Horrors of horrors, when travelling cousins Lucy Honeychurch and Charlotte Bartlett reach their Florence hotel, instead of the beauty of Italy they find their suite has a horrid view only of the courtyard. This is not how their holiday was meant to begin at all. Help is at hand, however, because the Emersons, a father and son from slightly further down the ranks of the middle classes, care little for having something pretty outside the window (unrefined as they are), so they offer to switch rooms, and let Lucy and Charlotte have a room with a view.
This is almost as equally horrifying a prospect to Charlotte as not having a nice view at all, of course, because it leaves her and Lucy indebted to the uncouth Emersons. Lucy, on the other hand, finds the young and aloof George Emerson captivating. Charlotte falls under the spell of fellow guest Eleanor Lavish, who is writing a satirical novel about British tourists abroad (though only about the Emersons’ sort, not her own, obviously), and is the source of all the best gossip in the hotel (the elder Mr Emerson is possibly a murderer and maybe even a socialist). This leaves Lucy alone to indulge her curiosity about George.
Once Charlotte learns of this she of course whisks Lucy away to Rome, away from the risk of falling in love with someone entirely unsuitable. In Rome a far more suitable gentleman falls in love with Lucy and she even agrees to marry him, but George just isn’t sophisticated enough to give up that easily. Once back in England, Lucy unexpectedly finds herself caught in a most unsophisticated love triangle.
As with A Passage to India, this novel isn’t really about the Brits abroad. The trip to Florence is simply E M Forster’s conceit to satirise how the British are (or at least were) at home too. Most of the novel actually takes place back in England – or, at least, chocolate-box England. This is the England of rolling country estates, tennis before tea and going for a dip in the pond (with the vicar, no less) when it’s just too sunny and hot.
Forster again breaks his own cardinal rules of characterisation that he prattled on about in Aspects of the Novel. Most of his characters are little more than his dreaded ‘dummies’ – slaves to the plot and what he wants them to contribute to it. It seriously stretches the bounds of believability when the Emersons randomly meet Lucy’s fiancé Cecil in the National Gallery and he immediately suggests they move nearby (as a prank on somebody else), whilst all of them remain utterly unaware of their connection to Lucy.
Surrounded by caricatures and cartoons, however, Lucy stands out. It’s not love that leads Lucy to accept Cecil’s proposal but convention. He’s a good match, socially speaking, but her reaction is basically just ‘He’ll do.’ Lucy is no Lydia Bennet, however. Her conflicted feelings for George Emerson are not due to frivolous, flighty passions, but a serious consideration of what she really wants for herself, and her expanding determination to be the mistress of her own destiny.
The view in England isn’t really any worse than the one in Florence. It’s a rather transparent metaphor: the room is where you are – the view is the potential that exists outside that box.