A Room with a View: Just an Edwardian Rom-Com?

In this article, undergraduate Stephanie Derbyshire explores the way in which E. M. Forster uses art, and the experience of art, to explain his characters - both to us, and to themselves.

She loved Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases should have been reversed?  (A Room with a View, chapter 14)

Part of the appeal of A Room with a View is quite similar to that of a lot of modern romantic comedies: the will-they, won't-they tension of a girl who is involved with one man but in love with another, far more sympathetic character. Lucy Honeychurch is engaged to Cecil Vyse, socially a good match, but terribly self-involved and affected; she is actually in love with George Emerson, a young man considered far too forthright to be appropriate in social situations. For much of the second part of the novel Lucy is in complete denial of her feelings, and so the reader feels the building tension - and indeed, irritation - both of this and of her awkward relationship with Cecil, and finally is allowed relief when she eventually realises the truth of the situation and returns to Florence with George.

One view of the novel is that it conforms with a common structure in romantic narrative: the heroine falls in love with the wrong man, a villain, but eventually realises her mistake and transfers her affection to the real hero who has been waiting in the wings. However, Cecil, although irritating, is hardly villainous, and George is not a stereotypical hero; instead, Forster uses Lucy's suitors, and her reactions to them both, to examine and investigate the complexities of relationships possible - and advisable - between a man and a woman.

Greek versus Gothic: The art of discriminating George from Cecil

George Emerson and Cecil Vyse are very different characters, despite the fact that they both become involved with the same girl. Each man is represented by a fundamentally different set of artistic and cultural values: George is irretrievably linked, by his and Lucy's meeting in Florence, to a set of Roman and Greek heroes and Gods, whereas Cecil is introduced as being 'medieval. Like a Gothic statue' (A Room with a View, chapter 8).

When introducing Cecil to the reader, Forster describes him as remaining 'in the grip of a certain devil whom the modern world knows as self-consciousness, and whom the medieval, with dimmer vision, worshipped as asceticism. A Gothic statue implies celibacy, just as a Greek statue implies fruition...' (A Room with a View, chapter 8). This comment not only immediately draws a comparison between Cecil and George, but it also demonstrates his lack of vision and self-knowledge. Having previously described him as medieval, Forster now implies that Cecil, with the 'dimmer vision' of medievalism also wrongfully takes a positive view of his own flaw, 'worshipping' a character trait that the modern world has now recognised as 'a certain devil'. This use of the word 'devil' is also significant, as it implies a moral failure as well as just short-sightedness. Although Cecil is by no means evil, painting him as an ancient devil brought into the modern world allows Forster to cast the Emersons, by contrast, as natural, fruitful seekers of truth.

George, therefore, is Cecil's Greek statue counterpart: although generally looked down upon as not being quite refined or elevated enough for society, he is free and unaffected, and has a profound effect on Lucy. She sees him not as she sees frigid Cecil, but as something linked to art and fertility, and even mystery. Meeting him in Santa Croce, she imagines him as something out of myth:

She saw him once again at Rome, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, carrying a burden of acorns. Healthy and muscular, he yet gave her the feeling of greyness, of tragedy that might only find solution in the night. (A Room with a View, chapter 2)

George becomes associated with 'high art', both as a cultural phenomenon and, amusingly, physically, since the paintings are on the ceiling. His 'burden of acorns' links him immediately with the warm wholesomeness of the natural world, despite his melancholy, and his health and muscularity implies youth and power, as well as potential sexual attraction. Although at this point George is world-weary and serious ('greyness'), Lucy's allusion to art and myth is thoroughly appropriate: whilst it is perhaps the austerity and self-denial of Cecil and asceticism that prompts Forster to link Gothic statues with celibacy, the vibrancy of the Greek world, and therefore the Emersons and their interest in truth, appears fertile and fruitful.

Passion and ascetism: Lucy's view

Lucy's relationship with George differs drastically from her relationship with Cecil both in the way she views each of them, and the ways they want to engage with her. Cecil's relationship with Lucy is intensely self-conscious and prudish: nowhere is his ascetic medieval 'devil' more noticeable than at the point where he asks Lucy's permission to kiss her. The moment is awkward and profoundly unromantic, and even Cecil himself is aware of its 'absurdities': 'he considered, with truth, that it had been a failure. Passion should believe itself irresistible. It should forget civility and consideration and all the other curses of a refined nature' (A Room with a View, chapter 9). Cecil is too fettered, both by his medievalism and by his very modern pretensions to 'refined nature', to have an open and passionate relationship with Lucy.

However, in comparison, George seems almost completely free of the social burdens that so constrain Cecil and, during the tourist party's drive in the countryside outside Florence, he fulfils everything that Cecil later defines as passion. Uninhibited, he expresses himself by shouting into the view, and when Lucy tumbles onto the scene, he kisses her in a way that is strikingly similar to what Cecil imagines a truly passionate kiss should be. Cecil imagines the need to rush up and take Lucy in his arms without asking permission; George does exactly that.

