I have loved Italy since I was about 13. A friend of my grandmother had just come back from Florence. I remember she had bought this immensely large map, and the back of the map was an image of the incredible rooftops and the gorgeous Duomo. Something like this:
I thought to myself (despite the fact that no one from my family had ever gone abroad, excepting military service), that I needed to go to Florence one day. My life’s new mission! As is usually my luck, my high school did not teach Italian. I had to take Spanish instead. But I took Italian at university, and finally visited Italy in April 2009. A place that had (like England) become synonymous, to me, with personal success, cultural awareness, and being some semblance of a complete person. I am including these details because they closely resemble the way society viewed similar trips in the 19th and early 20th century. The ‘Grand Tour‘, as it was known, was generally a trip through France and Italy, taken by wealthy young men, or by wealthy couples on their honeymoon. Occasionally there were forays into other ‘refined’ European societies such as Switzerland, Belgium, maybe a wander through Austria on the way back. But Florence was the destination for the Grand Tour. Because it was the birthplace of the Renaissance, which dictated art, literature, scholarship, for centuries to come. One’s Oxbridge education wasn’t complete until one had taken the Grand Tour. Only then could you understand true art and music–a gentle reminder that (lacking even a basic ipod shuffle or smartphone) these wealthy young men & women would only ever get this one chance to see certain art, or hear certain music that wasn’t on exhibit in Britain.
So that brings us to the book.
A Room with a View is E.M. Forster’s account of the Grand Tour of Lucy Honeychurch, a teenage girl. It is 1908, and less uncommon at that time for a woman to go on the tour before marriage. She is accompanied by her matronly cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett. She is meant to follow her Baedecker guidebook, see proper museums and listen to lectures about the masters. She is there to hear the opinions that she will parrot back for the rest of her life. That’s how the tour goes. You see the art, you listen to someone tell you what to think about it, and then you’re in the know. People back in the UK will be able to tell that you’re of proper stock if you know the right answers. Like a password.
It doesn’t work out that way for Lucy Honeychurch. She meets several people at the ‘pensione’ (inn) where she and Charlotte stay, and they challenge her in different ways. Though promised a view of the Duomo and the Arno, Charlotte and Lucy are given rooms with no view. Two gentleman, father and son, offer to switch rooms. Charlotte declines, thoroughly scandalized by the suggestion from two strangers. If you’re reading this 100 years later, that seems ludicrous. If they want to switch, and it will make everyone happier, why on earth wouldn’t they switch? That’s precisely what the father, Mr. Emerson, says. Rather than look at things from the perspective of stifling, repressive social conventions, he looks at the thing logically. But Charlotte, who represents those social conventions completely, thinks it inappropriate because then the two ladies would have some obligation to the two men. That’s the sort of ludicrous rule that governed society for most of the 19th and the start of the 20th century–in high society at any rate.
The Emersons and the two ladies continue to be thrown together, and Lucy is thrust into several situations where she is forced to examine the de facto logic of life that she has learned from society, and is forced to look at the reality of life. She sees a man stabbed in the street. She is kissed in a field of violets. Charlotte, sensing something inappropriate developing, hastens her out of Florence and off to finish her tour. A girl was meant to learn painting and art from the Italians, but not their violence or their passion.
Later on, back in England, Lucy is engaged to the biggest fop that ever fopped. His name is Cecil, I mean really. He believes and engages in the social conventions of the age. He follows propriety perfectly, and is scandalized by those who don’t. He is pretty much intolerable. Lucy, meanwhile, finds the people she met in Florence are continuing to interfere in her life. The Emersons end up in the same town, and Lucy is confronted with George Emerson repeatedly, though she wishes she might be free of him.
A Room with a View is really about all of society breaking free from the crushing constraints of Victorian society, but it is so perfectly wrapped up in the story of this one girl choosing a-to examine the world, b-to make up her own mind, and c-to choose what she likes regardless of social conventions. Forster manages to make all of his characters simultaneously slightly ludicrous and very likeable. Their foibles are on display, but they are also treated with affection in the text. I was reminded of Austen, and the way she treats characters like Mr. Bennett. I really enjoyed the book as entertainment, but it was also thought-provoking. Don’t we engage in the same struggles now? We (especially women) have to decide if we’re going to pretend really hard to be someone we’re not. Am I going to spend an hour drying and curling my hair today? Am I going to get laser treatments to remove all the hair on my body? Am I going to whiten my teeth or get my tummy tucked? And am I going to pretend it’s all natural, and say I just drink a lot of water and love eating Kale? We can devote a lot of energy to that facade. It’s a harder choice to go the other way. To spend time on being worthwhile, whether that means being a caregiver, a scholar, a writer, a musician…whatever. The world rewards you more and more quickly for the superficial. It takes strength and a bit of ego to proceed to work on our depth. In that way, life hasn’t much changed. There are still people out there that say ‘don’t marry X, he doesn’t have a college degree’. There are still people who think the best women can do is marry before everything starts to sag, and the best men can do is make enough money so that you can get a young wife. It’s harder to walk away from all of those social conventions and live a life that’s genuine, and do what you actually think is important. Different century, different rules, same struggle.
Another great thing about this book is the movie! It came out in 1985 (nearly 30 years ago!) and has an amazing cast. Helena Bonham Carter, looking ludicrously young, plays Lucy:
Also rather young in these pictures, though not exactly in their teens…Maggie Smith and Judy Dench as Charlotte Bartlett and Miss Lavish. I forgot to mention Miss Lavish above. She’s not in much of the book, but her character is really important. She’s a radical, a woman intellectual, a writer. But! Despite these things, she is still as insipid and disingenuous as those who follow blindly in the wake of propriety. She does have courage, but she doesn’t demonstrate any kind of value or wisdom as a person. It’s a big distinction Forster is making between those who complain about the world to seem intelligent, and those who act according to their morality, regardless of how they may be perceived.
And Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse, foppiest fop that ever fopped. Since he’s a method actor, I assume he acted like an intolerable ass for the entirety of filming.
The Edwardian era was not kind to men or women in terms of fashion. How much starch did they put into those weird paper collars? Yikes. No wonder they were so ready to go for the roaring ’20s.
I think I’ve had enough of the Edwardian era for a bit. Back to the indecent, thoroughly scandalous middle ages with me! But I do recommend the book and the movie!