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A READER'S JOURNAL
A Room With a View
E. M. Forster
Published by Barnes & Noble/US in 1993
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2006
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What are you to do if you were expecting a room with a view overlooking the Arno River in Florence and instead you were placed overlooking a courtyard. If you're a young lady from England, you would be upset and might like to mention it in public. Lucy did, only to have the two gentlemen with rooms with a view offer to exchange rooms with her and her traveling companion, Charlotte. Then what is one to do? Depend on the kindness of strangers? Mr. Beebe intercedes and says gently to Lucy:
[page 9] "I think he would not take advantage of your acceptance, nor expect you to show gratitude. He has the merit — if it is one — of saying exactly what he means. He has rooms he does not value, and he thinks you would value them. He no more thought of putting you under an obligation than he thought of being polite. It is so difficult — at least, I find it difficult — to understand people who speak the truth."
Lucy cannot live without her Baedeker, her tour guidebook, because without it Lucy will not be able to know what to enjoy — she lives out of maps of reality as if she were in a room without a view except that provided by the maps of the outside world she inspects. A thing of beauty she will miss unless it is on her map of what to expect, as it was in Santa Croce.
[page 22] She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.
Once in a thunderstorm under an umbrella, lightning flashed, causing Lucy to scream, and Mr. Eager tells her:
[page 75] "Courage, Miss Honeychurch, courage and faith. If I might say so, there is something almost blasphemous in this horror of the elements. Are we seriously to suppose that all these could, all this immense electrical display, is simply called into existence to extinguish you or me?"
This led me to wonder if we might not say the same of hurricanes. Is there not something blasphemous in a horror of hurricanes, something presumptuous that they are called into existence by God to extinguish people?
Lucy finally gives in when the older Emerson implores her to accept his and his son's generosity and take their room with a view. A few days later the son, George, encounters her in the hills among some violets and embraces her with a kiss. What is an early twentieth-century girl to do? Such an effrontery it seems to Lucy for George to do something not in her life Baedeker. Lucy runs back to England and becomes engaged according to acceptable maps of society, but never reveals to anyone except Charlotte what transpired on the hill with George, swearing her to secrecy. Later her fiancé Cecil would bring George and his father to live in a villa near Lucy's home. Lucy is in a conundrum — she has no one to confide in that might share with her how to deal with the secret she has kept so carefully hidden.
Growing up means being exposed to adults speaking a language we are yet learning to understand. When Lucy says Mr. Beebe, the parson, has no fences, Cecil replies wittily, and Lucy misses the meaning in his language, but like all growing youths, Lucy latches onto something in the air, the tone of his voice and the feeling it created in her. We tend to forget in maturity that we learned the feelings before the meaning of the words which evoke them.
[page 106] "A parson fenceless would mean a parson defenceless."
Lucy was slow to follow what people said, but quick enough to detect what they meant. She missed Cecil's epigram, but grasped the feeling that prompted it.
We get one revealing clue as to Lucy and Cecil's prospects for a long term relationship in a discussion in which Cecil thinks of Lucy as a view and she thinks of him as in a room with no view. (Page 115) Meantime Lucy maintains her secret about the kiss on the hill and the author tells us this about holding a secret, "Secrecy has this advantage: we lose the sense of proportion; we cannot tell whether our secret is important or not. Were Lucy and her cousin closeted with a great thing which would destroy Cecil's life if he discovered it, or with a little thing which he would laugh at?" To use a modern analogy, it is like opening the box containing Schrödinger's Cat, we cannot know whether the cat is alive or dead until we open the box.
"Hinder" is a verb we hardly use anymore in the sense of "bother", in fact, our word "bother" is replaced in another place by "trespass upon" which we also would not use. Here are the two passages:
[page 132] "Suppose we go and hinder those new people opposite for a little."
[page 161] "Dearest Lucia, may I trespass upon you for a pin?"
Another unfamiliar usage of a word led me to be shocked when Lucy's brother Freddy's first words when he meets George are, "How d'ye do? Come and have a bathe." I scratched my head over that one until finally it occurred to me that the British must use "bathe" as we would "swim." Freddy was simply inviting George for a swim in the "Sacred Lake" as they call the pond. A baptism to consecrate George as a member of the family, an event yet in the future, is penumbrated here.
In all movies, one can find the presence of water presaging the development of love — it may be a couple caught in the rain, a fall into a pond, a sprinkler going off suddenly, or any number of encounters with water. In this novel, it is the men, Freddy, George, and the parson in the pond who are bonding.