Other characters find him disconcerting: he is inappropriate and yet likeable. At the very beginning of the novel, in Florence one of the little old ladies, who seems at first to object to the Emersons, greatly puzzles Lucy's stuffy cousin Charlotte Bartlett by saying,

Have you noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time - beautiful? (A Room with a View, chapter 1)

Evidently, such a suggestion is itself rather indelicate, or so the lady thinks: 'have you noticed' is after all quite a tentative beginning, and the lady herself seems surprised that she might have noticed any such thing herself, hesitating before the word 'beautiful'. Charlotte is completely and immediately perplexed ('Are not beauty and delicacy the same?') and ostensibly takes a firm dislike to George and his father. When George kisses Lucy on the hillside and Charlotte happens to see it, she is far more outraged than Lucy is, and accuses George of being a womaniser who cares nothing for Lucy. On the other hand, the romance of the situation evidently appeals to her: she recounts the incident to her friend Miss Lavish, who in turn includes it in her novel as a very intense, romantic scene. When this is read aloud by Cecil to Lucy and George, both Cecil and Lucy find it distasteful: Lucy, presumably, at least partly from embarrassment and self-denial, and Cecil because it represents a kind of passion for which he is eager, but of which he is incapable.

Despite her seeming disapproval, Charlotte is in fact won over in the end, albeit in an extremely restrained way. Towards the end of the novel, just as things are coming to a head, she willingly allows Lucy to be alone with George's father, without Lucy knowing that she allowed it. And so, in the final chapter, George guesses that beneath her socially bound exterior, she has a romantic streak which wishes Lucy and George would be together: 'she fought us on the surface, and yet she hoped' (A Room with a View, chapter 20). In some sense, he could be right, although it could also be argued that this is just a means of demonstrating that moral truth should win through even the most tightly-guarded social mind.

George, then, appeals to the romantic even in somebody as socially paranoid as Charlotte Bartlett, and is himself romantic about the ideal of love and loving Lucy. Cecil on the other hand has very set ideas about how Lucy should be: his view of gender corresponds with Lucy's initial vague ideas of herself as a 'medieval lady', but Cecil does not understand the changes taking place in the ideal, and the fact that Lucy does not represent or desire it ('Before the show breaks up she would like to drop the august title of the Eternal Woman, and go there as her transitory self' - A Room with a View, chapter 4).  Unlike the freer-thinking George, Cecil still believes in a 'feudal' relationship rather than one of companionship, expecting Lucy to revere him simply because he is a man, and for her to take on a traditional role of beauty and charm. Furthermore, he sees her as an artistic possession, like a beautiful flower or a Leonardo painting. It is only when she is leaving him that he sees her as a real woman rather than as something to own: 'He looked at her, instead of through her, for the first time since they were engaged. From a Leonardo she had become a living woman, with mysteries and forces of her own, with qualities that even eluded art' (A Room with a View, chapter 17). It is only here that he realises what he is losing. However, by this point it is too late, and Cecil's most beautiful - and decent - moment is when he relinquishes Lucy and can return to his fundamental self-consciousness: 'On the landing he paused, strong in his renunciation, and gave her a look of memorable beauty. For all his culture, Cecil was an ascetic at heart, and nothing in his love became him like the leaving of it' (A Room with a View, chapter 17).

Cecil is incapable of the companionship, passion and equality that George eventually provides, because he can only view Lucy as inferior to himself. He takes it upon himself to improve her, which leaves her feeling stupid and inadequate, whereas George has no desire to change her. Far from Cecil's selfish medievalism and his coldness in love, George is made happy and animated by loving Lucy as she is.

Further Reading

John Beer, The Achievement of E. M. Forster (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962).

James Buzard, 'Forster's Trespasses: Tourism and Cultural Politics', in E. M. Forster, ed. Jeremy Trambling (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1995), pp. 14-29.

Judith Scherer Herz, 'A Room with a View' in The Cambridge Companion to E. M. Forster, ed. David Bradshaw (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 138-50.

Brian May, The Modernist as Pragmatist: E. M. Forster and the Fate of Liberalism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997).

David Medalie, E. M. Forster's Modernism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).

Wilfrid Stone, The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E. M. Forster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966).

Claude Summers, E. M. Forster (New York: Frederick Unger, 1983).

Further Thinking

Stephanie Derbyshire argues that one of the most interesting aspects of A Room with a View is its careful chronicle of Lucy Honeychurch's choice of passionate Greek art (George) over medieval ascetism (Cecil). Do you think the novel agrees that one should live, and love, like art? Does Forster suggest any criticisms of or caveats about Lucy's choice?

In this article Stephanie Derbyshire notes the way in which Charlotte Bartlett, Lucy, and George Emerson discover Miss Lavish's 'literary' account of the young lovers' earlier, intense encounter on the Italian drive. Lucy and George naturally see themselves in this literary portrait; or perhaps they see this literary portrait as themselves. How important do you think this experience is to the development of their feelings and the change in Lucy's resolve, and why?

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