A Room With a View: Essay Q&A
1. A Room with a View is social commentary in which E. M. Forster satirizes Edwardian society. He takes particular delight in satirizing the “Britisher abroad.” Examine the characters in and around the “Little England” of the Pension Bertolini, in particular Miss Lavish, Mr. Eager, the Miss Alans, and Lucy. What attitudes was Forster critiquing through them?
The characters of the Pension Bertolini are comic figures, created by Forster to satirize the foibles of the Britisher abroad in the early twentieth century. Although they are types, Forster is careful not to make them caricatures; each one has saving grace and humanity along with a fair share of ridiculousness.
Miss Lavish’s name implies someone who is “too much.” She is too flamboyant, “too original.” She proclaims that she can find the “true Italy” by patient observation, but rather than observe patiently, she roams about like a playful kitten, and then exclaims with alarm when she gets lost. She thinks the dirty back ways of Florence are the true heart of Italy, that “one doesn’t come to Italy for niceness, one comes for life.” This is a profound statement, but one wonders whether Miss Lavish really appreciates the life that she sees. She brags to Lucy that she is democratic, but then defines democracy as “civility to . . . inferiors.” For her, Italians are quaint and simple folk, characters providing “local color” in the novel of which she (disguised as Leonora) is the heroine.
Mr. Eager is the pompous intellectual abroad. He sees Italy as a museum, without regard for the people in it. He shoves aside a photograph-seller and reprimands the carriage-driver with the imperiousness of a king. He spouts forth on Giotto, never thinking of the workers who created the art; he goes to tea at all the fine villas, where his expat friends live in delicate seclusion, writing important papers on Italian subjects, and pitying the poor tourist who is denied their intimate knowledge—or rather perception, of Italy. On a drive into the hills, he is determined to find the exact view painted by Alessio Baldovinetti 500 years ago, but will not seek out a beautiful view for himself.
The Miss Alans are more likable tourists, but Forster pokes fun at them. They are prim spinsters, early Victorian in their attitudes, concerned about the lack of privacy and propriety in Italy and the need for “proper provisions”; they prepare for travel as for a battle into the undiscovered, uncivilized world, guidebooks and digestive biscuits always near at hand.
Lucy is the type of tourist who does not want to be without her Baedeker’s Guide. She wants to be told what are the best and most beautiful things to see. It is only when she loses it, as Miss Lavish advises, that she is able to discover Italy for herself.
2. Compare and contrast Cecil and George. How are the two men different, and why is George better for Lucy?
The characters of Cecil and George in A Room with a View are drawn in sharp contrast to each other. Cecil is perhaps the more desirable mate in the eyes of conventional society. In the words of Mrs. Honeychurch, “he’s good, he’s clever, he’s rich, he’s well-connected…and he has beautiful manners.” By contrast, while George is good and intelligent, he is certainly not well-connected; in fact, he is described by Charlotte as “thoroughly unrefined. . . . with deplorable antecedents and education.” His father offends everyone he meets by his lack of propriety. George is not rich; he will have to work for a living, and he seems to lack manners altogether, being hopeless at polite conversation.
Although by these standards Cecil is the winner, he is also an extremely unlikable snob and a chauvinist. Cecil, as Lucy comes to realize, is incapable of having an equal relationship with anyone. He delights in playing tricks on people and thwarting their desires. He always thinks of himself as being above others, as a noble protector, for example, to his “protégés,” the Emersons, and to Lucy, who is to be his wife. Fancying himself a chivalric knight, he will “rescue” Lucy from her provincial society into better circles in London, where she can really develop. His view of a woman is as a creature of mystery and charm, as a figure in a Leonardo painting. He finds it difficult to accept Lucy as an equal partner with thoughts and ideas of her own.
George, on the other hand, is a thoughtful, melancholy sort. While Cecil is criticizing and judging, George is searching for answers to the questions of the universe. He finds Cecil’s tricks cruel because to him, people are “the most sacred form of life,” and he desires above all to find an equal partner. As he tells Lucy, “I want you to have your own thoughts even when I hold you in my arms.” While Cecil wants Lucy to look up to him for his manliness, George allows Lucy to see him being weak and uncertain, as when he throws the photographs into the river. Lucy loves him the more for knowing that men are not perfect and sometimes need help, too.
