My rating: 5 of 5 stars
So far this is my favorite story by E.M. Forster. He wrote it in 1910 before WWI which may explain its optimistic attitude compared to the more pessimistic view that shadows Passage to India which was written in 1927.
Lucy Honeychurch has gone on a trip to Italy with her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett. The story opens with Charlotte and Lucy in Florence at their hotel seated in the dining room.
Charlotte is complaining that the owner of the hotel promised them rooms with a view but they have no view. Not only that, but the hotel is filled with English people. Even the proprietor is a "cockney".
We might be in London, Lucy laments.
Their conversation is interrupted by a man at a nearby table crying, "We have a view, we have a view!"
Charlotte is too shocked to reply to such an obvious display of vulgar gloating, something a little child would do and entirely unbecoming in a grown man.
The man clarifies. He and his son, would be more than happy to exchange rooms because the view means nothing to them and so much to the ladies.
Instead of appreciating the generosity of the man's offer, Charlotte is disgusted at his lack of social propriety. Who is this stranger, breaking social boundaries and making an offer that would put her and Lucy under "obligation"?
Later, Charlotte and Lucy do take the rooms because another man, Mr. Beebe, who is rector to their church back home and who is also touring Florence encourages them to take up the offer and shows his displeasure with Charlotte's airs. Noticing Mr. Beebe's displeasure motivates Charlotte to accept the offer.
This sets the tone for the book. We realize that Forster is lampooning artificial social constructs that pass as manners but in reality keep people alienated from each other.
Charlotte and Lucy are quickly informed by the other hotel lodgers that the elderly man, Mr. Emerson and his son, George are not "one of us" and should be snubbed accordingly.
Charlotte, a penniless relative who is only in Florence because Lucy's mother is paying for her trip, is only too eager to stand on her dignity and turn her back to the Emersons. Lucy is not so eager.
Reading the first part of the book it is easy to conclude that we are going to have the usual stick figures, each representing a "type" of "good guys" and "bad guys".
Charlotte is a "bad guy" representing the snobbish Englishwoman. Mr. Emerson and George are the "good guys" because they are the underdogs and free spirits who won't conform to social norms. Their being snubbed commands our sympathy.
But it isn't so cut and dry as that.
Charlotte is tiresome, but everyone else, with the exception of a few people, possess an assortment of angles that allow us to see their shortcomings but also to perceive their humanness and sympathize accordingly.
Lucy gets to know the Emersons and finds she likes them very much but is disturbed by the fact that she likes them because she feels she shouldn't. When George impulsively kisses her, she is even more confused.
Charlotte, who witnessed this affront immediately removes Lucy and herself to Rome. This enrages Lucy because she has grown to an age where she wants to make her own decisions.
If it were merely a battle of the wills where she and Charlotte confronted each other from opposite hills and started firing, the war would soon be over and the case closed. But Charlotte is one of those characters that doesn't operate that way. She is a master manipulator.
She gets her way with Lucy every single time because her weapon is insisting on doing everything that Lucy wants to do, even if she, Charlotte, is "too tired to walk, but if you insist..." and the reason Charlotte took the larger room with a view is because it had belonged to the son, George, and if Lucy slept in it, she would be "under obligation" to him. Charlotte was all about doing things "Lucy's way" and thus ensured for herself getting her own way.
If Lucy put up any kind of fight, Charlotte was quick to announce, "Oh, of course, we must do everything Lucy's way because after all, I am a penniless relation who is only here because of your mother's generosity...of course I must sacrifice...."
Charlotte gets her way but at a price. Lucy loathes her and so do most people who come into contact with her. Charlotte knows this and uses it as another weapon in her arsenal. "I know I'm unwanted..."
One wonders if Charlotte, a spinster, is not serving as a warning to Lucy: "This is what you could become one day if you don't break away and follow your heart." I won't say what that desire is in case a reader hasn't read the book.
Yet, Charlotte knows the "right way to do things" and it is the lash she cracks over everyone if they protest because English people must behave "correctly".
Things could be suffocatingly heavy if that's all there were to the story. If E.M. Forester's intention was only to point out the hypocrisy of English custom, the story would quickly devolve into tiresome sermonizing.
But he balances Charlotte out with most of the other characters who are likeable and very human. Yes, they may act the snob and be a little overly concerned with who is acceptable and unacceptable but mostly they forget about it and enjoy each other's company.
Lucy's trip ends and she goes back home to her mother and brother who are simply charming individuals. They are easy going, easy to accept others and quick to include them in their circle without much ado. When Mr. Emerson and George move into their neighborhood, Lucy's family invites them over without ceremony.
George, Freddie and Mr. Beebe sun bathe together and are soon running around stark naked like a group of school boys.
When Lucy and her mother accidentally come across them, one supposes Forster plans to use the incident to expose the English woman's "unnatural aversion" to nudity but not so. Later when Lucy endeavors to introduce her to George her mother asks if it is necessary, or perhaps they could consider themselves already introduced.
Even Lucy's fiance, who spends a good deal of the book looking down his nose at everyone comes to himself in the end and turns out pretty decently, even if it does take a momentary crisis to provoke that decency.
The rich, pleasant color that Forster paints most of his characters (there are a few ugly ones) is a pleasure to read, but the best part of the book is his writing style. Here's an example:
Mr. Beebe and his twelve year old niece Minnie are visiting Lucy's family. Lucy's brother Freddy and Minnie are playing some kind of game involving tennis rackets and broken balls.
"Freddie possessed to a high degree the power of lashing little girls to fury, and in half a minute he had transformed Minnie from a well-mannered child into a howling wilderness."
That is a sentence I enjoy repeating to myself. It's descriptive powers are brilliant. And most of his sentences are similarly fluid and descriptive. Especially the inner thoughts of each character from which the third person limited narrator bounces between.
Ironically, the most boring characters are Mr. Emerson and his son, George. They are hardly developed as people and seem to serve only as tools to point to the archaic character of Edwardian society. If any preaching is done it is when Mr. Emerson pontificates in a Thoreau-esque fashion about the meaning of life in some sort of transcendental fashion which I found as meaningless as it is devoid of joy. If George is supposed to attract us as he did Lucy, he fails. He's not around enough or says anything worth reading to make him very interesting.
Nevertheless, the overall tone of the book is one of affection and the lucid writing makes it a treat to read.
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|E.M. Forster 1879-1970|