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July in The Reader's Den: A Room with a View

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"So enamored is he of light and air blowing through his fictions that it is impossible for him to be dull or stuffy or anything but deliciously fresh and original," wrote Henry James Forman for the New York Times of E. M. Forster (1879-1970) in 1923. Who doesn't want a little light and air in their reading during the heat of summer, as well as some romance?

E.M. Forster's 1908 novel, A Room with a View, has romance in spades, along with social comedy and commentary that still stand up 100 years later.  Modern Library ranked Forster's third novel at number 79 on its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th CenturyMerchant Ivory produced a film adaptation in 1985, with Julian Sands as an incredibly attractive George Emerson, Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch, and Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse.

The story begins in Florence, where Miss Honeychurch has traveled with her cousin and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett. The two ladies sit in the dining room of their pension, surrounded by other English tourists and the English proprietress, lamenting their misfortunes. They had been promised two rooms with a view of the Arno, but instead have been lodged in courtyard-facing rooms, which smell and are far apart from each other to boot.

It is at this moment that Mr. Emerson, who is staying at the pension with his son George, breaks in to their conversation to offer up their two rooms, which do have a view. The question of whether or not to accept this offer is one that leads to much debate, as Miss Bartlett can surely not allow Lucy to be "under an obligation" to these two most unacceptable men. Will Lucy be able to shake off the social constraints of her friends and family and begin to live freely? After all, everybody wants a room with a view; just ask Debbie Harry!

Get a copy of A Room with a View and start reading!  Place a hold on a print copy, an audiobook on CD, or download an e-book or e-audiobook. Next week we will have discussion questions posted, but feel free to begin commenting this week!

Comments

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Room with a View

I've just started re-reading this. Miss Bartlett, with her elaborate scruples and barbed civilities, is so much of her time and place that it is easy to imagine any discussion turning into self-congratulation on how much more enlightened we all are now. So, I got thinking: suppose strangers, in a strange place, offered one a favor? Would one hesitate to incur an obligation to possibly unwelcome acquaintances? I think so. I think maybe we talk less about propriety and more about prudence, but still have a strong sense that there are unsuitable people whom it is unwise to know.

Thank you for participating

Thank you for participating in the Reader's Den! I was just thinking over something along these same lines! In many ways, travel has changed so much in the last 100 years, but on the other hand, some things remain the same. People still rely on their guidebooks, still want to see all of the most "important" sites, and still cringe when they see a fellow countryman acting in a way that they find embarrassing. Traveling in an unfamiliar place, I have often felt unsure of how to act, or how to respond to someone, when I would have had confidence at home. What's interesting to me about Charlotte's response to Mr. Emerson is that they are both English and surrounded by other Englishmen, but are still out of their respective elements. I think Charlotte noted immediately that the Emersons were not people she would have normally associated with, and was afraid a connection with them might hurt her and Lucy's social standing at the pensione.

Social standing

I try to visualize the Emersons as crust punks of the sort who live in my local park: nice people, some of them well-spoken, but ragged, dirty, tattooed, pierced, bearded, and given to loud speech and erratic behavior. It's the only social group I can think of that is about as far away from me as the Emersons seem to be from the other people in the pensione. You know? Even if the Emersons are like that, Miss Bartlett is a perfect horror. She is like the Courts of Chancery in Bleak House, a spirit of discord and confusion, a kind of noxious fog. It is a marvel that Forster can make her so bad and so realistic at the same time.

That is funny! I agree that

That is funny! I agree that Forster did an amazing job making Charlotte both unbearable and realistic, but look out for her redemption during your reading this time!

Make a clean break!

As I reread this book, besides thinking I liked it better than the first time around, I wondered why ending I knew was in store seemed surprising. I realized that I was comparing it to The House of Mirth and The Wings of the Dove, which came out at roughly the same time, and The Go-Between, a later look back at the era. In those, when people try find love while rejecting convention, they end up crushed and destroyed. I am sure part of the difference is that the other authors just had a darker, less youthful take as to how much freedom is possible. Still, in the other books the characters were dragged down by mixed motives, lack of conviction, bet-hedging and sneaking around as much as wanting to pursue their own desires, while Lucy decides to take the plunge, for better or worse,.

Thank you for commenting!

Thank you for commenting! In this book, Forster conveys almost unblinking optimism, and he is very generous towards his characters. No one person is all good, or all bad, and characters we might dislike during reading, like Cecil and Charlotte, turn out to have their redeeming moments. Despite all this, in some ways the conclusion does seem surprising-- Maybe we are just not prone to expect a happy ending! I will be touching on some of this tomorrow when I post the first round of discussion questions, so please come back and comment again!

Clean breaks

In nineteenth-century novels, you often get the real ending, the thing you could reasonably expect to happen, followed by a tacked-on happy ending that occurs by a kind of miracle. It may be that Forster gives us a false happy ending here. The real ending would be: "She put out the lamp. It did not do to think, nor, for the matter of that to feel. She gave up trying to understand herself, and the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words. The armies are full of pleasant and pious folk. But they have yielded to the only enemy that matters--the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue. As the years pass, they are censured. Their pleasantry and their piety show cracks, their wit becomes cynicism, their unselfishness hypocrisy; they feel and produce discomfort wherever they go. They have sinned against Eros and against Pallas Athene, and not by any heavenly intervention, but by the ordinary course of nature, those allied deities will be avenged. Lucy entered this army when she pretended to George that she did not love him, and pretended to Cecil that she loved no one. The night received her, as it had received Miss Bartlett thirty years before." The false, or at least unwarranted, happy ending happens as a result of two miracles: Miss Bartlett uncharacteristically allows Mr. Emerson a chance to persuade Lucy, and Mr. Emerson, who has never before persuaded anyone of anything, does so.

Coleman, that is very true

Coleman, that is very true what you say about these characters acting uncharacteristically at the end of the novel, setting the happy ending in motion. My interpretation is that Charlotte is a very lonely person, and that in her youth she made a decision based on her pride and fear of how others would react. When she sees Lucy about to reject her feelings, it stirs something in her and causes her to act in a way very unlike the Charlotte we expect. To me, it doesn't seem quite so much tacked on, as I think she was moved by the last conversation she witnessed between Lucy and George. Another character who acts in a surprising way at the end of the book is Mr. Beebe-- After all his talk about wishing Lucy would begin to live as she played, he clearly didn't like it when she did! The first round of discussion questions will be posted tomorrow, and I hope you'll come back to participate on that post!

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