t. A Room with a View is such a book for me. It might not be the same with you, but that’s not enough for me to recommend it.