Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Room with A View by Edward Morgan Foster

Review by The Quidnunc

This one was a very hard for me to review, not only was I confused by the chaotic structure of the novel, but was also mesmerised by what seemed a deliberate rejection of controlled style to reflect the messy complexities of the human hear. You did it Mr Foster: I have become yours truly. Once more you managed to remind me how fiction should make the reader feel both for and through it. I do realize of course that this may sound to the least a bit childish, but that does not miniature the obvious the theme, mechanics of plot and vicissitudes of characters A Room with A View possess.
Foster's novel makes us feel as Heraclitus would put it: "Estranged from that which is most familiar."
Our story begins in Florence, Italy, where two English women, Lucy Honeychurch and her spinster cousin Charlotte Bartlett, are at a hotel full of other English tourists. They are displeased with their rooms, which don’t have a pleasant view from their windows, but a pair of unconventional fellow guests, Mr. Emerson and his son, George, offers to switch rooms with them. This sparks a whole discussion of what is proper and what is improper, a dialogue that continues throughout the book. Eventually, the women take the Emersons’ offer, only after a visiting pastor, Mr. Beebe, convinces Charlotte that it’s okay.
The majority of the hotel guests are still unconvinced that the Emersons are socially acceptable, though. Lucy, who realizes early on that Mr. Emerson is actually just an old sweetie-pie who doesn’t play social games well (or refuses to), is saddened by the attitude of the other guests towards the quirky father-son duo. We see that she’s confused and not entirely convinced by the strict rules and regulations of “good” society, and that she’s tempted to follow her own emotions sometimes, rather than just doing as she’s told. She wishes something would happen to her – and it does. She and George both witness a dramatic murder in a Florence square, and both are irreversibly changed by it (as we all would be, no doubt). This makes Lucy realize that life is not as simple as she’d thought it was up to this point in her life, and she begins to slowly question her belief in the social order she grew up with.
The plot gets thicker when the guests at the hotel go on what is meant to be a pleasant drive in the country. When they arrive at their destination, a particularly beautiful “view” from a hilltop, everyone wanders off to explore. Lucy inevitably (though unintentionally) finds George, and, overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and the beauty of Lucy herself, he kisses her. She is shocked! We are shocked! Charlotte, who accidentally witnesses the kiss, is shocked! Part One of the book ends as Charlotte and Lucy beat a quick retreat from Florence, attempting to avoid any further complications with George and his father.
Part Two takes us back to Lucy’s home in pleasant southern England, Windy Corner. We meet her family (her charming mother and her adorably ridiculous brother, Freddy), and her stuffy new fiancĂ©, Cecil Vyse. Cecil is not exactly a barrel of laughs, but he certainly thinks he is. Through Cecil’s devious and rather cruel maneuvering, the Emersons end up moving into the neighborhood. Their previous relationship with Lucy is a total coincidence – Cecil’s a fool, not a monster! He doesn’t know about Lucy and George’s fraught relationship, and he only brings the Emersons to town to provoke a local landowner, who’s concerned with finding the “right” kind of tenants. Everything converges upon Lucy: George, who she secretly loves (it’s a secret to her, too), Cecil, who she thinks she loves, her family, Mr. Beebe the pastor, and, to make matters even worse, Charlotte. Windy Corner is suddenly a powder keg of potential drama.
The spark that blows the whole thing up is a novel written by Miss Lavish, a fellow traveler they met at the hotel in Florence. In this trashy romance novel, a passionate kiss identical to the one Lucy and George shared is described. Unaware of this awkward fact, Cecil reads the scene out loud – he just thinks the novel’s cheesiness is hilarious. However, he doesn’t realize that in so doing, he reminds both Lucy and George of their Italian encounter. This inspires George to kiss Lucy a second time when Cecil’s momentarily out of the way.
Lucy is torn between inexplicably complicated feelings for George and her social obligation to Cecil, which, in her mind, masquerades as love. She sends George away, claiming that she doesn’t love him, but he manages to make her see how ridiculous Cecil is. She then realizes (thankfully) that she doesn’t love Cecil, and breaks off her engagement with him. All of a sudden, she’s down from two suitors to none – and she attempts to resign herself to a life of spinsterhood. She makes desperate plans to travel to Greece, hoping to escape her tumultuous feelings.But when true love comes a-callin’, packing up and going to Greece is not the answer (a valuable lesson for all of us to learn). At the last moment, Lucy runs into Mr. Emerson, who comes right out and begs her to face her emotions. She realizes that she’s been lying to herself and everyone else – she really does love George. She finally throws off the restrictions and expectations of society and runs off with George. The novel ends where it began, in a room with a view in Florence, with Lucy and George happily united. It’s not perfect – Lucy is alienated from her family, who feels that she’s acted poorly – but it’s still safe to say that love wins out over society in the end. 
Romantic comedy this is not. The rosiness of a woman stumbling upon convenient fantasy fulfillment by marrying into privilege and bourgeois wealth do not tinge the themes of this classic. Rather this aspires to the novelty of a sort of female bildungsroman. A woman who is roused into the acknowledgement of her desires and self through the unwitting intervention of men considered unworthy of being even good travel companions - how many male authors/poets/dramatists of Forster's generation have cared enough about class distinctions and gender inequality to fashion such a narrative?
I can think of G.B. Shaw- a dramatist unlike Forster, but contemporaneous in stature and rise to fame - who did wean a generation away from the romanticism of war and the burnish of social affluence and forced them into acknowledging the foolishness of prejudices. Shaw, who gave a working class flower girl an indestructible sense of self-worth and a right to reject the suave, much older, educated benefactor in favor of the younger man who loved her without reservations, should be mentioned in the same breath as Forster in my eyes. Both looked upon women as humans and not as passive accessories meant to magnify the worth of the men in their lives and that's reason enough for me to be an unabashed fangirl for life.
"He had robbed the body of its taint, the world's taunts of their sting; he had shown her the holiness of direct desire."
Sexually and emotionally inhibited young woman savoring personal liberty for the first time through the love of a man of inferior social standing who assumes a consciously passive role in earning her affections - this was, perhaps, Forster's way of contradicting and affirming Austenian values at the same time. The very possibility of the intersection of marital bliss and lack of wealth and connections in a prospective husband and disregard for societal approval lay well outside the limits of Austen's imagination but she did endow her many women characters with enough dimensions to be keenly distinguishable from each other.
"They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue. As the years pass, they are censured. Their pleasantry and their piety show cracks, their wit becomes cynicism, their unselfishness hypocrisy; they feel and produce discomfort wherever they go."
What else is there to say? Here's to the unexpected joy of discovering another male author of the last century, who was effortlessly free of the abysmal sexism that is so regrettably palpable in the work of many novelists (of all genders) of the present. Here's to a great story-teller who ventured beyond the narrow horizons conferred on him by his times.
I foresee much more Forster in my future.