Worst of all Cecil’s faults, perhaps, is that he lacks passion. He is, in the opinions of Mr. Beebe and George, a celibate by nature, intended for books and society and cultivated talk, but not suited to know anyone intimately. Cecil is associated with the Medieval, the repressed and sexless; he is “a Gothic statue . . . resembl[ing] those fastidious saints who guard the portals of a French cathedral.” George, by contrast, is associated with the heroes and gods in myths and with the nudes of Michelangelo. He is pagan, natural, free. Cecil hides in the house when bumblepuppy is played; George frolics around a pond and tries hard to win at tennis. When Cecil kisses Lucy, it is a failure: it is too proper, too civil, and that makes it stilted. He knows that “passion should believe itself irresistible,” but he cannot find the resolve to act passionately. George is the opposite. He acts on his passion, forgetful of civility and consideration and restraint.
Lucy thinks of Cecil in a room, a drawing-room with no view; she pictures George in a view, a beautiful view of the Italian countryside. Cecil is limiting, his society suffocating; George represents openness and a wide world of exciting possibility in a relationship of loving mutual respect. For all these reasons, she chooses George as her husband.
3. Explain the progression in the novel from the Classical to Medieval to the Renaissance era. How do the references to historical periods illustrate Lucy’s journey to enlightenment?
The novel opens in the Classical world of Italy, a place where, it seems, the Roman gods still roam the hills and play tricks on mortals. It is in this place of riotously pagan springtime, driven by Phaethon and his Persephone, that Lucy receives her first kiss from George. Seeing him in the hills moments before their kiss, she confesses later to Charlotte, she thinks of “heroes—gods—the nonsense of schoolgirls.”
But Charlotte intervenes to stop the affair, and after a stay in Rome, they are back in England and entering the Dark Ages as Lucy accepts Cecil’s proposal of marriage. Forster describes Cecil as “mediæval . . . a Gothic statue.” He is ascetic and celibate, lacking passion. But Forster has already told us that “Lucy does not stand for the mediæval lady, who was rather an ideal to which she was bidden to lift her eyes when feeling serious.” She is not a very rebellious girl, but she wishes to be alive, and not be the immortal Eternal Woman. Gradually she realizes that Cecil cannot love her for who she really is; he wants her to fit some image that he has of ideal womanhood. She realizes he is intolerable and breaks it off. But she is still in the Dark Ages, still in the Mediæval Period. She has not found the light of her own truth, because she still denies to herself that she is in love. Instead, she will live a quiet life of self-denial, become a spinster like the Miss Alans. As Forster explains, in lying to herself about love she has “Sinned against Eros and Pallas Athene, and . . . those deities will be avenged.” As she pretends to George that she does not love him, “the night receive[s] her, as it [received] Miss Bartlett thirty years before.”
But Mr. Emerson saves Lucy, drawing her out from her muddle and from the Dark Ages: “as he spoke the darkness was withdrawn, veil after veil, and she saw to the bottom of her soul.” She has a sense of “deities reconciled.” Lucy marries George and goes back with him to Italy, and to the Pension Bertolini, bringing the novel full circle. Reborn into the springtime of love, Lucy has gone full circle from the Classical period to the Medieval Age and into her personal Renaissance.
4. Forster’s novel was written at a time when English society was becoming more socially liberal, and restrictive Victorian notions of womanhood were being reexamined. Examine attitudes toward women in A Room with a View. What is Forster’s attitude toward women’s liberation?
Forster describes the traditional notions of womanhood in Chapter 4. Lucy wants to go ride on a tram, but she cannot, as it is not ladylike. Charlotte has explained to her why: “It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves.” Lucy does not stand for this medieval woman, this “Eternal Woman” who is worshipped by modern day knights; she would rather be alive, as her “transitory self.” But voices all around her—Charlotte’s chief among them—encourage her to lift her eyes to this ideal, and to be ladylike.
Lucy’s mother, Mrs. Honeychurch, shows sexist attitudes typical of her time. She deplores women novelists, thinking that “If books must be written, let them be written by men.” When discussing tenants with Sir Harry Otway, she warns him, “Beware of women altogether. Only let to a man. Men don’t gossip over tea-cups.”
