A Room with a View
E.M. Forster, 1908
~250 pp. (Varies by publisher.)
E.M. Forster's brilliant comedy of manners shines a gently ironic light on the attitudes and customs of the British middle class at the beginning of the 20th century.
When Lucy Honeychurch, visiting Italy, mentions the lack of a view from her room, George Emerson and his father offer to swap. But Lucy's suspicions that the Emersons are the wrong sort of people seem confirmed when George impulsively kisses her during a picnic in the Tuscan countryside. Soon, however, thoughts of that kiss have Lucy questioning her engagement to boorish, if utterly acceptable, Cecil Vyse.
All in all, the situation presents quite a muddle for a young woman who wishes to be absolutely truthful—even when she's lying to herself about the most important aspects of life and love. (From Penguin Classics—cover image, top-right.)
• Birth—January 1, 1879
• Where—London, UK
• Death—June 7, 1970
• Where—Coventry, UK
• Education—B. A., (two: in classics and in history); M.A.,
Edward Morgan Forster was an English novelist, short story writer, essayist and librettist. He is known best for his ironic and well-plotted novels examining class difference and hypocrisy in early 20th-century British society. Forster's humanistic impulse toward understanding and sympathy may be aptly summed up in the epigraph to his 1910 novel Howards End: "Only connect." His 1908 novel, A Room with a View, is his most optimistic work, while A Passage to India (1924) brought him his greatest success.
Forster was born into an Anglo-Irish and Welsh middle-class family at 6 Melcombe Place, Dorset Square, London NW1, in a building that no longer exists. He was the only child of Alice Clara "Lily" (nee Whichelo) and Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster, an architect. His name was officially registered as Henry Morgan Forster, but at his baptism he was accidentally named Edward Morgan Forster. To distinguish him from his father, he was always called Morgan. His father died of tuberculosis in 1880, before Morgan's second birthday.
He inherited £8,000 (£659,300 as of 2013) from his paternal great-aunt Marianne Thornton (daughter of the abolitionist Henry Thornton), who died in 1887. The money was enough to live on and enabled him to become a writer. He attended the notable public school Tonbridge School in Kent as a day boy. The theatre at the school has been named in his honour.
At King's College, Cambridge, between 1897 and 1901, he became a member of a discussion society known as the Apostles (formally named the Cambridge Conversazione Society). Many of its members went on to constitute what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group, of which Forster was a peripheral member in the 1910s and 1920s. There is a famous recreation of Forster's Cambridge at the beginning of The Longest Journey.
After leaving university, he travelled in continental Europe with his mother. In 1914, he visited Egypt, Germany and India with the classicist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, by which time he had written all but one of his novels. In the First World War, as a conscientious objector, Forster volunteered for the International Red Cross, and served in Alexandria, Egypt.
Forster spent a second spell in India in the early 1920s as the private secretary to Tukojirao III, the Maharajah of Dewas. The Hill of Devi is his non-fictional account of this period. After returning to London from India, he completed his last novel, A Passage to India (1924), for which he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.
After A Passage to India
In the 1930s and 1940s Forster became a successful broadcaster on BBC Radio and a public figure associated with the Union of Ethical Societies. He was awarded a Benson Medal in 1937.
Forster was a closeted homosexual and lifelong bachelor. He developed a long-term, loving relationship with Bob Buckingham, a married policeman. Forster included Buckingham and his wife May in his circle, which included J. R. Ackerley, a writer and literary editor of The Listener, the psychologist W. J. H. Sprott and, for a time, the composer Benjamin Britten. Other writers with whom Forster associated included the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the Belfast-based novelist Forrest Reid.
From 1925 until his mother's death at age 90 in 1945, Forster lived with her at West Hackhurst, Abinger Hammer, finally leaving in 1946. His London base was 26 Brunswick Square from 1930 to 1939, after which he rented 9 Arlington Park Mansions in Chiswick until at least 1961.
Forster was elected an honorary fellow of King's College, Cambridge in 1946 and lived for the most part in the college, doing relatively little. He declined a knighthood in 1949 and was made a Companion of Honour in 1953. In 1969 he was made a member of the Order of Merit. Forster died of a stroke at the Buckinghams' home in Coventry on June 7, 1970. He was 91.
Forster had five novels published in his lifetime. Although Maurice was published shortly after his death, it had been written nearly sixty years earlier. He never finished a seventh novel Arctic Summer.
His first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), is the story of Lilia, a young English widow who falls in love with an Italian man, and of the efforts of her bourgeois relatives to get her back from Monteriano (based on San Gimignano). Philip Herriton's mission to retrieve her from Italy has features in common with that of Lambert Strether in Henry James's The Ambassadors. Forster discussed that work ironically and somewhat disapprovingly in his book Aspects of the Novel (1927). Where Angels Fear to Tread was adapted to film in 1991.
