Apr 30, 2010

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

A Room With A View begins in Florence: Lucy Honeychurch and her older cousin Charlotte Bartlett, who is chaperoning her on a tour of Europe, are staying at the Pension Bertolini. Much to their disappointment, the rooms with a view they were promised fail to materialise. However, an old gentleman by the name of Emerson hears their complaints and offers to exchange his and his son’s rooms, which do have view, for theirs. Miss Barlett’s is much vexed by the old man’s impertinence, and Lucy – well, Lucy is told that she, too, ought to feel vexed, but somehow she can’t help thinking that he’s merely being kind. This is the first of the many things Lucy knows an Edwardian young woman such as herself ought to be thinking and feeling, only she somehow doesn’t seem to be able to think or feel them. A Room With A View is the story of her progress from a life dominated by convention to one that is kinder, more genuine, freer: to a life where she’s allowed to simply be herself.

Oh, what a wonderful book this is. I think that between this and Howards End, I can safely add E.M. Forster to my list of favourite authors. Even if everything else of his were to disappoint me (which I very much doubt will happen), these two would be enough to qualify him to my personal Hall of Fame. There’s something about Forster’s sensibility that really speaks to me. I love him for his tenderness and his warmth, for his humanity, and most of all for his deep belief in empathy and in the value of interpersonal connections. His novels are all about reaching out, being genuinely kind, treating other people as human beings and never as anything less. Much to my delight, A Room With a View is “only connect” all over again.

I suppose this book could be described as a coming-of-age story: Lucy learns to be herself, and she does so by learning to let go of all the things that get in the way of authenticity – namely social conventions and the distances they impose. She learns that while in the Edwardian world social barriers may exist, “you jump over them just as you jump into a peasant's olive-yard in the Apennines, and he is glad to see you.” Forster demonstrates this with such irony, such subtlety, such lightness. Lucy is contrasted with characters for whom social conventions are insurmountable and Divinely Ordained, and what makes this so effective is the fact that we’re shown not only where she differs from them, but also where she resembles them. Lucy is not a rebel without a cause: she’s a rebel because she becomes slowly and painfully aware that to live the life that’s expected of her would make her deeply unhappy.

If I have one half-complaint about this wonderful novel, it’s the fact that Forster very nearly wanders into murky territory when he comes close to portraying Lucy’s desire for independence as a mere excuse she gives herself to mask her feelings for a certain young man. But I say “almost” because he never quite does it: yes, Lucy lies to others and to herself about her desire for freedom and about other things – and at the heart of this novel is her discovery that to do so won’t ever bring her any happiness. But her desire for independence and the love story we have here are absolutely not at odds: they’re two facets of the same thing. The inevitable marriage at the end (not a spoiler, as you can tell from the very start that this is one of those books that will end with a romantic reunion) doesn’t mean, in the context of the story, that’s she’s exchanging one form of dependence for another. It means that she’s entering a genuine partnership; that she’s doing exactly what she wants to do. She’s never robbed of her agency, but rather has it returned to her with a doubled awareness of its value, meaning and implications.

Between this and Howards End, I’m very impressed with how Forster deals with gender. How could I not love him after deliciously ironic passages such as this?
This she might not attempt. It was unladylike. Why? Why were most big things unladylike? Charlotte had once explained to her why. It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored. Poems had been written to illustrate this point.
In addition to my strong affinity with the sensibility behind A Room With a View, there’s the fact that this book was quite simply a joy to read. The first part, set in Florence, reminded me a tiny bit of The Enchanted April (random piece of literary trivia: E.M. Foster was a tutor do Elizabeth von Armin's children), with its wonderful descriptions of Italy. But I don’t want to give you a wrong impression, as this is different sort of book altogether: also delightful, yes, but in different ways.

