A room with a View by E.M Foster: Review

Warning spoilers


Wow. What a book! This has got to be one of my favorite books ever. Not only is the story gripping and beautifully written. But its description of the relationship between men and women are still relevant today, 111 years after its publication. Foster’s insight into life, love and the human experience is captivating and so makes this book a pleasure to read.

A Room with a View is in many ways a typical romance. A boy and girl meet and fall in love. But they must overcome problems that keep them separated before they can reach their happy ending. In this novel one of the many problems the two lovers encounter is class. From their first meeting cousin Charlotte decides that the Emerson’s are not for her and Lucy, especially George’s father Mr Emerson  “She knew that the intruder was ill-bred, even before she glanced at him. He was an old man, of heavy build, with a fair, shaven face and large eyes. There was something childish in those eyes, though it was not the childishness of senility. What exactly it was Miss Bartlett did not stop to consider, for her glance passed on to his clothes. These did not attract her. He was probably trying to become acquainted with them before they got into the swim”. As  Lucy’s cousin Charlotte learns more of George and his family the more undesirable they become. His father raised him without any religion, which at the time is seen as a huge taboo, to the extent that a local Priest Mr Eager  accuses Mr Emerson of murdering this wife “in the sight of God” . This is because she catches typhoid and dies ( which the priest views as punishment from God for not baptizing her child). Both George and his father’s professions are also looked down on. With Mr Emerson being a retired journalist and his son working for the railway “Miss Bartlett had asked Mr. George Emerson what his profession was, and he had answered “the railway.” She was very sorry that she had asked him. She had no idea that it would be such a dreadful answer, or she would not have asked him.” It is therefore difficult for Lucy to admit she loves George because she is seen to be from a slightly higher class. While George is of the working class Lucy is of the new middle class with the hopes of her marrying into the upper class (represented by her fiancé Cecil).

Along with her class Lucy also has to overcome the expectations and behaviour requirements of a woman of her time and place. These restrictions are shown in the charter of Mrs Honeychurch (Lucy’s mother) who has very strong views of what a woman should be. For instance she condemned’s women writers, “She would abandon every topic to inveigh against those women who (instead of minding their home and children) seek notoriety in print”  and unmarried women who live out of home. “And mess with typewriters and latch-keys,” exploded Mrs. Honeychurch. “And agitate and scream, and be carried off kicking by the police. And call it a Mission–when no one wants you! And call it Duty–when it means that you can’t stand your own home! And call it Work–when thousands of men are starving with the competition as it is!”

On top of all of these difficulties Lucy makes a further mess of her life by trying to convince herself she loves Cecil and George mean’s nothing “it is obvious enough for the reader to conclude, “She loves young Emerson.” A reader in Lucy’s place would not find it obvious. Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome “nerves” or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire. She loved Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases should have been reversed?” This unhealthy repression of her true self is doubly interesting when we take into account that Foster spent much of his youth repressing his homosexual desires in order to adhere to societies expectations.

However, (as in many romantic novels) fate works it’s magic to brings these two people back together. Cecil (unbeknownst to Lucy) is already friends with George and arranges for him to take a house near Lucy’s to help fill a property. Freddy, Mr Beebe and Mrs Honeychurch all take a liking to George (something they do not have with Cecil) and have him round the house. Eleanor Lavish writes a scene in her book inspired by Lucy and George’s kiss, which Cecil  reads aloud and which in turn encourages George to kiss Lucy again. But the biggest helper is Mr Emerson. Who sees through all of Lucy lies and muddle and encourages her to be brave and tell her family and George the truth.

