Turn of the Century Salon: A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Turn of the Century Salon - February
This year I am participating in a Turn of the Century Salon hosted by Katherine of November’s Autumn. The idea of this is to read books published around the turn of the century – between the late 1880s and the early 1930s. While I do seem to have read more books from this period than I initially thought, there are still a huge number of turn of the century authors whose work I haven’t explored yet and E.M. Forster was one of those that I was most looking forward to trying for the first time.

A Room with a View is the story of Lucy Honeychurch who we first meet on a trip to Italy with her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett. Lucy and Charlotte have just arrived at the Pension Bertolini in Florence and are disappointed to find that they have been given rooms with no view of the River Arno. Two of the other English guests – a Mr Emerson and his son, George – hear them complaining and immediately offer to exchange rooms, but instead of accepting their generous offer, the rules of Edwardian society mean that Charlotte is shocked and offended by what she considers their inappropriate behaviour. During the rest of their time in Florence, Charlotte and the other middle-class English tourists dismiss the Emersons as bad-mannered and socially unacceptable but Lucy has several more encounters with them and is intrigued by their different outlook on life.

A Room with a View Back in England, their paths cross again when the Emersons move into a cottage in Lucy’s village not far from the Honeychurch home, Windy Corner. Lucy is now engaged to Cecil Vyse, a cold, pretentious man she doesn’t really love, but who is considered to be a suitable husband for her. But with George Emerson living nearby Lucy must decide whether to be true to her heart even if it means breaking the social conventions of the time.

As this is the first E.M. Forster book I’ve read, I didn’t know what to expect so I was pleased to find it was much easier to read than I had been afraid it might be. I loved the wit and warmth of Forster’s writing and I enjoyed watching Lucy’s slow development from a young woman who allows other people and society in general to dictate how she should think and behave to one who finds the courage to be herself and live her life the way she wants to live it.

The beginning of the book with the portrayal of the English in Italy made me think of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim and as for the descriptions of Italy itself, they were beautiful and vivid:

At the same moment the ground gave way, and with a cry she fell out of the wood. Light and beauty enveloped her. She had fallen on to a little open terrace, which was covered with violets from end to end.

“Courage!” cried her companion, now standing some six feet above. “Courage and love.”

She did not answer. From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.

Forster has a sense of humour as well; the dialogue is often quite funny and he puts his characters into some amusing situations. I also loved the character names and the chapter titles (especially Chapter Six – “The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr. Emerson, Mr. George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them.”)

Published in 1908, A Room with a View was a perfect book to choose for the salon as it really does epitomise turn of the century society and a gradual move away from Victorian values into a freer, less socially constrained twentieth century.

Which of E.M. Forster’s other books should I read next?

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22 thoughts on “Turn of the Century Salon: A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

  1. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    This is one of my very favorite books so I am glad to see you liked it! I love the passage you quoted and am thinking that it might be time for me to reread this lovely, lovely book.
    I read Howards End last year and it is a wonderful novel. I would recommend it for your next Forster. The beautiful relationship between Margaret and her sister Helen is so complex and fascinating. This book is also one of my favorites!

  2. Cat says:

    I agree completely with Anbolyn – A Room With a View and Howards End are both lovely novels. There is some wonderful symbolism in Howards End that captures the conflict between the old and the new perfectly – it would be my recommendation for your next read too.

  3. Ludo says:

    I would suggest you to read Howards End in which Forster uses for the first time that well known expression «just connect», that will evolve in one of the central themes of his novels and lies at the base of his philosophy of life (especially after the Great War.) I know that many critics consider A passage to India his greatest novel, but it is a later work so you might want to read something else first.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I have just read my first novel by Forster, A Passage to India, and like you, I was happily surprised by the ease of his style. I’m definitely going to read A Room with a View this year as well for the Turn of the Century Salon

  5. Leander says:

    Oh, Helen, this is one of my *favourite* books – and you must see the film with Helena Bonham Carter if you haven’t already. The film is just perfection from beginning to end, although no doubt my opinion is coloured by the fact that I saw it at the age of fifteen, mere days before my own first trip to Florence. It’s just superb and in the book Forster is wry and sympathetic and tender – tackling all these wonderful sensations of a girl growing into a young woman and the battle between head and heart.

    Howard’s End and A Passage to India are both very good. I wouldn’t bother overmuch with Where Angels Fear To Tread, which is a bit unsatisfying in my opinion. Looking at the themes of a freer, more liberal society emerging from the strictness of the Victorian era, Maurice is also very interesting, although I haven’t read that for some time (Merchant Ivory did a film of that too).

    I’m surprised you hadn’t read this before, actually, as it seems to fit so well with the kind of things you liked, and I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed it so much.

    • Helen says:

      No, I haven’t seen the film yet but I’m definitely interested in seeing it now that I’ve read the book. I’m glad to hear it’s so good, as too often films adapted from books can be a big disappointment.

      I’ll probably read Howards End next, then A Passage to India and leave his other books until I see how much I enjoy those two.

  6. Katherine Cox (@coxkatherine) says:

    I really like Forster’s Howard’s End as well. It’s was the first work of his I read. A Room with a View is on my list for this year. I like the idea of a heroine who does follow the conventions at first then breaks free of them.

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