It opens in Florence, where Lucy Honeychurch is on vacation with her older cousin Charlotte Bartlett.
Both women are disappointed that their rooms in the Pension Bertolini do not have views over the river. But when a fellow called Mr Emerson, who is staying at the hotel with his son George, offers to swap rooms, instead of thanking him for the kind offer, the women consider him impudent and ill-bred.
This one act of generosity by Mr Emerson sets off a whole chain of events — including a murder — in which Lucy (and Charlotte) are ever-entwined with both the father and son, not only in Italy, but back in England, too.
When the action shifts to Lucy’s childhood home — Windy Corner in Surrey, England — the reader must forgive one or two grating coincidences, because the Emersons move into a local cottage and suddenly there they are, just as they were in Florence, continually putting their foot in it and upsetting everyone’s sense of propriety.
For most of the novel, Lucy struggles with working out what she wants from her rather cosseted life. Should she continue to travel and seek out adventure, or should she settle down and get married? When she finally accepts Cecil Vyse’s proposal of marriage (she refuses twice), her future looks mapped out for her. But it’s clear the match is not a good one.
While A Room with a View is a kind of treatise about a woman’s right to be independent, it’s actually quite a light-hearted book filled with comic moments. Forster seems particularly scathing of tourists and there’s some delicious references to the writing profession — ” ‘All modern books are bad,’ said Cecil, who was annoyed at her inattention, and vented his annoyance on literature. ‘Everyone writes for money these days.’ ”
“So, Miss Honeychurch, you are travelling? As a student of art?”
“Oh, dear me, no—oh, no!”
“Perhaps as a student of human nature,” interposed Miss Lavish, “like myself?”
“Oh, no. I am here as a tourist.”
“Oh, indeed,” said Mr. Eager. “Are you indeed? If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little—handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get ‘done’ or ‘through’ and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl. You know the American girl in Punch who says: ‘Say, poppa, what did we see at Rome?’ And the father replies: ‘Why, guess Rome was the place where we saw the yaller dog.’ There’s travelling for you. Ha! ha! ha!”
“I quite agree,” said Miss Lavish, who had several times tried to interrupt his mordant wit. “The narrowness and superficiality of the Anglo-Saxon tourist is nothing less than a menace.”
“Quite so. Now, the English colony at Florence, Miss Honeychurch—and it is of considerable size, though, of course, not all equally—a few are here for trade, for example. But the greater part are students. Lady Helen Laverstock is at present busy over Fra Angelico. I mention her name because we are passing her villa on the left. No, you can only see it if you stand—no, do not stand; you will fall. She is very proud of that thick hedge. Inside, perfect seclusion. One might have gone back six hundred years. Some critics believe that her garden was the scene of The Decameron, which lends it an additional interest, does it not?”
“It does indeed!” cried Miss Lavish. “Tell me, where do they place the scene of that wonderful seventh day?”
But Mr. Eager proceeded to tell Miss Honeychurch that on the right lived Mr. Someone Something, an American of the best type—so rare!–and that the Somebody Elses were farther down the hill. “Doubtless you know her monographs in the series of ‘Mediaeval Byways’? He is working at Gemistus Pletho. Sometimes as I take tea in their beautiful grounds I hear, over the wall, the electric tram squealing up the new road with its loads of hot, dusty, unintelligent tourists who are going to ‘do’ Fiesole in an hour in order that they may say they have been there, and I think—think—I think how little they think what lies so near them.”
During this speech the two figures on the box were sporting with each other disgracefully. Lucy had a spasm of envy. Granted that they wished to misbehave, it was pleasant for them to be able to do so. They were probably the only people enjoying the expedition. The carriage swept with agonizing jolts up through the Piazza of Fiesole and into the Settignano road.
“Piano! piano!” said Mr. Eager, elegantly waving his hand over his head.
“Va bene, signore, va bene, va bene,” crooned the driver, and whipped his horses up again.