There’s just so much to love here: there’s Lucy herself, who is difficult not to like; there the older Mr Emerson, with his hilarious knack for embarrassing honesty; there’s the witty dialogue; there’s Forster’s warmth, irony and sense of humour; there’s his lovely use of language (I actually preferred the writing in A Room With a View to Howards End); and there’s the book’s defiantly and stubbornly hopeful tone. This is a novel that will leave you smiling despite everything there is in the world to cry about.

Dear E.M. Forster fans: what should I read next? I’m tempted to pick up Maurice or Where Angels Fear to Tread and save A Passage to India for last. Thoughts?

Bits I particularly liked:
“My dear,” said the old man gently, “I think that you are repeating what you have heard older people say. You are pretending to be touchy; but you are not really. Stop being so tiresome, and tell me instead what part of the church you want to see. To take you to it will be a real pleasure.”
Now, this was abominably impertinent, and she ought to have been furious. But it is sometimes as difficult to lose one’s temper as it is difficult at other times to keep it. Lucy could not get cross. Mr. Emerson was an old man, and surely a girl might humour him. On the other hand, his son was a young man, and she felt that a girl ought to be offended with him, or at all events be offended before him. It was at him that she gazed before replying.

It was ordinary water, nor was there very much of it, and, as Freddy said, it reminded one of swimming in a salad. The three gentlemen rotated in the pool breast high, after the fashion of the nymphs in Gotterdammerung. But either because the rains had given a freshness or because the sun was shedding a most glorious heat, or because two of the gentlemen were young in years and the third young in spirit—for some reason or other a change came over them, and they forgot Italy and Botany and Fate. 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.

‘He daren’t let a woman decide. He’s the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he’s forming you, telling you what’s charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of to your own. So it was at the Rectory, when I met you both again; so it has been the whole of this afternoon. Therefore—not ‘therefore I kissed you,’ because the book made me do that, and I wish to goodness I had more self-control. I’m not ashamed. I don’t apologize. But it has frightened you, and you may not have noticed that I love you. Or would you have told me to go, and dealt with a tremendous thing so lightly? But therefore—therefore I settled to fight him.’
Other Opinions:
A Guy's Moleskine Notebook

(As always, let me know if I missed yours and I’ll be glad to add it.)


  1. Foster is such a great author. I suspect "Maurice" will always be my favourite - but maybe that has to do with the subject of the book or the strange melancholy with which was written (Foster probably knew he could never be published in his lifetime). But "A passage to India" is definitely his best and you should leave it for the last. I remember reading "Howards End" and "A room with a view" straight after "Maurice" and I could never really connect with them: I saw the merits of the novels but I was never as invested in them as with the other book. But then I read "A passage..." and my love for the author was restored.

  2. I recently read that a note of his was found attached to the manuscript of Maurice. It read, "publishable, but worth it?". Which just makes me so sad :\

    But! it makes me happy to hear that Maurice and A Passage to India are even more impressive that this and Howards End. It sounds like I have some truly excellent reading ahead of me.

  3. What a beautiful review! Thank you for reminding me how much I love this book.

    Wanders off to hunt it down for a re-read.

  4. This is such a wonderful book. I love Forster, but have not read him for ages. And that's the trouble with reading book reviews; they make you want to read the book, right now! Have you seen the film with Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, and the fabulous Denholm Elliot? Beautiful!

  5. I have never read any of E.M Forster books, I have a couple sitting on my shelves,so I think I may have to give them a go!
    Thanks for the brilliant review!

  6. Nymeth, I really want to read this!! Thanks for the review!!

  7. I always feel that I am so far behind in reading the classics, and more than ever I feel like that now. How could I not have read this and Howard's End? For no other reason than the movies are wildly popular. I keep threatening to spend two or three months reading nothing but classics.

  8. Another one I´ve been meaning to read for a while. How is it that one can read all the time but never get to certain works, it´s kind of depressing.
    Anyway, my library even has the English edition so I might get it next time I´m there. Btw I love your edition! :)

  9. Wonderful review, Ana! I love Forster and Where Angels Fear to Tread will be next for me. A Passage to India is my least favorite, and I still need to read Maurice, too. Howard's End is calling out for a reread...

