A Room with a View

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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.

A Passage to India

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Mrs Moore is looking to marry off her son Ronny, a magistrate in colonial India, and she thinks she’s found the perfect candidate in eligible bachelorette Adela Quested, who she brings with her on a trip to the subcontinent.

Mrs Moore is fascinated by India. It is not the passing curiosity of many of the British ex-pats she meets, who view their leisurely lives as an extended safari in the sun where they have become largely inured to the charms of the local wildlife, even if they haven’t grown tired of the fine weather. Out alone, Mrs Moore encounters (and impresses) a young, lonely, widowed Indian doctor called Aziz.

Adela and Ronny are a complete mismatch and she knows it. He may be the kind of husband she ends up settling for (eventually), but there is no spark there. He enjoys the life of colonial authority far too much for her. Even his mother is faintly embarrassed, given her growing friendship with Aziz. Adela would be far more suited to Aziz’s friend Cyril Fielding, who is quite unlike any other British person any of them have met in India before.

But a group outing to some remote caves tears this unlikely group apart. Nobody knows quite what happens. Adela comes running out of one cave in great distress, and Aziz is promptly found in there holding her glasses. Conclusions are jumped to. Aziz is arrested. With British prejudices and Indian resentment coming to the fore, the comfortable society the likes of Ronny have created is revealed in all its true colours. But he will be surprised by some of the people who choose the ‘wrong’ side.

The novel’s moment as political comment is long gone, of course, but its continuing interest value isn’t solely as a historical snapshot of the uneasy stability of the British Raj. The empire may have gone, but the characters haven’t; they’ve just come home. Despite its prescient predictions of independence, twenty years ahead of time, this is not so much a novel about India anyway. It is about British society, its prejudices and peccadilloes, its superficiality, and all the other things that make it infuriating but fascinating. That’s still as true today as it was 90 years ago.

The novel has the plot of a novella, but E M Forster allows his characters to ramble (literally and figuratively). At university I read his Aspects of the Novel, which was recommended reading to creative writers because of the way he gets beneath the surface of how fiction works, without a surfeit of literary pretension like too much custard on the pudding. He railed against characters that are simply ‘dummies’, riding the plot wherever it goes.

But I’m not quite sure he’s avoided that here. One character dies at the most convenient moment for the plot, ratcheting up the dramatic tension just when it’s needed. And in one of the final scenes, Aziz and Fielding hold sway on India’s future, but their mutual realisation of the true nature of their relationship is somewhat lost behind their becoming mouthpieces for Forster’s pontificating on the Indian question.