The English have long been renowned for masking their feelings, hiding emotion behind rules of etiquette and dry humour, and, dare I say it, exuding a sort of coldness.
Yes, us Brits have always had a reputation for restrained passion – that is the beauty of British classics. The tension between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy is such because they cannot simply blurt out how they feel about one another but instead must discuss the weather, the dances, the families. There is a famous dance, when Mr. D. has finally managed to muster up the courage to ask this headstrong young woman to stand up with him, a woman who frustrates him decidedly as he cannot decide whether he loves or loathes her. During this dance the pair remain largely silent until Elizabeth remarks that they should probably “talk by rule”. Manners and etiquette are a strong theme in almost all of Oscar Wilde’s plays, as he ridicules his society with their rigid principles of behaviour, their hypocrisy, and their misguided notions of right and wrong.
It is this theme that is the most noticeable in E. M. Forster’s 1908 “A Room with a View”, a novel that, if you haven’t read, you must run to the nearest Waterstones (if you are in Britain) or Barnes & Noble (if you are in the US), pick up a copy and start reading immediately. This is no ordinary classic, oh no. Mr. Forster was not one for diddle daddle.
Forster asks us a very pertinent question in this book: Do we listen to our heart?
Before you go throw up in the corner, hear me out.
This isn’t a book about romance, this is a book about passion and our attempts to repress it. Here is a heroine, a young girl named Lucy Honeychurch (a glorious name, no?), who finds herself caught between two men. Very Twilight I admit, but alas there are no vampires or werewolves in this one. One boy, George, is free-spirited, child-like and from, ahem, a lower class (what a hulabaloo!). The other, Cecil, is, quite frankly, a pompous idiot. He waltzes around and bores everyone. Who do you think she is engaged to? You guessed it: Cecil the llama-head. Why? Because that is what she is supposed to do. Lucy is supposed to marry a wealthy man, who is pretentious and knowledgeable about politics and blah blah blah.
What does Forster want her to do? To understand that she is in love with George, the son of a Socialist. But George is someone who has the impropriety to offer her his room, in the hotel where they happen to both be staying in Florence, that has a view in exchange for hers that doesn’t. He doesn’t care about having a view and she wants one. So why can’t she have his room and he’ll just switch to hers? WHAT? IS THIS A JOKE? How rude! My goodness, George, control yourself! Such an offer is greatly looked down upon. Poor old Lucy is shown sympathy by all the other tourists in this hotel. How could a man offer his room with a view to a woman who wants one? Good Lord, what is the world coming to?
No, no, no Lucy, much better to ignore your naïve feelings for this young man and instead get engaged to a respectable fellow who refuses to play tennis in public and would rather sit around and smoke, feeling very smug about being so great. He is much more suitable for a young woman, for let us remember, as Charlotte kindly reminds those of the female sex: ‘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’. Here we have the silliest, most infuriating character in the book instructing Lucy on how women should behave and their purpose in life. It is almost as though we could see Forster writing this part of the novel, shaking his head and chuckling to himself at the ridiculousness of it all.
It is certainly ridiculous to us now, but back in the day that was how it was.
Forster, however, lets you in on a secret about our fair heroine. She plays the piano with passion. The dear clergyman, Mr. Beebe, notices it. There she is, wandering about Florence, desperately trying to obey all the rules that are set out for a young lady, saying all the right things about the weather and the beautiful churches, and yet she plays the piano in an “extraordinary” way for a young British woman of the early twentieth century: with passion. Mr. Beebe remarks knowledgeably that if Miss Honeychurch “live as she plays, it will be very exciting”. He is a lot wiser than he looks.
It is through the power of music that Forster conveys his most important message and it is also here that his writing takes on a whole new level of brilliance: “The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected.” Music becomes a safe haven for equality. There are no class barriers when it comes to music.
But, I must not get carried away, for Forster is not completely serious. There is an extremely famous scene that occurs in this book – ladies, prepare yourselves.
George, Freddy (who is Lucy’s brother), and that delightful Mr. Beebe, run around in the woods naked. Yes, you heard me. Absolutely starkers. There they are, stripping off their clothes, splashing each other in the lake and then deciding to play a good game of football – still naked. If you wanted to be all literary about it, you could probably argue that they are freeing themselves of propriety, throwing caution to the wind and proclaiming themselves stripped of social repression.
Or you could just enjoy the idea of three men running all over the place completely naked.
Who should stumble upon them? Poor Lucy of course! Goodness me, what is she to think? Here strolling next to her is her fiancé, a man who only kisses her after asking her permission, and there stepping out of the bush, ‘radiant’ in his birthday suit, is a man with whom she shared a passionate moment in Florence, yelling “Hullo, Miss Honeychurch! Hullo!”
Just like in the Twilight series, you will have to read the book to discover which man the young Lucy decides to stay with. And of course, it is up to you whether you choose to be Team Cecil or Team George.
Either way, A Room with a View is a stunning work of literature, beautifully written, completely addictive and a definite page-turner. Forster leaves us in no doubt of the important things in life, admitting through George’s father, Mr. Emerson, who is probably the most knowledgeable and yet most ignored character in the book, that “though life is very glorious, it is difficult”. Mr. Emerson sure sees things very clearly.
Forster leaves us with a firm and significant acknowledgement that is as relevant today as it was then, that “we fight for more than Love or Pleasure: there is Truth. Truth counts, Truth does count.” This is an age-old message that is prominent since literature began and can certainly be found in all the greatest works of the most talented and intelligent authors.
Perhaps we might do well to listen to them.