  10. I have not read E. M. Forster (yet) - but plan to read this classic some day soon.

    Wonderful review!

  11. I didn't really like A Passage to India, which has made me a little leery in picking up Forster's other books, but I really need to. :/

  12. Great review! I thought your half complaint was an interesting point too.
    I've had this on my shelf for awhile and have gone to pick it up a few times, but I feel that the Helena Bonham Carter film adaptation is still too strong in my mind and I need to give it some more time to enjoy it properly. Sometimes I feel that way about books when I've seen the film first, I hope to leave it long enough to forget bits of the film and make the reading experience more enjoyable.

  13. This is one of my favorite novels ever, and I love your phrase "deliciously ironic," which is what I like best about it. Even the character's name--Honeychurch--is kind of funny if you think about it. In that mild British way.

    The movie with,um, what's her name, Bellatrix... is also pretty good--it captures the irony and humor.

  14. I read this in college and loved it! I had the best professor for the book, he made it so much fun and interesting. I've been meaning to read more Forster since...not sure why I haven't. I guess I just forgot. Thanks for reminding me!

  15. I thought I had read this, but now I'm not so sure... beautiful review as always.

  16. This is a book whose purpose I respected, but which I did not personally enjoy. I found the writing rather abstruse in many sections, and found it very hard to get engaged with the book. I've not had much luck either with the movie - whenever I try to watch it, I inevitably fall asleep!

  17. I admit to skimming this post, but that is because I have been in the middle of this book for ages :) I like it, but am reading it on a program I am experimenting with on my iPhone and kind of forgot about it for a while! I will have to go back and finish it, I remember it being pretty good.

  18. A lovely review of a wonderful book. I have no particular affection for Howard's End but I love A Room with a View (particularly the first part). Really enjoyed the excerpts you posted!

  19. This is one of those books that I almost gave up on, but was so very glad I didn't. It took me a while to get into Forster's style of writing, but hanging there was totally worth it. Once the story shifted back to England, I was hooked. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one and thanks so much for linking my review.

    After I read the book I got the Merchant/Ivory movie version (starring Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy) from the library and thought it was just lovely, but was very glad I'd read the book first.

  20. Oh how we loved this as teenagers. I think the film came out just as we discovered the book. Reading your review about Lucy's right of passage makes me think maybe that's what we connected with, without realising it. (As well as fancying Rupert Graves and Julian Sands.) I always think of EM Forster as being like old Emerson and your description of both confirms this. Great review.

  21. Love, love, love love love love love this book! The movie was sweet too; have you seen it? I keep meaning to read Passage to India but I haven't yet. I adore Forster and yes, it totally reminds me of Enchanted April, so charming and light but Important at the same time. Wouldn't you like to be friends with Lucy?

  22. This is a fantastic review! I'm a huge fan of Forster. I loved this book and Howards End is a favorite.

  23. I've never read this one, or any by Forster in fact, but we watched the film version way back in school, and I wasn't taken with it. I think that may have put me off reading it at the time, and I've never gotten around to it since.

  24. This sounds fabulous! I think I'll pick up a copy to add to my mother's Mother's Day gift!

  25. This book sounds like such a delight to read! This author is new to me, but I'll be on the lookout for this book without a doubt. I also love that cover - it's so light and fun!

  26. I loved this book when I first read it and the adaptation with Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy is one of my favorite period films :). I've been meaning to get to A Passage to India ever since a professor recommended it; I'll look forward to reading your review (even if you do leave it for last).

  27. Great book that I haven't read for many years. Thanks for reminding me to re-read!

  28. It is a bit of a travesty that I haven't read Room with a View yet. I have a copy on my shelves at home, does that count??

