*spoilers: DO NOT READ ON IF UNPREPARED*
I’m going to indulge in one of my favourite sweeping generalisations and state that sometimes we read books in which we zone out for a few frankly overrated
chapters pages and so quite understandably have very little idea what the actual actuality has gone down. This unfortunate state of affairs was COMPLETELY AVOIDED with this little tome, as guess what? I’m living where’s it’s set (*cue small dance of happiness*) and therefore know EXACTLY where vaguely-ridiculous-sounding places like the “Uffizi Arcade” (may or may not have had to look up the spelling but let’s not be pernickety) and just-plain-reminiscent-of-pizza places like “Piazza Signoria” are and what their deal is. If you’re anything like me, Botticelli’s “Primavera” and “Birth of Venus” —not to mention Michelangelo’s “David”— are all very well and good, but it’s not until you actually see them with your own unblinking eyes that you begin to think everyone might be onto something here. Plus, apparently, some party poopers seem to think that being overrun by aprons and dishcloths on which is lovingly printed David’s glorious lower-half don’t count as seeing it in the flesh (the stone?).
There will be less boasting about the amazing city where I’m living in the rest of the post, I promise, but it has been more that a little fun swanning around with A Room With a View under my arm and thus looking generally very intellectual and worldly. I milked it for all it was worth.
Lucy Honeychurch is an innocent wee mite who travels to Florence with her distinctly prim chaperone (more on her later), is overcome by attraction to an extremely unsuitable Youth staying in the same hotel as her. The Youth and his Father offer to swap rooms, and what woman could possibly resist this gallant gesture? After lots of toing and froing, they kiss and it’s shocking so she absconds to Rome and meets Cecil, who proposes to her three times, with her giving up the ghost and finally accepting Proposal Numero 3. However, all does not run smoothly as who should Cecil have unthinkingly invited to be tenants in the neighbouring cottages? Just that selfsame Youth and Father who was kissed by Lucy —just the son, that is, although is it just me who feels a sequel coming on…—, and so it all goes tits up because a kiss is basically marriage obviously. The engagement is broken off, and Youth’s Father (coming into his own after his distinct lack of kissing) manages to persuade Lucy to marry the Youth. Talk about exceptional wingmanship.
♥ Here’s the “hey, you’ve rejected my proposal but I’m miraculously not offended but instead love you more!” trope again, only Lucy takes it one proposal further than the two we’ve come to know and love because she’s a badass wench. And because third time lucky is an actual thing.
♥ Seeing as Italy is supposed to be the country of love (as well as of food, dear reader, for those who have read my previous post; recall Shakespeare’s famous “Foode prithee is the foode of love, so indeed eat on”* and nod sagely), you’d think that —call me old-fashioned— Forster could have possibly plumped for somewhere slightly more romantic than a B&B for the first meeting of the lovers.
The Big Scoop:
Let’s first address the elephant in the room, and I did just make a pun based on the title of the novel because I am in no way above cheap laughs. I’m not the most perceptive flower in the bunch, but even I noticed that the words “room” and the “view” were being dropped into practically every conversation and so that they probably don’t just mean what they say. Not only does the novel begin with Lucy’s chaperone complaining about the “rooms with a view” that were promised to them —bear in mind that it is in the process of swapping these inferior rooms for the ones with the all-desired “view” that Lucy meets Youth in the first place— but Lucy also admits that she “feel[s] more at home with [Cecil, the fiancé she jilts] in a room” while he “connect[s] [her] with a view”. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this contrast of ‘nature/wilderness’ versus ‘being contained indoors’ is one that defines their relationship: and ultimately the thing that kills it. Forster similarly speaks of “the old, old battle of the room with the view” with reference to the restrictive class system that ‘disallows’ Lucy’s union with the Youth, since he is inferior to her socially. Thus can we infer that it is whatever Cecil considers to be inferior that means he cannot be allowed to marry Lucy, and you don’t really need to look far to find exactly what that is: his view of women. As per usual.
Thinking that Lucy is obligated to “look up to him because he [is] a man”, Cecil never sees her as a woman of flesh and blood until she dumps his ass, preferring to reduce her to a “Leonardo”**: a purely aesthetic ideal. “From a Leonardo she had become a living woman”, he discovers abruptly, and doesn’t like it one bit. Or does he? Once Cecil has recovered from the shock that not every woman will bow down at his feet under the weight of her own subservience, his feelings turn to admiration; he “thank[s]” Lucy for “showing [him] a true woman” and even asks to “shake hands”. What we’re seeing here is 1) Cecil ASKING Lucy’s permission to do something, and 2) Cecil showing Lucy a mark of respect that usually is reserved for the sort of solemn business that only men can be involved in. What about the Youth in all of this “room” malarkey? He says simply, when asked, that he “never notice[s] much difference in views”, i.e. he is of a liberal and enlightened sort who doesn’t like to pigeonhole people, and so clearly must succeed where Cecil has failed just for the sake of proving a point about society.
E. M. Forster’s final book, the lowly Maurice, is a tale that deals the struggle of a gay man in a society that does not accept homosexuality, and it is this modest novel that brought to light similar themes in Forster’s earlier works. The Youth —who, by the way, does have a name (George), but I’m stuck in a rut now as it’s so much more mysterious and fun not to call him that— states that Cecil “is for society […] he should know no-one intimately, least of all women”, and the possibility/probability that Cecil is gay and in this way functions solely as a critique of “society” ties in with the overt criticisms of the position of women (Lucy) and the class system (George). Suffice it to say that Reverend Beebe is “somewhat chilly in his attitude towards the other sex” as well, so I hope I’m not just frolicking in my usual well of groundless supposition here.
I didn’t find the film enthralling so I wasn’t expecting much from the book, which is an awful thing to say and confirmation that I am indeed the worst English Literature student that has ever existed. I found some wonderfully wrought lines —“when the air ran into the mouth like wine”, for instance— but the overall tone was (intentionally, but a bit boringly) buttoned-up and so, for me, slightly lukewarm. I didn’t engage with the relationship between Lucy and the Youth (which, frankly, seemed to be based solely on two kisses and a scattering of unenlightening conversations), but I did appreciate the hints that Miss Barlett, Maiden Chaperone Deluxe©, had experienced a doomed love affair many years before; she sadly exclaims that Lucy, in rejecting the Youth whom she loves but is socially unacceptable, is “so unlike the girls of [her] day”. I make this a solid 6½.
* Or something of the sort. I never promised exactness and precision when it comes to backing up my own analysis, jeez.
** da Vinci, not di Caprio, more’s the pity. But I’m happy to reduce Leonardo di Caprio to a purely aesthetic ideal any time.