Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Guest Review: A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E.M. Forster

room with a view cover
Original Publication Date: 1908

Genre: romance?

Topics: love, society, coming of age

Review by Patty from Tale of Three Cities:

Many times, the novels I've read as a teenager seem to lose their appeal when re-reading them as an adult. Others, on the contrary, gain even more allure and highlight new facets to their story.

A Room with a View by EM Forster is one such novel.  Having read it while a teenager (and watching the film about 15+ times...), I was still aware of the main characters and the overall plot, but I could not remember whether it was all that good.  

The first comment I can make on A Room with a View is definitely politically incorrect: I had the impression that I was reading a book written by a woman! I know this is ridiculous, there is no feminine or masculine way of writing, but I honestly found the writing style too focused on petty details, too romantic... too pink!!! (excuse the expression). It didn't make an impression as such, but that made me pay even more attention on the book...

Moving on, Forster presents an array of situations and happenings to showcase comparisons: the two main venues in the book are Italy and England: Italy, the land of freedom, of laughter, of endless meadows with violets, a pure beauty - in sharp contrast with stiff upper-lipped England, full of rules and regulations, with the Church imposing the norms of society, a beauty perhaps only on a first glance... I found the stereotyping very amusing, and mostly spot-on: I believe the intention here was not to shock the audience, but rather  to move across the "sensitive" subjects rather painlessly, while still making the social criticism. Very clever indeed...

Lucy and her warden Charlotte find themselves without rooms with a view in Italy. Such a dramatic event surely cannot be sustained of course, and a respectable complaint starts being heard in the Pensione.  Upon the offer by the Emersons to swap rooms with theirs that do actually have a view, we witness the hardship of  good manners, taking refuge with the vicar, and finally the obedience towards the decision taken by said priest - the fact that this coincides with the original desire of the ladies, need not bother us. First: things are not always what they seem. From the perspective of a woman who knows what her position in society is, but who nevertheless wants to accomplish (tiny) things, the procedure to follow is way too time-consuming and complicated: she has to make everyone think it was their own idea and decision, while she has been plotting the end result since the beginning... 
(the women's) mission was to inspire other to achievement rather than to achieve themselves.
Difficult times... (I really laughed when Charlotte wouldn't give the big room to Lucy because young Emerson had it - that worry for absolute protection is bound to have the opposite results).

This difference between the new generation and the established one is also a main theme in this book. Not only is Lucy rebellious in contrast with her warden Charlotte but also the two Emersons seem to differ immensely - they just don't understand one another. Only novelists are allowed to cross over to the other side, and hence we have the little devil in the story: Miss Lavish. She will inform Charlotte of all possible mischief that can befall Lucy (I believe this is how Charlotte catches Lucy in the meadow and spoils one of the best romantic scenes in literature...) but she is also the source of amusement for Cecil by writing a book on Italy that will inevitably bring George and Lucy together... (I'm starting getting the romance now...)

On to the next set of comparisons, the conservative versus the radical: the Cecils of this world, who will say to whoever will listen how radical they are, how beyond class they've become, only to prove that they keep the status quo and even worse - they are actually misanthropists:
of course, he despised the world as a whole; every thoughtful man should; it is almost a test of refinement.
Fortunately, there are also the Georges and Lucies in this world, who may stray in the beginning, when they're still trying to fit in the norms of society, only to realise that life's too short for "trying": there has to be a rebellion, and it has to be now. Not in the most articulate manner as in Lucy's breaking the engagement off, but all's well that ends well.

Although the novel is full of comparisons / antitheses, it prefers staying on the surface of the matter at the most crucial point - I was surprised when Lucy and Cecil call off their engagement, that the dialogue is plain and civil to the point of being dry - not much information is provided for the inner feelings (or lack thereof) of the two main characters. That was the only point where I felt I wanted more.

In general, I have to say the novel gave me a lot more food for thought. The characters are given much more shine and I got much more information on the main characters: I was surprised, for example, at the very unflattering light Charlotte is portrayed. I had as reference the film, where Charlotte, while a stiff old spinster, is actually a likable stiff old spinster. I did not get that feeling at all with the book. She is to be meaningless, living in a cheerless, loveless world,  
a world of precautions and barriers which may avert evil, but which do not seem to bring good...  
There is only one hint at her good soul at the very end of the book. Interesting to see the difference between writer and filmmaker...

Lucy and Cecil in Florence

For the visual interpretation of this novel, I re-watched the 1985 film by the same name, directed by James Ivory. I have to agree that the film does the novel more than justice - the points where the novel may lack in depth, are compensated by the actors' interpretation.