Now Mr. Eager and Miss Lavish began to talk against each other on the subject of Alessio Baldovinetti. Was he a cause of the Renaissance, or was he one of its manifestations? The other carriage was left behind. As the pace increased to a gallop the large, slumbering form of Mr. Emerson was thrown against the chaplain with the regularity of a machine.
“Piano! piano!” said he, with a martyred look at Lucy.
An extra lurch made him turn angrily in his seat. Phaethon, who for some time had been endeavouring to kiss Persephone, had just succeeded.
A little scene ensued, which, as Miss Bartlett said afterwards, was most unpleasant. The horses were stopped, the lovers were ordered to disentangle themselves, the boy was to lose his pourboire, the girl was immediately to get down.
“She is my sister,” said he, turning round on them with piteous eyes.
Eager took the trouble to tell him that he was a liar.
Phaethon hung down his head, not at the matter of the accusation, but at its manner. At this point Mr. Emerson, whom the shock of stopping had awoke, declared that the lovers must on no account be separated, and patted them on the back to signify his approval. And Miss Lavish, though unwilling to ally him, felt bound to support the cause of Bohemianism.
“Most certainly I would let them be,” she cried. “But I dare say I shall receive scant support. I have always flown in the face of the conventions all my life. This is what I call an adventure.”
“We must not submit,” said Mr. Eager. “I knew he was trying it on. He is treating us as if we were a party of Cook’s tourists.”
“Surely no!” said Miss Lavish, her ardour visibly decreasing.
The other carriage had drawn up behind, and sensible Mr. Beebe called out that after this warning the couple would be sure to behave themselves properly.
“Leave them alone,” Mr. Emerson begged the chaplain, of whom he stood in no awe. “Do we find happiness so often that we should turn it off the box when it happens to sit there? To be driven by lovers—A king might envy us, and if we part them it’s more like sacrilege than anything I know.”
Here the voice of Miss Bartlett was heard saying that a crowd had begun to collect.
Eager, who suffered from an over-fluent tongue rather than a resolute will, was determined to make himself heard. He addressed the driver again. Italian in the mouth of Italians is a deep-voiced stream, with unexpected cataracts and boulders to preserve it from monotony. In Mr. Eager’s mouth it resembled nothing so much as an acid whistling fountain which played ever higher and higher, and quicker and quicker, and more and more shrilly, till abruptly it was turned off with a click.
“Signorina!” said the man to Lucy, when the display had ceased. Why should he appeal to Lucy?
“Signorina!” echoed Persephone in her glorious contralto. She pointed at the other carriage. Why?
For a moment the two girls looked at each other. Then Persephone got down from the box.
“Victory at last!” said Mr. Eager, smiting his hands together as the carriages started again.
“It is not victory,” said Mr. Emerson. “It is defeat. You have parted two people who were happy.”
Eager shut his eyes. He was obliged to sit next to Mr. Emerson, but he would not speak to him. The old man was refreshed by sleep, and took up the matter warmly. He commanded Lucy to agree with him; he shouted for support to his son.
“We have tried to buy what cannot be bought with money. He has bargained to drive us, and he is doing it. We have no rights over his soul.”
Miss Lavish frowned. It is hard when a person you have classed as typically British speaks out of his character.
He was not driving us well,” she said. “He jolted us.”
“That I deny. It was as restful as sleeping. Aha! he is jolting us now. Can you wonder? He would like to throw us out, and most certainly he is justified. And if I were superstitious I’d be frightened of the girl, too. It doesn’t do to injure young people. Have you ever heard of Lorenzo de Medici?”
Miss Lavish bristled.
“Most certainly I have. Do you refer to Lorenzo il Magnifico, or to Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, or to Lorenzo surnamed Lorenzino on account of his diminutive stature?”
“The Lord knows. Possibly he does know, for I refer to Lorenzo the poet. He wrote a line—so I heard yesterday—which runs like this: ‘Don’t go fighting against the Spring.’”
Eager could not resist the opportunity for erudition.
