A Room with a View
In the early 20th century, a group of well-off English holidaymakers, “the better class of tourist”, meet in a hotel in Florence, Italy. Young Lucy is travelling with her cousin Charlotte. They strike up a conversation with Mr Emerson and his son George, whose crude manners offend Charlotte. Lucy takes a fancy to George, but social norms dictate that she should marry Cecil, a stiff and snobbish gentleman back in England. EM Forster’s wickedly funny romance (published in 1908) dissects the values of the time, but it is still a great read, thanks to its vivid characters and enduring portrayal of the trials of love. As Forster writes, “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”
Subtle class differences define all the relationships in this novel. The Emersons offend Charlotte with their “indelicacy”; Charlotte is aware that Lucy is richer than her; Lucy is annoyed by Cecil’s snobbery. When the book came out, Victorian social norms were giving way to more flexible Edwardian ideals. Class structures in Britain are looser now than they were then, but they still exist.
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George and Lucy end up happily in love. For most of the novel, however, Lucy refuses to accept this, and even tries to convince herself that she really loves Cecil. The idea of falling for someone from another class confuses her. Forster was no stranger to forbidden love: he kept his homosexuality quiet, and never married.
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Lucy was raised to believe that she ought to be “ladylike”, and that men are strong and chivalrous. These ideas are typical of the old-fashioned characters, like Cecil. The more progressive Emersons, however, believe in gender equality, and Lucy comes to realise that she cannot love a man she does not consider her equal. A century later, the debate about gender roles rages on.
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The plot starts with Charlotte and Lucy’s desire for a hotel room with a view. Similarly, George’s earliest memory is of gazing at a view; he and Lucy bond over their shared love of beauty. Throughout the novel, the characters give different takes on what counts as beauty: it is linked to art, landscape, romance and social manners. Aesthetic ideals are not fixed: they vary across time and place.
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Italy was a popular destination for well-to-do Victorian tourists, and half the novel is set there. The country is described as “chaotic” and “dangerous”, but also as a land of great natural and human beauty. Crucially, it opens Lucy’s eyes to the possibility of life without class structures: she sees locals socialise more freely than in England. What is Italy associated with today?
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