At the end of the novel George even proposes that Charlotte was also a help. George points out that despite all Charlotte’s interference it was her that kept George at the forefront of Lucy’s mind “Look how she kept me alive in you all the summer; how she gave you no peace; how month after month she became more eccentric and unreliable. The sight of us haunted her–or she couldn’t have described us as she did to her friend. There are details–it burnt. I read the book afterwards. She is not frozen, Lucy, she is not withered up all through. She tore us apart twice, but in the rectory that evening she was given one more chance to make us happy. We can never make friends with her or thank her. But I do believe that, far down in her heart, far below all speech and behaviour, she is glad.” He also points out that although she could of stopped Lucy from talking to her father ( the turning point of Lucy’s drama) she doesn’t and instead decides to remain out of it “George was obstinate again. “My father,” said he, “saw her, and I prefer his word. He was dozing by the study fire, and he opened his eyes, and there was Miss Bartlett. A few minutes before you came in. She was turning to go as he woke up. He didn’t speak to her.” Even Lucy considers he may have a point “It is impossible,” murmured Lucy, and then, remembering the experiences of her own heart, she said: “No–it is just possible.” Meaning that although a person may say and behave in certain way she may actually mean the exact opposite. The reason for Charlotte’s turnaround is vague be maybe because she is a lesbian who has had to repress her sexual desire and by the end of the novel does not want to inflict the same maidenhood onto Lucy. Charlotte’s homosexuality is hinted at by the probably gay Mr Beebe who believes there is more to her than meets the eye, “she might yet reveal depths of strangeness, if not of meaning.”  Also towards the end of the novel George compares Charlotte to Mr Beebe saying “She is made of the same stuff as parsons are made of”

However Charlotte also represents the pass and how women used to be treated. A Room with a View was written in 1908 a time of big change for women. This is the year Emmeline Pankhurst held the largest march in London for the right for women to vote.  And in this book Foster presents the reader with nearly every type of middle class women. We have the sexually repressed yet strong Charlotte Barton. The old fashioned but knowing widow Mrs Honeychurch (who is not embarrassed when she comes across three naked men in the forest). Eleanor Lavish the ‘modern women’ proud to tell everyone she is a radical yet disapproves of the Emerson’s and becomes best friends with Charlotte Barton. Yet the only real strong modern woman we have in the book is Lucy and in a way the novel can be seen as her journey to this. Lucy accepts she is modern. But uses this as an excuse not to be alone “I mean the idea that women are always thinking of men. If a girl breaks off her engagement, every one says: ‘Oh, she had some one else in her mind; she hopes to get some one else.’ It’s disgusting, brutal! As if a girl can’t break it off for the sake of freedom.”  However by the end of the novel Lucy has the strength to accept that she loves George, tell her family, marries him, inherits her own money, and take him to Italy for their honeymoon;  although all of this has upset her family “His own content was absolute, but hers held bitterness: the Honeychurches had not forgiven them; they were disgusted at her past hypocrisy; she had alienated Windy Corner, perhaps for ever.”

Yet while the reader is presented with a varied set of strong women, we are also shown a sorry bunch of men. The great disappointment of Charlotte’s at the beginning of the book is they have no strong man to help them and must do it all themselves “Oh for a real man! We are only two women, you and I! Mr Beebe is hopeless.” Nearly every poor man throughout the book is shown as weak or broken. The spurred lover Cecil is shown to be lacking any heart “conventional, Cecil, you’re that, for you may understand beautiful things, but you don’t know how to use them; and you wrap yourself up in art and books and music, and would try to wrap up me. I won’t be stifled”. The lovable Mr Emerson is on his last legs. The more than likely gay Mr Beebe, who enjoys watching Freddy and George swim in the Forrest pool and is “somewhat chilly in his attitude towards the other sex”. He has high hopes for Lucy yet is deeply disappointed by her decision to marry George instead of choosing a life of repression like himself. Even our romantic hero George is seen as wet blanket, only choosing to live when he falls in love with Lucy and lets his wife fight the important battles to be with him “All the fighting that mattered had been done by others–by Italy, by his father, by his wife.” This treatment of weak men and strong women makes the book feel very modern, especially in this time of men being unsure of there placement and how they should be with women. As George says at one point, “This desire to govern a woman–it lies very deep, and men and women must fight it together before they shall enter the garden” A goal 111 years later we are still aiming for

However this is just one way of reading this layered and interesting book. Other themes that are explored is the idea of fate, the loss of religion, city vs countryside, art, truth and reality vs are inner life.

Altogether this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

As for me I’m going out to get another Foster!


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