“Non fate guerra al Maggio,” he murmured. “’War not with the May’ would render a correct meaning.”
“The point is, we have warred with it. Look.” He pointed to the Val d’Arno, which was visible far below them, through the budding trees. “Fifty miles of Spring, and we’ve come up to admire them. Do you suppose there’s any difference between Spring in nature and Spring in man? But there we go, praising the one and condemning the other as improper, ashamed that the same work eternally through both.”
No one encouraged him to talk. Presently Mr. Eager gave a signal for the carriages to stop and marshalled the party for their ramble on the hill. A hollow like a great amphitheatre, full of terraced steps and misty olives, now lay between them and the heights of Fiesole, and the road, still following its curve, was about to sweep on to a promontory which stood out in the plain. It was this promontory, uncultivated, wet, covered with bushes and occasional trees, which had caught the fancy of Alessio Baldovinetti nearly five hundred years before. He had ascended it, that diligent and rather obscure master, possibly with an eye to business, possibly for the joy of ascending. Standing there, he had seen that view of the Val d’Arno and distant Florence, which he afterwards had introduced not very effectively into his work. But where exactly had he stood? That was the question which Mr. Eager hoped to solve now. And Miss Lavish, whose nature was attracted by anything problematical, had become equally enthusiastic.
James Ivory – A Room with a view (1985)
Directed by James Ivory. With Maggie Smith as Charlotte Bartlett, Lucy Honeychurch as Helena Bonham Carter, Denholm Elliott as Mr. Emerson, Julian Sands George as Emerson, Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse, Simon Callow as Mr. Beebe, Judi Dench as Miss Lavish, Rosemary Leach as Mrs. Honeychurch, Rupert Graves as Freddy Honeychurch, Patrick Godfrey as Mr. Eager, Fabia Drake Catherine Alan, Joan Henley as Teresa Alan.
The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala ”Room With a View” is like a holiday out of time. It’s a journey into another dimension as it travels from the dangerously seductive settings of Florence, with its foul smells and Renaissance glories, to the more serene landscapes of England, where undeclared wars are fought over tea cups. Back home, Lucy compounds her ”muddle” by becoming engaged to the supposedly suitable Cecil Vyse, who is far more in love with himself and his own responses to ”Art” than he is with now increasingly restive Lucy.
”A Room With a View” is full of rich roles, splendidly acted by a cast made up of both newcomers and familiar performers like Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliott, who seem to keep getting better and better with time. Miss Smith plays Charlotte, Lucy’s high-minded but meddlesome cousin, the sort of woman whose worst foible is gossip and not, as she claims, ”the prompt settling of accounts.” Very much her match is Mr. Elliott, who plays George Emerson’s father, a retired Socialist newspaperman and the only character in the film who is capable of expressing his feelings directly.
The real star of the film, though, is the very beautiful Helena Bonham Carter, seen here recently in the title role of ”Lady Jane.” As Lucy Honeychurch, Miss Bonham Carter gives a remarkably complex performance of a young woman who is simultaneously reasonable and romantic, generous and selfish, and timid right up to the point where she takes a heedless plunge into the unknown.
Spectacular, too, is a new young actor named Daniel Day Lewis, who plays the insufferable Cecil Vyse with a style and a wit that are all the more remarkable when compared to his very different characterization in ”My Beautiful Laundrette” (review on page C8). Julian Sands, who played the English photographer in ”The Killing Fields,” is equally good as the utterly straightforward George Emerson.
Among the noteworthy supporting performers are Judi Dench as Miss Lavish, the ubiquitous ”female novelist” Lucy meets in Florence; Simon Callow as clergyman, Mr. Beebe, and Rosemary Leach as Lucy’s mother.
The film, photographed by Tony Pierce-Roberts, looks terrific, but maybe more important than anything else is the narrative tone. Mr. Ivory and Miss Jhabvala have somehow found a voice for the film not unlike that of Forster, who tells the story of ”A Room With a View” with as much genuine concern as astonished amusement. That’s quite an achievement.