  29. I loved your review of one of my favorite books (and favorite movies of all times). Reading the comments here I feel like I needed to reassess my unflinching love of EM Forster. I have a hard time understanding those who had a hard time connecting with his work. But then I thought about it for a bit and realized that my first exposure to Forster was seeing the movie A Room With a View when I was in high school. With that perfectly genius and beautiful film in my head, it was easy for me to get into Forster's prose. I wonder how I would have felt about it, if I hadn't had the movie to prime the pump first? And even after I had read 3 or 4 of his novels I still found it hard to get into A Passage to India in college. It was about another decade before I picked it up and read it for real.

    Next stop for you: Where Angels Fear to Tread. Forsters first novel, also set in Italy, not as well done as others (or so the experts say) but a wonderful, wonderful novel.

  30. I adore this book, to this day! I've read it a handful of times at least a decade ago! It's why I picked up Howard's End way back. And why I kept looking for A Passage to India for uh, decades, to no avail :( But I finally found a copy of both Maurice and The Longest Journey early this year. Yay!

    Like some of the comments above I urge you to see (or buy, which is what I did years back) the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation. A much younger Daniel Day-Lewis and the handsome Julian Sands play the men vying for Lucy's (Helena Bonham-Carter) attention. This is the film that made me look for Julian Sands movies but gee, he ended up playing the villain in most of his film career. But I digress :)

  31. I really liked Howards End when I read it last year, so I'm sure I'd enjoy A Room With A View and his other works.

  32. Disgraceful on my side I have never read anything of Forster. Your review makes one realize how much I have missed. Thank you ever so much for highlighting not just the book but the author as well.

  33. I have walked past this book in a bookstore window every day for weeks, undecided as to whether or not I will buy it. I think next time I will buy it. =)

  34. Oh, this one is on my wishlist! And now, with your great review, I want to read it even more. Thanks!

  35. My introduction to this story happened late at night when I was 10 or so when I came across the film version on tv. I fell in love with it that night, and once I found out it was a book, a few months later, I devoured it. I have to admit though that I haven't read a single Forster book since. You have inspired me though; I will move Howard's End up the TBR pile.

  36. This books has been on my shelves for ages. (I seem to have the same edition as you have), it has moved up on the TBR pile after reading your review however. I didn't read through the whole post, as I don't want to find out too much about this book, but from what you said it promises to be a good read.

  37. I saw the movie adaptation when I was in college, and I have always wanted to read the book. Why then, 23 years later, have I still not picked it up?

    I hope to read it soon, and I bookmarked the Forster essay to read later. I thought the passage you quoted on the role of women is delightful. As I recall, this author's witty, wonderful sense of irony even shone through in the movie.

  38. Forster is an author that I love but can never pinpoint why. I find his writing unique and appealing in some way. I have not read this one yet, but loved Howard's End and A Passage to India, and liked Where Angels Fear to Tread.

  39. Sad to say that I haven't read anything by Foster before. Maybe I've been too intimidated to. I'm going to give this book a try.

  40. Lovely review, Nymeth! Is it terrible to admit to seeing the movie but not having read the book? One day I hope to get to this one. I think I'd like it a lot!

  41. What a gorgeous review! I have never read anything by Forster, but have wanted to read Howards End for a while. I think my library has it...

  42. Forster really is fantastic. One of my fondest reading memories was reading some Forster short stories during a brief stay at Oxford. A sustaining experience, even now.

  43. I love, love, love this book, and the 1985 movie adaptation is one of my favorites. (Please do not bother watching the 2007 BBC version, not nearly as good -- there's an epilogue which is tacked on that is NOT IN THE BOOK and ruins it.) I haven't read Maurice but really liked Howards End, though it is darker. I've read Passage to India but it is not my favorite. It's supposed to be his best but I could not get excited about it.

  44. We just watched the movie "Howard's End." I had not read the book. But I wanted to come back and read your review of this book and Howard's End when we were done watching.

