Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Reading group: A Room with a View by E M Forster

Ann suggested this 1908 novel in which Lucy Honeychurch, travelling in Italy with her cousin and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett, struggles to accommodate Edwardian expectations of her as a young woman, but, due to an unsettling encounter in Florence, after her return home and an unsatisfactory engagement learns to thwart those expectations, to finally acknowledge her own feelings and think for herself. 

Ann said that, having had little time to read this month, she had that day listened to an audio version of the book, and - to her surprise, I think - had found that she hadn't enjoyed it - in fact she seemed to think it was pretty awful. She acknowledged the comic episodes, and did enjoy those, but didn't at all like what she called the philosophical and purple passages. Mark - who instantly said he had loved the book - said with surprise, and to the agreement of others, that he hadn't noticed those, and Doug said he had skimmed them, passages in which the author comments on human nature in general, though often wryly and always in relation to the action and characters. We mused briefly then on the different experiences that listening to a book and reading it present - the possibility of skipping or skimming when you read a book for yourself, and the different emphases and indeed tone that an audiobook reader and producer can impose on a text. Ann's experience had made her dissatisfied with the book more generally: she felt she didn't know what it was, or what it was about. Was it a comedy or not? Was it a comedy of social manners, was it about class, or was it meant as a love story? I said that I thought it was all of those things, though chiefly, as I have indicated above, it was about the awakening of Lucy's consciousness, taking place in the context of class at a time of social change and challenges to the conventional role of women.

At the beginning of the book Lucy and Charlotte are newly arrived at the Pension Bertolini in Florence, and encounter the other exclusively English residents. At the dinner table the snobbery of the middle-class guests is directed at a father and son, the Emersons, who have no such pretensions and hold with none of their conventions: they are clearly 'lower class', and are suspected of being 'socialists'. Lucy has complained of her room not having the promised view, and the Emersons offer to change rooms with Lucy and Charlotte - a hugely indelicate intrusion in the middle-class codes of the day:

The better class of tourists was shocked at this, and sympathised with the newcomers. Miss Bartlett, in reply, opened her mouth as little as possible, and said:

'Thank you very much indeed: that is out of the question.'

'Why?' said the old man, with both fists on the table.

He insists heatedly, and:

Miss Bartlett, though skilled in the delicacies of conversation, was powerless in the presence of brutality. It was impossible to snub anyone so gross... she looked around as if to say, 'Are you all like this?'. And two little old ladies [...] looked back, clearly indicating, 'We are not; we are genteel.'

I had read this book many years ago at university and loved it. I said now, though, that this time around I had found these episodes much funnier than I did then. As the daughter of an engineer who at the time would probably have been termed lower middle class, I had had similar snobberies directed at me by more upper-class acquaintances, and I felt uncomfortable reading it and less able to appreciate the humour. We discussed the changing impact that books can have at different times. Ann said she appreciated how challenging this book must have been at the time of its publication, but felt that since the things it was pushing at - class snobbery, the subordination of women - have since been largely addressed (if not solved), its impact was inevitably much less now. Everyone present except John and me had seen the film, and I got the impression from what they said that the film, presumably because of this, very much pushes the love story element. With reference to Ann's comment about purple passages,  I did have to say that on this reading I found one or two moments in the narration sentimental: describing the English village in which Lucy lives, the author comments on the 'tinkle' of church bells, which seemed utterly inaccurate - church bells don't 'tinkle' - so that however wry he is being about the tweeness of the environs, he ends up sound twee himself. Doug, who was nodding, said he didn't even think that there was any irony in the passage. It was interesting to me to note that none of this ever struck me when I read the book all those years ago, and it seemed like a mark of how the tenor of life has changed.

There was some talk about the characters. Ann said that none of the characters were likeable, not even Lucy, to, I think, general agreement - although I don't feel it's necessary to like characters to be interested in them, and unlikeable characters are of course a staple of satire. John commented, to more agreement, that the Emerson son George, the main love interest, is a mere cypher: we hardly get to know him at all. I said, to strong agreement from Clare, that the clergyman Mr Beebe had seemed the most sympathetic character, as he seems to see through Lucy and to have her interests at heart, especially in not wanting her to marry the dreadful Cecil who is compared by the author to a stiff medieval knight (Lucy's escape from him, along with her growing proto-feminist consciousness, is described as leaving the medieval world behind). But that when the elder Mr Emerson opens Lucy's eyes to her own truth, and she makes the choice of George, Mr Beebe is displeased. It turns out that he would rather Lucy didn't marry at all than follow her heart, which seems in the context mean-spirited. Some people in the group thought that Beebe was closest to the author, E M Forster, who was homosexual - necessarily closeted in that time - and that this explained it. However, it seems that the author is very much on the side of Lucy and George's union at the end: Mr Emerson, he says, had shown Lucy 'the holiness of direct desire' (which, as someone said, could be the author's veiled plea for homosexual love). The most obviously unlikeable character is the chaperone Charlotte, who is so restrictive with Lucy, so determined to make her conform to social expectations - and so falsely set-deprecating - and who quickly whisks her away from George when the spark first kindles between them. Some thought it seemed odd that right at the end it turns out that she had the chance to stop Lucy talking to Mr Emerson and changing her mind, yet didn't do so. Clare pointed out that this was in fact a significant change: Charlotte too had been repressing her true impulses in the need to conform to Edwardian society, and she too had rebelled, or been persuaded, in the end.

John particularly liked the ironic chapter headings - as did I - but he was perhaps the most dubious about the book beside Ann, unsure about the way that the tone becomes less comic as the book progresses and it concentrates more on Lucy's awakening - which perhaps links with Ann's feeling of not being able to work out what kind of book it was. This didn't trouble the rest of us, however, and I think most were pleased to have read it. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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