In the 1800s, women would write under male or non-gender specific pseudonyms. Mary Anne Evans, better known as George Eliot, did it. The Bronte sisters did it. Even in A Room With a View, the eyebrow-raising author Ms. Lavish publishes under a male name. It seems like women believed they needed to act like men to be taken seriously. It is therefore amazing to me that Forster created a story that made me constantly check the editor’s preface to make sure it wasn’t really written by Jane Austen. This reads like a Victorian romance plot, with all the Persuasion/Pride and Prejudice/Sense and Sensibility glory of boy meets girl, reader wants boy and girl to be together but they can’t, then boy gets girl and everyone sighs with relief. Except me, I sigh with exasperation.
My brain knows A Room With a View is predictable and sentimental. I knew exactly what was going to happen at every turn, and I knew what Forster was setting me up to think about his characters and hope for in his plot.
That being said, my not so reason-centered heart seemed to like the book alright. After all, I barely put it down. There is a sort of elegance to these Austen-genre tales of love that rise far above the level of “chick flick” or Danielle Steel. Metaphors or layered meanings are not completely absent in Victorian-era love stories, as they are with most pop varieties of romantic tales. So the story, for me, is more palatable because literary devices make it feel a little less like fluff. Now that I say that aloud, I feel a little silly.
The reason for the title A Room With a View winds up being the most rewarding thing to discover, as an analytical reader. In general, I find a title generally to be like a mystery that I immediately (and unconsciously) set out to solve as soon as I pick up the book. On page one, I start looking for a reason for the chosen title and perhaps distract myself from the plot until I can get to that reason. Forster is one of the few authors that actually gives you your reason on page one–at least on the surface. The ladies were promised a room with a view, and they are upset they didn’t get one. This facilitates “boy meets girl,” and, poof, the question mark disappears. The sneaky part is that the reader has enough information to forget about the title and focus on the plot, but the room with a view has much a much greater part to play later on. The quirky, lovable (at least, lovable to me), and awkward Mr. Emerson thinks a room with a view is nothing less than when you stare up at the sky, and everything else is just a cheap imitation. The Emerson family are societal outcasts and can do nothing that high or even middle society sees as proper. Mr. Emerson speaks at the wrong time and says tactless things. George Emerson is brooding and soulful. It is obvious from the healthy dose of snubbing they get from the novels snooty and unlikable characters that these are our heroes and the ones Forster wants us to admire.
The lesson, then, is that conventions are the “room”; they are the picture windows that frame a perfect scene at a distance. They are artificial, contrived, and restrict the spirit. A real view can be had when you are outside of convention, free to say what you think and do as your heart tells you. So Forster’s intentions for the moral of the story are revealed in a sneaky lesson toward the end, after you think you’ve already got the title figured out. And a good title it makes. This is clearly a book of shallowness v. depth, propriety v. honesty, or “real v. pretend,” as Jeffrey Heath put in his criticism of the book. But then, Forster goes back to romance, always back to romance. Lucy can only picture her stuffy fiance (the one of whom we’re supposed to think “Not him! No, the other guy!”) in a room, not outdoors. George, on the other hand, is quite comfortable outdoors, and all their romantic interactions happen there. He first kisses her in a vibrantly colored display of nature (with prim Charlotte looking on, appalled, as a dull splotch of brown on the backdrop). The only time George and Lucy have an unpleasant exchange is indoors, as Lucy gives in to the pressure put on her by all the proper ladies and gentlemen around her to reject him. Oh, and about that kiss…
The kiss that happens in the field is obviously supposed to be full of all that innocence and purity of emotion that comprises the first moment of romantic involvement. Charlotte, symbol of all that is societally proper, acceptable, and soul-crushingly restrictive, is there to squeeze the magic right out of Lucy’s moment. She, Charlotte, proceeds to make the kiss seem dirty, even shameful. In the context of the author’s experience as a gay man, his point becomes obvious and his protests given voice through his characters. Mother society, strict and meddlesome, will attempt to tell us when our lovers are acceptable or not. She will try to tell us to be ashamed of what we feel is beautiful. She is in the room. Forster, Lucy, and the Emersons are presumably outside of the room. There again is Forster’s personalized good v. evil revealed in the novel.