    After watching the movie, I was very curious as to whether how I came to feel toward the characters would be similar by reading. Your reviews sound as if that would be the case.

    Although in the new Economist (May 1-7) there is a review of 2 new books about Forster, and it mentions Foster's unsympathetic treatment, for example, of Leonard Bast. (He certainly was not a sympathetic character in the movie.) Sir Frank Kermode (author of one of the two new books) "finds unpleasant snobbery in [this]. Foster was, perhaps, more compassionate in life than he was in art." Interesting comment! The review also said that Foster stopped publishing novels in spite of the success he had enjoyed, apparently because he wanted to write about gay relationships? Not sure: it quotes him in his unpublished diary explaining why he gave up on the novel thusly: "I should have been amore famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex has prevented the latter...how annoyed I am with Society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal." (Maurice, his one novel about same-sex love, was only published posthumously, and the author of the review didn't think much of it.)

  45. It's funny how many classics I've heard mentioned over and over, but don't actually have inkling what they're about. I'm glad it seems to be worth the reputation!

  46. Thanks for the review - this is another one where I have seen various TV adaptaions and a film but have never read the book. I do like Lucy and the way she goes about everything.

  47. I placed an order for the book one or two weeks ago and hope it'll reach me soon. Thanks for the review, Ana! I can't wait to read it!

  48. Ana, Your reviews are always so detailed and enjoyable to read. I need to revisit this book after many many years.

  49. I have both this book, and Howard's End on my shelf, and after reading your review, I think it's high time to give them a try! I loved this review, and think that these are both books that I would really get a lot out of. Lucy sounds like quite a character!!

  50. Caty: I hope you enjoy it just as much the second time around :)

    Violet: I haven't, but it sounds like I really should!

    Scattie: I hope you enjoy them!

    Elise: You're most welcome :)

    Sandy: Two or three months devoted to classics sounds like a splendid idea! I often feel like I'm incredibly behind too.

    Bina: We don't get to those books because we're busy getting to *other* books ;)

    JoAnn: I somehow thought that A Passage to India was a big favourite, but judging by the comments, I guess not!

    Molly, thank you so much! I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

    Amanda: I can see how not everyone would like his style. I hope you like his other books better, but if not, oh well :P

    Dominique: I completely understand about having to wait a while after watching the film. I do that too sometimes.

    Jeanne: lol, I love that you called her Bellatrix :P

    Heather: You're most welcome! I'd love to have read Forster with a good professor.

    Elisabeth: You should read it again, just in case :P

    Steph: I felt that way about the writing in Howards End at times, but not about A Room With a View. Maybe I just got used to Forster's style?

    Amy: That's the thing with e-books - I've been reading more of them this year, and not actually having the book in front of me makes me just stop in the middle sometimes. I hope you enjoy the rest of it!

    Claire: Thank you for the kind words!

    SuziQoregon: I'm glad you stuck with it and I'm glad you loved it in the end :) And I need to look for that movie for sure.

    Joan: The thought of Forster being like Old Emerson made me smile :)

    Daphne: I haven't, but as you're all urging me too I think I should :P And yes, I'd love to be friends with Lucy :)

    Avid Reader, thank you so much! I can't decide whether I like this or Howards End more.

  51. Oh, I just love this book, though I haven't read it in years. (Same for the movie)

    I've never read Passage to India so I look forward to hearing your opinion, when you get there.

  52. wow, what a recommendation! Adding to my "read very soon" list!! (which will probably take much longer to get to than I'd like....)

  53. Fence: I haven't seen the film yet, but judging by what everyone had to say it sounds like it's faithful enough to the book that disliking one might mean disliking the other?

    Kathy: I hope you enjoy it!

    Emidy: Yes, isn't the cover lovely? Penguin have such great designs.

    Gricel: It sounds like I really need to get a hold of that movie!

