You’re forgetting your Italy, Dear

A Room with a View

A Room with a View · E.M. Forster · 1908
Everyman’s Library, 2011 · 217 pages, hardcover

Oh, Italy! The tourists in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View are stumbling over each other in their haste to appreciate Giotto’s frescoes, but they can’t appreciate them until they’ve learned which are his (and so which among all of the frescoes are allowed to be appreciated). They affect intelligence. There’s nothing new in a view so stifled.

And there’s nothing emphatic in erudition, not when it’s had for making a point. Cecil Vyse, Lucy Honeychurch’s fiancé (however uncertain; she refused him twice), is such a spoilsport that he won’t make up a fourth for a game of tennis. Lucy’s brother leaves a bone from his studies on one of the drawing room chairs, and this provokes Cecil to such a degree (you’d never see such a thing in the Parade of Homes!) that his patronizing condescension is compounded from the beginning.

There’s the life you show to everyone and then there’s life, which makes you ashamed. What a sorry thing to feel, shame at your own opinions!

Lucy finds there is little joy in that kind of living. That kind of living is all about what other people think and worrying so much about getting their validation. Enjoyment seeps out of your life; friends you should have dropped long ago drain it through their stultifying hold or their complaints of the puniest inconvenience – Heaven forbid, you might live a little differently than they!

What’s only a headache in day-to-day life is a life sentence in marriage. Never mind having a room with a view if there’s not room enough to have a view.

Enter George Emerson.

I want you to have your own thoughts even when I hold you in my arms.

Lucy first meets George and his father at a hotel in Florence, across a long table of English tourists, and their introductions happen through a wrangling over the rooms assigned to each. Lucy and her chaperone, cousin Charlotte, were given rooms looking onto the courtyard while the Emersons were placed in rooms giving on the river Arno. Mr. Emerson offers to switch with Lucy and Charlotte simply because he has no interest in the view. Charlotte bristles at this and assumes it would mean that she and Lucy would be under an obligation to two men whom they didn’t know.

Constricting propriety rebuffs genuine kindness. Placing any kind of debt on the two ladies was the farthest thing from Mr. Emerson’s mind; he didn’t care what view he had, but he knew that some people did care what views they had. And that is Forster’s novel exactly.

Italy, as Forster wrote of it, is still the land of the High Renaissance: humanism, art, democracy in expression, the natural and individual as barometers of the good life.

A Gothic statue implies celibacy, just as a Greek statue implies fruition, and perhaps this was what Mr Beebe meant. And Freddy, who ignored history and art, perhaps meant the same when he failed to imagine Cecil wearing another fellow’s cap.

Italy, for the English at Pension Bertolini, was a whirlwind tour to “do” the sites. History and art and yes, the view, were reduced to guidebook bullet points with an estimated time frame. Oh, but you must see Santa Croce! Why? Well, because Baedeker says you must! It wouldn’t take more than, oh, 20 minutes…do buy a photograph!

No wonder Lucy is forgetting her Italy, mixing up the painters already after a month or two. But is this the Italy she ought to remember?

Because Lucy remembers an Italy of a different sort. She remembers a view breaking onto a field of violets, blinding in the force of what transpired there. She remembers the vulgarity of the crime she and George witnessed: murder over a prize of 5 lire. How sordid, how unoriginal, that such a scrappy scruple should be hashed out under the Loggia of the Piazza Signoria (this was, after all, Savonarola’s chosen square for his Bonfire of the Vanities).

A murder, and for 5 lire only.

Back in England, Lucy meets once more with reality. Italy seems so far away now. Where are the violets? Would 5 lire buy me a field of violets? Not 5 lire; it’s only Charlotte counting change for the cab and giving us all a headache…and then it’s tennis: one man picks up a racket. Another man won’t. And that man never will.

Lucy remembers her Italy in the last moment. The courage she has to drop false friends, to flout convention and to pursue her passion in the open air is very freeing.

Forster’s novel contains a tender mockery of that constant chase for relevance that still harries us today (trending topics? Prince gained so many “fans” when he died, but Paisley Park makes for a nice photo…Facebook friends are sure to “like!”) But in Lucy and George his novel also reveals the satisfaction of living la vita vera.

A review of Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, the second novel in this book from Everyman’s Library, is now up on the Masthead – be sure to take a look!

A Room with a View · E.M. Forster · 1908
Everyman’s Library, 2011 · 217 pages, hardcover

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