The trouble with setting up a fairy tale romance is that the author needs to give it a fairy tale ending or the reader feels unsatisfied. You can’t spin a Cinderella story and skip to a comfortable, domestic ending and expect your audience not to feel somehow cheated. We, as readers, have no real investment in Lucy and George’s relationship. They’re alone maybe three times together before the cozy ending scene, and in only during one of those times do they have any dialogue. (By the way, the dialogue in the book in general is really hard to follow; I often had no idea who was talking.) We get to know Lucy fairly well during the novel, but know little of George and certainly know little about why they click (beyond hormones). Because the relationship is built on spine tingling moments, at the end what a reader wants is to see “the big confession,” where Lucy goes to him and says that she loves him. But the reader is denied that–we just get invited to see their comfortable-couple’s banter after some time had passed at the end of the novel. I see nothing wrong with that conclusion if you have done more relationship development over the novel’s length, but that development is completely missing. Give me a makeout session or give me death! Either that, or just avoid the whole Little Mermaid plot and give me a reason why these two have a bond I should believe in.
It is also unsatisfying that we are meant to see Lucy on the precipice of a great awakening, and we are never given any clue as to if she has it in the end or not. I suppose we are meant to assume she does reach her full potential it because she has chosen the right man (Oh, don’t worry–I’ll get into the sexism of the novel in a second). But we never see her that vibrant, peacock-feather potential on display when she supposedly comes into her own. Mr. Beebe first hints at this potential–he wants to see the girl live with the same level of intensity that she plays the piano. Lucy seems to have moments of breakthrough in Italy where the reader feels like she is so close to a breakthrough, and then shuts back down in the constant presence of Cecil. We are denied her real moment of blossoming in the novel, which Forster seemed to be building up to the whole time. Depressing.
I resent Mr. Emerson’s (probably the most reliable vessel for Forster’s voice) implication that Lucy’s life would be empty and hopeless if she never married George. She’d be pretty miserable if she married Cecil, I’ll give you that. But first seeing that Charlotte (ukk) is Forster’s example of what an unmarried woman becomes, and then seeing the kudos George gets for the “manly” grab and kiss technique as opposed to Cecil’s ask and kiss, I don’t know…I just don’t like where this is going. So, women can never hope to reach their potential unless they find a man (though Forster wants to emphasize the importance of the right man), and heaven forbid you remain unmarried–you’ll turn into an old curmudgeonly martyr like Charlotte, no doubt. I know it was a different time when he was writing, but I just can’t believe this is a good lesson. I find that the elements most conducive to blossoming are introspection and freedom, neither which require the aid of a muscled man grabbing me and overwhelming me with unsolicited kisses.
So, in conclusion…
This book entertained me and I enjoyed reading it. The language used was often beautiful. I had more respect for it especially after reading Jeffrey Heath’s commentary on it. It is a book that goes deeper that its shiny, sugary exterior. But I was disappointed by the oozy sentimentality, the sexism, and the fairy tale scent of the book. After reading it, I thought, “You could have done better, Forster.” And also, “Come on, this is really written by Jane Austen, right?”
Yet maybe I’m disappointed for a reason. Maybe Forster is parodying the romantic genre in general, and showing how compulsory heterosexuality warps society in all sorts of ways.
I wrote this a few years ago, but thought I’d kick off the new-blog-me with this post. My writing was different then (I suffered from a severe case of the ramblies that I have since tried to remedy), but what I talk about is a good foundation for the tone I’d like to take in future blogs–a kind of “thinking aloud” approach to evaluating literature.