Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.

Oh, I love E. M. Forster!

Or rather… I suppose what I really mean is that I love E. M. Forster’s fantastic books. (No offense meant to the author; I’m sure he was a fine fellow. But as I never knew him personally, it is somewhat meaningless to claim that I love him. Rather it is his novels that I have experienced and that I love.)

And this (my admittedly rather contrived) opening, illustrates something of the issue that Forster is addressing in this famous novel: the fact that we so rarely say what we really mean (nor mean what we actually say).

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

Now, if you will forgive me, I do not intend to provide anything like a full summary of the plot here. May it suffice to say that the text highlights the repressed and staid nature of Edwardian polite society. Lucy, our fine heroine, is certainly moved by art and by music, by nature and by beauty, yet is constantly being told how she should behave, how she should act and what the ‘correct’ response to different stimuli should be.

In the first part of the novel, Lucy is on a cultural tour of Italy, chaperoned by the prim, proper and utterly ridiculous Miss Bartlett. The intention here is that Miss Bartlett and others, with help from respected guides, such as Baedeker, will show the young Lucy what the most important sights and artworks are, and what respected minds have thought of them. However, Lucy keeps experiencing – shock horror! – her own thoughts and emotions, not least of all whenever she meets the unconventional Mr Emerson and his brooding son George.

She only felt that the candle would burn better, the packing go easier, the world be happier, if she could give and receive some human love.

The text is brilliantly composed, infused with gentle humour as well as much insight. It is the kind of novel where you know what the resolution is likely to be, yet this knowledge does not in any way dampen the enjoyment you get as you follow Lucy on her journey towards greater self-realisation and freedom.

In a variety of contexts, Forster highlights the hypocrisy that exists in society and the many ways in which we deceive ourselves and others. The novel speaks to how excessive propriety and the stifling English class system can make human connection so difficult. At one point Mr. Beebe even says:

It is so difficult – at least, I find it difficult – to understand people who speak the truth.

The novel is also a compelling defense of the power of love. The wise old Mr Emerson, who, in his old age, is prepared to hold unconventional views, is particularly forthright on this subject. At several points he makes impassioned speeches about the importance of recognising and acting upon true love, and how it trumps anything else. At one point, evidently remembering his beloved late wife, he implores Lucy not to let her true love pass her by:

It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.

This is truly a classic novel, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

If you too liked this, you might also enjoy: Howards End (to my mind, the greatest of his books), or A Passage to India, which is also excellent.