Next, Forster published The Longest Journey (1907), an inverted bildungsroman following the lame Rickie Elliott from Cambridge to a career as a struggling writer and then to a post as a schoolmaster, married to the unappealing Agnes Pembroke. In a series of scenes on the hills of Wiltshire, which introduce Rickie's wild half-brother Stephen Wonham, Forster attempts a kind of sublime related to those of Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence.
Forster's third novel, A Room with a View (1908), is his lightest and most optimistic. It was started as early as 1901, before any of his others; its earliest versions are entitled "Lucy." The book explores the young Lucy Honeychurch's trip to Italy with her cousin, and the choice she must make between the free-thinking George Emerson and the repressed aesthete Cecil Vyse. George's father Mr Emerson quotes thinkers who influenced Forster, including Samuel Butler. A Room with a View was adapted as a film in 1985 by the Merchant-Ivory team.
Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View can be seen collectively as Forster's Italian novels. Both include references to the famous Baedeker guidebooks and concern narrow-minded middle-class English tourists abroad. The books share many themes with his short stories collected in The Celestial Omnibus and The Eternal Moment.
Howards End (1910) is an ambitious "condition-of-England" novel concerned with different groups within the Edwardian middle classes, represented by the Schlegels (bohemian intellectuals), the Wilcoxes (thoughtless plutocrats) and the Basts (struggling lower-middle-class aspirants). Critics have observed that numerous characters in Forster's novels die suddenly. This is true of Where Angels Fear to Tread, Howards End and, most particularly, The Longest Journey.
Forster achieved his greatest success with A Passage to India (1924). The novel takes as its subject the relationship between East and West, seen through the lens of India in the later days of the British Raj. Forster connects personal relationships with the politics of colonialism through the story of the Englishwoman Adela Quested, the Indian Dr. Aziz, and the question of what did or did not happen between them in the Marabar Caves. Forster makes special mention of the author Ahmed Ali and his Twilight in Delhi in his Preface to its Everyman's Library Edition.
Maurice (1971) was published posthumously. It is a homosexual love story which also returns to matters familiar from Forster's first three novels, such as the suburbs of London in the English home counties, the experience of attending Cambridge, and the wild landscape of Wiltshire. The novel was controversial, given that Forster's homosexuality had not been previously known or widely acknowledged. Today's critics continue to argue over the extent to which Forster's sexuality and personal activities influenced his writing.
In the United States, interest in, and appreciation for, Forster was spurred by Lionel Trilling's E. M. Forster: A Study, which began:
E. M. Forster is for me the only living novelist who can be read again and again and who, after each reading, gives me what few writers can give us after our first days of novel-reading, the sensation of having learned something. (Trilling 1943).
Forster was President of the Cambridge Humanists from 1959 until his death and a member of the Advisory Council of the British Humanist Association from 1963 until his death. His views as a humanist are at the heart of his work, which often depicts the pursuit of personal connections in spite of the restrictions of contemporary society.
His humanist attitude is expressed in the non-fictional essay "What I Believe." When Forster’s cousin, Philip Whichelo, donated a portrait of Forster to the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GLHA), Jim Herrick, the founder, quoted Forster's words: "The humanist has four leading characteristics—curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race."
Two of Forster's best-known works, A Passage to India and Howards End, explore the irreconcilability of class differences. A Room with a View also shows how questions of propriety and class can make human connection difficult. The novel is his most widely read and accessible work, remaining popular long after its original publication. His posthumous novel Maurice explores the possibility of class reconciliation as one facet of a homosexual relationship.
Sexuality is another key theme in Forster's works. Some critics have argued that a general shift from heterosexual to homosexual love can be observed through the course of his writing career. The foreword to Maurice describes his struggle with his homosexuality, while he explored similar issues in several volumes of short stories. Forster's explicitly homosexual writings, the novel Maurice and the short story collection The Life to Come, were published shortly after his death.
Forster is noted for his use of symbolism as a technique in his novels, and he has been criticised (as by his friend Roger Fry) for his attachment to mysticism. One example of his symbolism is the wych elm tree in Howards End. The characters of Mrs. Wilcox in that novel and Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India have a mystical link with the past, and a striking ability to connect with people from beyond their own circles. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 5/25/2013.)
(Older works have few, if any, mainstream press reviews online. See Amazon and Barnes & Noble for helpful customer reviews.)