Cecil, for one, has an image of what a woman should be like. She should look up to him for his manliness; she should not rant, but know that her strength lies in mystery and charm. As George points out, Cecil cannot allow her to have her own ideas, but he would like to teach her what is proper and right. When Lucy breaks off her engagement, she declares, “I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult. Can’t I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second hand from you? A woman’s place!” Chastened, he agrees. “I have never known you till this evening. I have just used to as a peg for my silly notions of what a woman should be.”
Mr. Beebe, as much as he admires Lucy, thinks it laughable that men and women should ever be equals. “Can you picture a lady . . . opening civilities with ‘How do you do? Come and have a bathe’?” But Mr. Emerson and his son think it possible, and indeed inevitable, that women and men should be comrades. Mr. Emerson believes that the Garden of Eden is yet to come, when men and women no longer despise their bodies, and be as equals in Nature. George tells Lucy that yes, there is still something of the brute in him: “The desire to govern a woman—it lies very deep, and men and women must fight it together before they shall enter the garden.” But, he says, he loves her better than Cecil can. “I want you to have your own thoughts even when I hold you in my arms.”
Forster’s novels feature strong women characters and show that he views women as equals of men. His attitude toward women’s liberation is in keeping with the Emersons’. Women need not be independent of men completely, as the spinster characters are, and as Lucy at one point resolves for her fate, but can strive to dwell harmoniously together with men, as equals.
5. Examine the role of Charlotte Bartlett. What motivates her? How and why does she hold Lucy back? What evidence is there that she is responsible for reuniting Lucy and George at the end of the novel?
As Lucy’s chaperone in Italy, Charlotte Bartlett represents the stiff and conventional Edwardian society that is holding Lucy back with its rules of propriety, even as she is on holiday in Italy, a country that symbolizes romance and freedom, wildness and adventure. She tries to make Lucy behave in a way that is “ladylike”; she earnestly wishes to avoid any appearance of impropriety with young men. It is difficult to tell what exactly motivates Charlotte. It is hinted that she may have experienced some type of social humiliation after a love affair of her own years ago, and has grown bitter over it. “You have lived among such nice people, that you cannot realize what men can be—how they can take a brutal pleasure in insulting a woman,” she tells Lucy after Lucy is kissed by George. “I have met the type before,” she adds ominously, “They seldom keep their exploits to themselves.” Perhaps she means to protect Lucy from the humiliation she herself experienced; likely her bitterness has prevented her from seeing that true love can really exist.
Whatever her motivation, Charlotte holds Lucy back from expressing her true emotions regarding George Emerson. On the evening after the drive to Fiesole, Lucy eagerly anticipates talking to Charlotte about “her sensations, her spasms of courage . . . moments of unreasonable joy, her mysterious discontent.” With the help of Charlotte, with whom she would discuss everything in “divine confidence,” at last she would understand herself. But Charlotte betrays her, betrays her utterly. She does not allow Lucy to open her heart; it seems that she shuts Lucy’s heart down instead by turning George’s beautiful kiss into something dirty and improper—into an “insult.” Something must be done, she says, to silence him, lest he brag about his exploit. And yet, as she prepares to whisk her young cousin away, to prevent her from ever seeing George again, she says, “Dearest Lucy, how will you ever forgive me?” It appears she is asking Lucy’s forgiveness for having failed as a chaperone and allowed her to be kissed by an uncouth man. However, she really is asking forgiveness for denying Lucy that love.
In Charlotte’s bitter role as protector, she has succeeded in “presenting to the girl “the complete picture of a cheerless, loveless world in which the young rush to destruction until they learn better—a shamefaced world of precautions and barriers which may avert evil, but which do not seem to bring good.” A second time, back in England, she will rush in to try and save Lucy from George, but this time Lucy will do the job for her, dismissing him from her life and resolving never to marry. Lucy’s mother remarks that she is becoming just like Charlotte Bartlett.
But yet there is a third chance Charlotte has to intervene. Just before Lucy leaves for Greece, Charlotte makes it possible for her to see Mr. Emerson at the Rectory. Mr. Emerson guesses that Lucy really does love his son, and pushes her to find him. Lucy and George are reunited and marry at last. Whether Charlotte really did intend for Lucy and George to come together at last, whether deep down she had always rooted for them, despite her actions to stop their love, is still a mystery at the end of the novel. But it is quite possible that there was something in Charlotte all along—a memory of past love, a memory of youth—that allowed to her have sympathy with the young people, and prevent them from the lonely fate that she chose thirty years before.