[page 140] They began to play. Mr. Beebe and Freddy splashed each other. A little deferentially, they splashed George. He was quiet; they feared they had offended him. Then all the forces of youth burst out. He smiled, flung himself at them, splashed them, ducked them, kicked them, muddied them, and drove them out of the pool.
"Race you round it, then," cried Freddy, and they raced in the sunshine, and George took a short cut and dirtied his shins, and had to bathe a second time. Then Mr. Beebe consented to run — a memorable sight.
They ran to get dry, they bathed to get cool, they played at being Indians in the willow-herbs and in the bracken, they bathed to get clean.
And the next day, the Sacred Lake, the pond was dry, as if it had performed its magical deed and was no longer needed.
[page 142] That evening and all that night the water ran away. On the morrow the pool had shrunk to its old size and lost its glory. It had been a call to the blood and to the relaxed will, a passing benediction whose influence did not pass, a holiness, a spell, a momentary chalice for youth.
The author gives us this view of the open forest land between the North and South Downs known as the Weald and how Lucy had learned to look at her home land by having traveled to Italy. It was a trick I learned from my travels in the mountains — how to re-create in myself the feeling of being in the mountains when I was home in my Louisiana gazing in awe at the good mountains of soaring white-capped cumulus in the distance.
[page 169] Ah, how beautiful the Weald looked! The hills stood out above its radiance, as Fiesole stands above the Tuscan Plain, and the South Downs, if one chose, were the mountains of Carrara. She might be forgetting her Italy, but she was noticing more things in her England. One could play a new game with the view, and try to find in its innumerable folds some town or village that would do for Florence. Ah, how beautiful the Weald looked!
And then the fated day when Cecil reads to George a fictionalized account of the kiss George gave Lucy amidst the violets. Lucy must turn her head away from fiancé of the present to her fiancé of the future, from the reader to the listener, from the imaginer of the deed to the performer of the deed.
[page 173] Miss Lavish, knew, somehow, and had printed the past in draggled prose, for Cecil to read and for George to hear.
" 'A golden haze,' " he read. He read: " 'Afar off the towers of Florence, while the bank on which she sat was carpeted with violets. All unobserved Antonio stole up behind her — ' "
Lest Cecil should see her face she turned to George and she saw his face.
He read: " 'There came from his lips no wordy protestation such as formal lovers use. No eloquence was his, nor did he suffer from the lack of it. He simply enfolded her in his manly arms."
George and Lucy's second kiss soon follows, who knows but that this kiss had, to quote Samuel Hoffenstein, "some salt for its flavor." Lucy leads Cecil and George into tea from the surrounding grounds.
[page 173, 174] She led the way up the garden, Cecil following her, George last. She thought a disaster was averted. But when they entered the shrubbery it came. The book, as if it had not worked mischief enough, had been forgotten, and Cecil must go back for it; and George, who loved passionately, must blunder against her in the narrow path.
"No — " she gasped, and, for the second time, was kissed by him.
As if no more was possible, he slipped back; Cecil rejoined her; they reached the upper lawn alone.
>She later asks Cecil to let her out of the engagement and gives up any idea of being with George. But George's father has one more talk with Lucy in which he advises her to avoid muddles to learn from her life in the act of living it.
[page 220] I used to think I could teach young people the whole of life, but I know better now, and all my teaching of George has come down to this: beware of muddle. Do you remember in that church, where you pretended to be annoyed with me and weren't? Do you remember before, when you refused the room with the view? Those were muddles — little, but ominous — and I am fearing that your are in one now." She was silent. "Don't trust me, Miss Honeychurch. Though life is very glorious, it is difficult." She was still silent. " 'Life,' wrote a friend of mine, 'is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.' I think he puts it well. Man has to pick up the use of his functions as he goes along — especially the function of Love." Then he burst out excitedly: "That's it; that's what I mean. You love George!" And after his long preamble, the three words burst against Lucy like waves from the open sea."
Mr. Emerson has once more taken the initiative to provide Lucy with the eponymous "room with a view". And once again Lucy will, under his urging, abandon a shuttered room with no view with Cecil for an open room with a view with George, a view of an inner Arno that she will ever after happily bear with her.
[page 229] Youth enwrapped them; the song of Phaethon announced passion requited, love attained. But they were conscious of love more mysterious than this. The song died away; they heard the river, bearing down the snows of winter into the Mediterranean.
Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne
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