I’ve set myself a loose goal of reading one of my Classics Club picks a month and July’s book was A Room With A View. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with the premise but for those still TBR, it goes a little something like this.
In Part 1, Lucy Honeychurch is touring Florence with her ‘dismal’ cousin Charlotte (I’m totally stealing ‘dismal’ from the BCC of my copy because it’s such a perfect word to describe her!). This half of the book focuses on their experiences with the other guests at the Pension Bertolini, including romantic novelist Eleanor Lavish, the usually taciturn Mr Emerson, who is prone to bursts of alarming eloquence, and his son George, gripped by passions that unsettle Lucy’s otherwise orderly middle-class life and end up contributing to her impulsive dash to Rome. In the second part of the book, Lucy – now back in England at her family home, Windy Corner – has become engaged to the rather loathsome Cecil Vyse but all is turned inside-out again when the Emersons arrive once more, this time as tenants of Sir Harry Otway, an acquaintance of Lucy’s family.
Forster’s central theme is the so-called ‘undeveloped heart’ of the English middle classes, here represented by Lucy who slowly comes to know herself better until she has the strength to fly in the face of convention. She’s sympathetically drawn, a little serious, a little naive, but you can see that her cooler outer demeanour hides a warm heart, increasingly confused by what is expected of her and frustrated by society’s limitations. Charlotte is a masterpiece of calculated deference and uses both extreme politeness and subservience as weapons of control. I love her and yet also wouldn’t want to spend more than a couple of minutes in her company!
In fact, pretty much all of Forster’s characterisations are glorious – love them or hate them. He’s such a light, witty writer with impeccable comic timing.
‘Do you, by any chance, know the name of an old man who sat opposite us at dinner?’
‘Is he a friend of yours?’
‘We are friendly – as one is in pensions.’
‘Then I will say no more.’
He pressed her very slightly, and she said more.
Forster has the ability to pinpoint the essence of a person in a few deft sentences. Within a few pages of meeting Cecil (who really is loathsome), we get this ‘Of course, he despised the world as a whole; every thoughtful man should; it is almost a test of refinement.‘ and we know exactly what sort of man we’re dealing with. And of course Cecil is the kind of man who proposes to ‘rescue’ Lucy without once realising that the alternative he is offering her is just another sort of prison with different furnishings.
Lucy’s problem is that she is used to being told what to think and feel, either by books or other people: ‘There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the naves and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr Ruskin.’ So when it comes to matters of her own heart, it’s no wonder she finds herself completely unable to interpret her own emotions.
As the story progresses, we are eager to see her figure out what we already know, to expand her ‘undeveloped heart’ and break free from the confines of Victorian expectations and niceties. And I was totally up for the ride. This was a joy to read. The only part that fell slightly flat for me was Lucy’s central love story, perhaps because Forster just does humour better than straight-faced passion. Hateful though they are, I did find Charlotte and Cecil more fun to read about. Plus there’s a suggestion that Charlotte may just have come good at the end… Ultimately I will never tire of reading about Victorian English people being terribly terribly English both at home and abroad.
So there we have it. My first Classics Club read! Just in time for me to get going on the August spin – Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.