    Debra: You're most welcome :)

    Kathleen: lol, it's definitely a start ;)

    Thomas, thank you so much! And Where Angels Fear to Tread it is, then. I've already downloaded it from Gutenberg.

    Lightheaded: if I had known you loved this book so much, I'd have read it sooner :P And I'll definitely look for the film!

    Bybee: I think you will, yes :)

    Mystica: Not disgraceful - it's never too late! I'm only just discovering him myself.

    Meghan: Do!

    Andreea, I think you'll definitely enjoy it!

    Trisha: Do move it up the pile! It's a wonderful, wonderful novel.

    Iris: Sadly what I read was an e-book version, but I couldn't resist posting the cover of the lovely penguin edition - which I definitely plan on getting. I look forward to your thoughts on the book!

    Steph: Because of all those other books you have been reading in these 23 years, that's why ;) Anyway, I look forward to your thoughts on it!

    Shelley: It's difficult for me to pinpoint why I connect with him so much too. It's more than about the writing, I think. It's the whole outlook that shines through in his books. It's so full of kindness.

    Vasilly: Don't be intimidated! Honestly, he couldn't be more accessible and pleasant to read.

    Iliana: Not terrible at all! I think you'll like it too :)

    Whitney: Thank you so much! And do get Howards End from the library if you can. It's another wonderful read.

    the Ape: That does sound like a wonderful experience!

  54. I have never read this book, but I love all the movie versions of it I've seen. One that was particularly heart-wrenching had a bit of an epilogue post-WWI. (See, clearly we are not the only two people who wonder what happens to young men before those wars!) I should read the book, really :-)

  55. I LOVED A Passage to India! It is the only book of his that I have read so far. I have all of his books on my TBR. Which should I read next?

  56. Thank you for including these wonderful snippets of the book in your review, it recalls to me why exactly I had loved this book so much when I read it.

    I loved both "A Passage to India" and "Where Angels Fear to Tread".

    I think I somehow like these books a bit more than A Room with a View, because they dealt with the themes in a more mature way, or at least that's what I felt :)

  57. Karen: I'll make sure to stay away from the 2007 version, then! The older one does sound absolutely wonderful :)

    Jill: I didn't dislike Leonard Bast - but I remember that at one point in Howards End he does say that "the lives of the very poor are being imagining". I'm not sure if it's lack of compassion or just an acknowledgement of the fact that as a privileged Edwardian man, he really could not accurately imagine certain things which were beyond the sphere of his experience. I wouldn't say he's completely innocent of snobbery, of course, but, when compared to most of his contemporaries, I find his treatment of class so much more human.

    lesbrary: That happens to me all the time! This one was even better than I had imagined :)

    Jessica: Lucy was fantastic! As a previous commenter said, I wanted to be her friends.

    Alice, I can't wait to hear what you think :)

    Diane: Thank you so much!

    Zibilee: Lucy is amazing, and I think you'll enjoy both books a lot!

    Lorin: I'll be sure to let everyone know what I think when I get to it :)

    Rebecca, that always seems to happen, doesn't it?

    Aarti: It's difficult not to wonder, isn't it? I knew these are fictional characters, but if they weren't the inescapable truth is that they'd have died :(

    Teddy Rose: I've only read this and Howards End so I'm probably not the best person to advise you, but for what it's worth I loved them both and thing either would be a great choice.

    Nishitak: That makes me even more eager to read them!

  58. So glad you enjoyed this one! I really need to read more classics.

  59. Oh it's a Forster book with a happy ending! How wonderful, I didn't think there were any. So hard to say what you should read next (all so good), but I vote for 'A Passage to India' which features the famous 'only connect' line because I would love to see what you find to talk about.

  60. I've only read A Passage to India but feel very mixed about it. In a way, I loved it, but in another sense, it felt somehow dry. But then, I'm definitely wanting to read more, and this one and Howards End are both at the top of that list. I'm glad you liked it though. Gives me another good reason to read it. :)


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