One of the greatest reading treats for my Luccan adventure is a selection of Forster’s works, which made their way into the travelling box of books as essential re-reading. I had initially thought I’d begin with Where Angels Fear to Tread – his first novel, but after my mentioning A Room with a View last week met with such a warm response, I found myself itching to read it instead.
And it was bliss. For what could be better than reading of the liberating, exhilarating affect of Italy on stuffy English people while being a stuffy English person being happily liberated by Italy? And oh how I felt thankful to be in Italy with my equivalent to George Emerson, rather than dreadful Miss Bartlett.
Perhaps it’s unfashionable now, but still I really like the way Forster’s novels engage so openly with ideas. A Room with a View is essentially a playing field for England versus Italy: self-consciousness, snobbishness and constraint versus sunshine, passion and instinct. It is also – clue’s in the title – about views. Forster stresses the importance of being able to see clearly, whether that’s Santa Croce, the Sussex Weald, or, more profoundly, being able to perceive the truth within oneself. Most English people, Forster suggests, are so tied up in social conventions, Baedeker guidebooks and worrying about what one is supposed to see, that they cannot see the truth. Italians are the opposite. George Emerson and his father are exceptions to the rule, as they are able to follow their instincts and speak the truth rather than following social convention, so they are looked down on by most of the other characters. The great question for the plot is: can our heroine Lucy Honeychurch also see a true view?
The signs are positive, as the Reverend Beebe observes when Lucy plays the piano, especially Beethoven, with such instinct and passion:
‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’
It all seems to be going rather well, with Lucy fainting into the arms of George Emerson after witnessing a deathly duel in the Piazza Signoria, and then being kissed by him among the violets of Fiesole. But dreadful Miss Bartlett is forever getting in the way and steering her onto a more respectful course of action. We leave Italy behind after this dramatic kiss and return to England several months later where we see Lucy accepting a proposal of marriage from awful Cecil Vyse. Cecil is as English as they come – all pomposity, snotty snobbishness and selfishness. (He won’t even make up a tennis four, which seems to Lucy to be the height of bad manners!) Poor Lucy, we despair for her, for while she seemed to be on the verge of seeing everything, now her vision has clouded over. Luckily the comic muse intervenes and, without wanting to give everything away, we can rest assured that, unusually for Forster, everything works out very pleasingly indeed and Lucy struggles through the darkness and manages to see exactly what it is that she does want.
Another thing I love about Forster is his talent for creating moments when the surface reality of the scene peels away to something quite horrific and profound beneath. In A Passage to India, it happens in the resounding empty ‘ou-boum of the Marabar Caves. In A Room with a View, it is there in the duel in the Piazza Signoria. Lucy, tellingly diagnosed by Mr Beebe as having played ‘too much Beethoven’, decides to go out alone that evening:
Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big…
Forbidden to go on a tram alone, she goes to a shop and buys photographs of various works of art. Now I better quote at length, as it really is such an extraordinary moment that I’d hate to paraphrase:
But though she spent nearly seven lire the gates of liberty seemed still unopened. She was conscious of her discontent; it was new to her to be conscious of it. ‘The world,’ she thought, ‘is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them.’ It was not surprising that Mrs Honeychurch disapproved of music, declaring that it always left her daughter peevish, unpractical and touchy.
‘Nothing ever happens to me,’ she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.
She fixed her eyes wistfully on the tower of the palace, which rose out of the lower darkness like a pillar of roughened gold. It seemed no longer a tower, no longer supported by earth, but some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky. Its brightness mesmerized her, still dancing before her eyes when she bent them to the ground and started towards home.
Then something did happen.
Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. ‘Cinque lire,’ they had cried, ‘cinque lire!’ they sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.
That was all. A crowd rose out of the dusk. It hid this extraordinary man from her, and bore him away to the fountain. Mr George Emerson happened to be a few paces away, looking at her across the spot where the man had been. How very odd! Across something. Even as she caught sight of him he grew dim; the palace itself grew dim, swayed above her, fell onto her softly, slowly, noiselessly, and sky fell with it.
She thought, ‘Oh what have I done?’
Isn’t it extraordinary!
Here we have a cave, years before Forster wrote about the Marabar caves. Instead of the paintings of which she purchases photographs, the square becomes a true chiaroscuro, all encompassed in shadow and twilight except for the blazing tower of the palace, ‘a pillar of roughened gold … some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky’. It is ‘the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real’, the hour when wishing something hard enough can prompt it to happen. ‘Oh what have I done?’ thinks Lucy as she faints after witnessing the duel, the man killed in front of her, the blood trickling out of his mouth. It is as uncanny as a dream.
A little later, once recovered, she walks with George back to their hotel and he throws her photographs into the Arno. Understandably, a little ruffled by this, she asks him why, and he tells her they were covered in blood. It’s a potent symbol: these purchased views of works of art – the things one is supposed to see in Italy, written about in guidebooks – stained with the blood of a dead man, the real drama of the uncanny view she has just experienced. The blood makes the photographs seem trivial, staining them with its evidence of life and death. Evidently, art is not life.
Gosh EM Forster is wonderful. A Room with a View risks being dismissed as too ‘nice’, (indeed Forster himself called it his ‘nicest’ novel), little more than a social comedy, some brilliantly observed portraits of silly English characters let loose in Italy. Of course it is all this, and there are many moments when chuckles escape, or when one is so pleasingly carried away by the sunny plot. But Forster was also writing having read Freud, at the time when the Moderns were beginning to push at the limits of narrative. While he would never be as experimental as Joyce or Woolf, or even DH Lawrence, how can we overlook these cave-like moments where we encounter something uncanny, shocking and profound?
Alas, I have been so carried away by Forster that I’ve written little of my off-page adventures … so here is a rather less dramatic, but splendidly bookish view I encountered while wandering around Lucca last week.