Is it possible that I had never read A Room with a View? Maybe the glorious 1986 movie made the book seem unnecessary? Or maybe I read it many years ago and had simply forgotten what fun it is. Forster is really funny! Just look at the chapter titles: “In Santa Croce with No Baedeker,” “How Miss Bartlett’s Boiler Was so Tiresome,” and my favorite, “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 Carrriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them.” Actually, that last title encapsulates a great deal of the charm Forster deploys here. The names, for one thing: Cuthbert Eager! Eleanor Lavish! Perfectly plausible yet ironically descriptive. And the meticulous identification of each English character contrasts with the collective identification of the “Italians” mocks the English point of view so elegantly.
Of course I did remember the plot, which is also the plot of Elizabeth von Arnim’s delightful The Enchanted April (another entertaining English movie): upper-middle class English people go to Italy and discover Life. In Forster’s hands, the tale is a little bit more complicated since young Lucy Honeychurch is caught between the stifling propriety espoused by her cousin Charlotte, and the liberating enthusiasm embodied by the socially suspect Emersons, father and son. Among the many clever features is the fact that Forster creates a much more detailed portrait of Lucy’s fiancé, the buttoned-up Cecil Vyse, than he does of the ultimate love interest George Emerson. George is more or less Life Force in a youthful male guise — not that far, actually, from the Italian characters in the Florence segment of the book. Yet it’s in keeping with the generally benign outlook of the book that Forster handles even his annoying characters with considerable sympathy. Charlotte Bartlett, Lucy’s cousin, is a born martyr. Sitting on the ground at a picnic (having insisted Lucy take the “mackintosh square”), she says, “The ground will do for me. Really I have not had rheumatism for years. If I do feel it coming on I shall stand. Imagine your mother’s feelings if I let you sit in the wet in your white linen.” Yet even Charlotte, in the end, turns out to have a kernel of heart. In fact, that may be what separates A Room with a View from, say, the Lucia novels of E.F. Benson, which cover much the same social territory. The difference may be that Forster was genuinely fond of his creations.