Like the heroines of Mansfield Park and Daisy Miller, Lucy begins the novel as a naif on the threshold of adulthood in a strange new world.... Certainly A Room with a View can be appreciated from this perspective as a story of sexual awakening.... But it can be read on other levels as well. As a domestic comedy in the tradition of Jane Austen, it brilliantly skewers the world of Edwardian manners and social codes, providing some of Forster's most riotous and revealing portraits in the characters of Cecil Vyse and Charlotte Bartlett. It also can be enjoyed as a book about the contradictions and conflicts of being human: how we reconcile our inner lives with outside expectations, and how it is possible, by opening one's mind, to find faith and love in unexpected places.
1. How are Lucy's character and mood captured in the descriptions of her piano playing throughout the novel? Why does she refuse to play Beethoven in Mrs. Vyse's well-appointed flat? What compels her to sing, after breaking her engagement with Cecil, the song that ends with the line "Easy live and quiet die"?
2. Forster's use of light and darkness, vision and blindness, day and night has transparent meaning in many passages: Lucy throws open the window of her room with a view while Charlotte closes the shades. Cecil is best suited to a room, while George is in his element in the naked sunlight of the Sacred Lake. Discuss the variations on the theme of clarity and shadow in the book, for example the twilight on the Piazza Signoria before Lucy witnesses the murder, or her attempts to flee "the king of terrors—Light" in the novel's second half.
3. Lucy and George both stand outside Britain's traditional class structure. George is a clerk, the son of a journalist and grandson of a laborer. Lucy is the daughter of a lawyer and her social status is "more splendid than her antecedents entitled her to." What role does social class play in the novel? Why did Forster choose Cecil to deliver the statement: "The classes ought to mix...There ought to be intermarriage—all sorts of things. I believe in democracy."?
4. Mr. Beebe is portrayed early in the novel as an observant, thoughtful counselor with a good sense of humor and an unusually open mind for a clergyman. Soon after meeting Lucy he predicts that "one day music and life shall mingle" for her. Why does he fail, in the end, to support her decision to leave Cecil for George?
5. In comparison, Charlotte Bartlett is absurdly prudish, forbidding her cousin even to sleep in the bed where George Emerson had slept. If George's surmise at the novel's end is correct, what motivates her to help bring the lovers together by facilitating Lucy's fateful meeting with Mr. Emerson? What does this turnabout suggest about the repressive forces in society? Is she, as George jokes, made of the "same stuff as parsons are made of"?
5. "Muddle" is one of Forster's favorite words and seems to carry more weight in his work than in current colloquial usage. Lucy declares at the end of Part 1, "I want not to be muddled. I want to grow older quickly." What does Mr. Emerson mean when he uses the word to describe Lucy's state of mind near the novel's end, saying, "It is easy to face Death and Fate...It is on my muddles that I look back with horror"?
6. Lucy and George's final happiness is clouded by their severed relations with those she left behind. The Honeychurches "were disgusted at her past hypocrisy," and Mr. Beebe will never forgive them. Do you think Forster believes, as Lucy asserts, that "if we act the truth, the people who really love us are sure to come back to us in the long run"?
7.What is "medieval" about Cecil's attitude toward women in general and toward Lucy in particular? What role is she allotted in his notion of chivalry? Why does Lucy feel, after George throws her blood-stained photographs into the Arno, that it is "hopeless to look for chivalry in such a man"? What kind of companionship and protection does George offer in exchange?
8. Forster, who was greatly influenced by the art of Italy during his first visit there, not only explores the proper relationship of life and art in A Room with a View but also uses art to illuminate his characters. What do we learn about the inner lives of George and Mr. Emerson from their views of Giotto's fresco in Santa Croce (Chapter 2)? Why is Lucy's outburst over Mr. Eager like "Leonardo on the ceiling of the Sistine"?
9.A frequent criticism of Forster's plots is his reliance on coincidence and chance. What improbable circumstances are required to unite Lucy and George? Is George right when he says of their reunion in England, "It is Fate. Everything is Fate"? Does the novel suggest an external force that brings the lovers together?
10.There are many kinds of deceit in the book: betrayal by friends, secrets between lovers, and most importantly Lucy's self-deceit. Four of the last five chapters show Lucy lying to nearly everyone else in the book. Which kinds of lies are most harmful to the "personal relations" that Forster cherished?
11.Though sparing in his descriptions of physical love, Forster often expresses the physical component of spiritual passion indirectly, as in his description of Lucy's piano playing: "Like every true performer she was intoxicated by the mere feel of the notes: they were fingers caressing her own; and by touch, not by sound alone, did she come to her desire." What balance between the physical and emotional expressions of love does Mr. Emerson suggest in his statement, "I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.... I only wish poets would say this too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body"?
(Questions from Penguin Classics—cover image, top right.)
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