Book Review: A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

A Room with a View – E.M. Forster (Penguin Books, 1978)

There are old-fashioned books that make you feel cozy and safe and nostalgic and there are old-fashioned books that make you thankful to live in the time we do. A Room with a View has some of each. As lovely as it sounds to spends months at a time travelling through Italy, I wouldn’t want to be under the social restrictions that our protagonist, Lucy Honeychurch is. Lucy is a young woman travelling with her older cousin. It is her first time in Italy and she is over the moon to be visiting Florence. The book is clearly poking fun at many of the social norms of the time. (It was first published in 1908.)

Lucy’s cousin and chaperone, Miss Bartlett) is the sort of tiresome old maid that is easily scandalized and is constantly limiting Lucy’s adventures by saying not to worry about her and how, of course Lucy wants to leave her behind and do things without her and how hard it is for Lucy to have to travel with Miss Bartlett. These things are, of course, mostly true but Lucy is too sweet and naive and well-mannered to agree with Miss Bartlett.

One of the first problems the travellers experience is that when they arrive in Florence at their pension their rooms do not, in fact, have a view. Upon hearing their disappointment, another guest offers to switch rooms. Mr. Emerson and his son George are here introduced as entirely uncouth and as having put Lucy and Charlotte in an awkward position. The women do eventually take the Emersons up on their offer because apparently men don’t care for things like views but women do. Many of the issues in the book are similar to this, things that are hard to understand from a modern view point. Fortunately, Forster seems to be on our side and to enjoy showing his readers how ridiculous these expectations are.

As Lucy’s time in Florence and her exposure to the Emerson’s progresses, she begins to grow and develop and to think about the world around her differently. An extra scandalous event causes her to leave Florence abruptly, but even her return to England and home doesn’t keep her away from George Emerson and his father.

Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.”

The Emersons represent a turning from society, a different choice that all that Lucy has been raised within, just as Miss Bartlett offers a glimpse of another life Lucy could possibly lead. At the heart of the novel is Lucy stepping into womanhood and all the possibilities of who she might become. I don’t think I can say that Lucy quite learns to make her own choices – at every turn someone else is telling her what to do or who to be and she never truly escapes that. And as a product of her time, her choices are limited. But Forster seems more concerned with how deeply Lucy will live, how closely she will examine her own heart and understanding and here we do see her greatest change.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: A Room With a View by E.M. Forster”

  1. Your review reminds me so much of my reading experience of Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. As an unmarried adult woman, the narrator is told who she should seek to date, how she should live, how she should entertain people, what she should do at church — one character even tries to foist another woman on the narrator because OF COURSE a single woman is in want of a roommate until she gets married. Single women should be piled together in one location, it seems!

    1. So much more convenient to keep them all in one spot! I’ve never read Excellent Women but it would be interesting to read this sort of story from the perspective of a woman author. Makes me very thankful that I got to be a single woman in the 21st century!

  2. I often think with these books written about young people at the beginning of the twentieth century how quickly their lives are about to change, and to wonder how they would cope with the massive shift in culture which was just over the horizon. By the time she was sixty, if she lived, it would be the 1940s. If she made it to eighty, she’d be seeing the Swinging Sixties. Dickens’ heroines would die in a society much like the one of their youth, but these women… it must have been exciting…

    1. There is actually a short essay at the end of the book where Forster outlines what the rest of the main characters’ lives will look like. I felt like it was a bit of a departure from the story he had developed. But he makes a similar point as you – life was about to change so drastically and so many of the issues Lucy faces become complete non-issues within her own lifetime.

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