Thursday 8 October 2009

73 - 'A Room With A View' by E.M. Forster

One of my favourite things in life, up there with a great Shiraz, listening to my favourite music on my (old and battered) i-Pod mini and smashing shots past the keeper from twenty-plus yards, is finding books I've wanted to read for ages in second-hand shops. When I find one by E.M. Forster for just $1.50 Australian, I'm even happier. Mr. Forster is fast shooting up my most-read-author-of-the-year list, having already supplied two of my favourite novels of 2009 ('Howard's End' and 'A Passage to India'), and, after finishing this short and sweet example of understated Edwardian fiction, I am very tempted to go after some more of his books before the end of the year.

The story is divided into two parts: the first (shorter) section is set in Florence and follows young Englishwoman Lucy Honeychurch on her leisurely holiday in Italy, introducing us (and her) to a cast of people at a boarding house, several of whom are to play further roles in the tale. After a couple of chance encounters with one of them, the young George Emerson, Lucy, under the protection of her spinster cousin Charlotte, races off to Rome - at which point the first part ends.

The second part takes place back in Lucy's home village, back in the safe home counties of the south-east of England. Safely engaged to the eligible, if somewhat loveless, Cecil Vyse, Lucy has managed to suppress any disturbing memories from her European adventures: at least, that is, until a vacant cottage is let to a couple of familiar faces...

If the above summary sounds a little bit Mills & Boon-ish, well, it does run that way at times. I haven't seen the film, but I had heard of it, and even if I hadn't seen her young face plastered across the cover of my battered copy of the book, I still might have had Helena Bonham-Carter's elfin face flashing through my mind on reading certain sections of the book. All the sources I've skimmed through agree that this is the lightest, happiest and most accessible of Forster's novels, and there is a distinct hint of chick-lit about it if you skim the surface.

However, books rarely survive past their centenary without having something a little more substantial to offer than a happy ending, and 'A Room with a View' is a lot more complex than it may appear. Lucy's awakening is part of a wider reflection on the role women should play at the start of the twentieth century. Today, it seems absurd that she requires a chaperon to travel abroad and that she acquiesces to some of the restrictive demands of the people around her, but this was the reality for women in the Victorian era, and it is only with the change of monarch and a shift in mentality (as well as the wars just around the corner...) that the first baby steps towards equality were taken. Lucy's eventual rejection of the oppressive, possessive Cecil, who regards her more as a piece of art in his collection than as a real-life, breathing, living human, parallels this wider societal development.

Society at the time of this story was changing in more ways than just the emancipation, if you like, of women; another change, represented in this novel by the Emersons, is the blurring of the lines between the formerly strictly segregated classes. Whereas, in Victorian times, the upwardly mobile were often portrayed as ungentlemanly and unworthy of the attention they sought from the more genteel, Forster reverses the roles, portraying the Emersons as quirky but 'nice' while Cecil Vyse, Reverend Beebe and, even, Lucy's mother are ridiculed for their inability to adapt to rapidly changing times. This distinction between 'static' and 'progressive' characters is an important feature in other Forster works, especially notable in the contrast in 'Howard's End' between the stick-in-the-mud Wilcoxes and the bohemian Schlegels (one of whom was played, in a Merchant-Ivory film - of course - by none other than... well, I'll let you guess...).

Forster's themes were to be drawn on their grandest canvas in 'A Passage to India' (another Merchant-Ivory adaptation), and some of the scenes in his earlier work point to those in the later text. George and Lucy's moment overlooking Florence is comparable (in a light-and-dark kind of way) to Adele Quested's moment in the Marabar caves; the Emerson' effect on the Honeychurches and their circle can be likened to the disastrous attempts to mix the native and Anglo populations in India. However, by Forster's own admission, the later novel must be considered greater as he believed it was wrong for 'modern' writers to contrive a happy ending. In this sense, indeed, 'A Room with a View' would have to be regarded as an 'inferior' novel...

It's a shame it was only mid-week (and mostly daylight) while I was reading this as I think a glass of Shiraz or two would have gone nicely with this book (or, in deference to the setting, a fine Chianti). After the tiring struggle with 'Anna Karenina' (a book which is probably best avoided by someone with back issues), Forster's subtle love story was just what the doctor (or the physio) ordered. However, it does make me think that I may have been overdoing it with the classics if this was my relaxation. Whatever the superficial similarities, this is no chick-lit; 'A Room with a View' is definitely worthy of classic status