Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Room with a View in which Germanic English fall in love in Italy, "the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth"

Pan had been amongst them – not the great god Pan, who has been buried these two thousand years, but the little god Pan, who presides over social contretemps and unsuccessful picnics.  (Ch. 7)

That’s from E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908).  Max Beerbohm’s story “Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton,” in Seven Men (1919), includes a fine joke about the literary satyrs, with “their hoofs and their slanting eyes and their way of coming suddenly out of woods to wean quiet English villages from respectability.”  By the time Beerbohm is writing, they have become clichés.  Perhaps “become” is too generous.  When I first read Beerbohm, I understood the joke theoretically, but recently I have been reading more of the English literature of the faun, going back to Walter Pater.  They are all Paterians, aren’t they?  I’ll bet they are.  For example, although I did not mention it when I wrote about Robert Graves’s first book, it had at least one faun too many.

Paganism is infectious – more infectious than diphtheria or piety – and the Rector’s niece was taken to church protesting.  (Ch. 15)

The Forster narrator is often hilarious.  Victorian, and then Edwardian, respectability, is the enemy.  Why so uptight, you squares?

The sitting-room itself was blocked with books.

“Are these people great readers?” Freddy whispered.  “Are they that sort?”

“I fancy they know how to read – a rare accomplishment.  What have they got?  Byron.  Exactly.  A Shropshire Lad.  Never heard of it.  The Way of All Flesh.  Never heard of it.  Gibbon.  Hullo! dear George reads German.  Um – um – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and so we go on.”  (Ch. 12)

The heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, is not a reader, certainly not of anything as preposterous as Nietzsche, but she is a serious amateur musician with her own Romantic Germanic tendencies.  The same character who has not heard of Housman or Butler attributes Lucy’s lapses from respectability – her “startled eyes,” say – to “’Too much Beethoven’” (Ch. 5).

Lucy and George are flung together by a pagan force more powerful than a faun – Italy, specifically Florence, and more specifically, the impulsive murders and endless violets of Tuscany.  The story of the novel is how the Englishness that surrounds Lucy interferes with the Italianness that will make her happy.

Again, although A Room with a View looks like a romance between two lively young English people who meet in Italy, they are the two German characters, the two who have experienced, George deliberately and Lucy intuitively, Bildung, thus preparing them for the radical aesthetic effects of Italy, like those violets:

From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam.  But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.  (Ch. 6)

Once the two characters drink from the well-head, nothing can be the same, right?  “He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves.”  I guess compared to some other treatments of the theme, I find Forster’s treatment of Italy and its Beauty superficial, but it is all in the same general realm.  And that specific scene could hardly be improved.


  1. How timely. I've just been thinking about revisting E.M.Forster at some point as it's been such a long time since I last read any of his books. I like how you've highlighted the cultural differences here.

  2. The way you have highlighted Forster's dealing with cultural differences in this book. Your sentences captures it perfectly: "The story of the novel is how the Englishness that surrounds Lucy interferes with the Italianness that will make her happy." I really wasn't sure in the end if Lucy would put aside her stiff English façade and choose happiness.

  3. "She might be forgetting her Italy," Lucy worries in Ch. 15, but she is not. Still, it is a close-run thing, isn't it? Really quite a tense story.

    Jacqui, I had not read this book for 25 years or so. It was a great pleasure to revisit it, not just the characters but the off-kilter narrator.

  4. I started the read-along and totally failed, hahaha. Too busy.