A young woman travels to Italy and her world is upended in this classic novel of confronting new people, ideas and places. Lucy Honeychurch arrives at the Pension Bertolini in Florence under the care of her chaperon Miss Bartlett. Horrifyingly, their room does not have a view. There must be a view! Never fear, Mr Emerson and his son George – “outsiders”, “socialists”, the other guests mutter – offer to swap with them. Coincidence, Fate; from this serendipitous gesture Lucy finds herself irrevocably entangled with George, as she awakens to something primal and true about herself, human nature and relationships. Even so, for much of the novel she denies these revelations; she spends much of it in a “muddle”, and as Mr Emerson says, “There’s nothing worse than a muddle in all the world”.
You couldn’t describe it as radical. The Italians are basically noble savages, simple but free. The novel ends with two men insisting that Lucy marry, despite Lucy’s various protestations that a young woman must be allowed to make her own decisions. For a novel that grapples with men’s role in the subjugation of women, it still seems to turn on the premise that women are airheads and men are profound. While he doesn’t exactly sneer at the suffragettes on the streets of London with their “short skirts and latchkeys”, Forster’s vision for humanity clearly lies beyond such political trifles, in the Romantic ideals of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love.
Yet there is something really moving about Lucy’s struggle to be honest with herself that feels true to being young and uncertain about one’s place in the world. Forster’s observations of travel, the tourists with “their anxiety to get ‘done’ or ‘through’ and go on somewhere else” and mass-produced travel guides, couldn’t be lifted from any alt-travel blog, rehashing the endless and fruitless attempt to sort the inauthentic from the real. He is wonderfully flamboyant in the telling, alternately earnest, ironic, bitchy and melodramatic. Regularly he turns to reader to issue a stage direction. If you’ve ever seen the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala adaptation, the scene in which three men frolic in a pool in the woods is queerer still in prose. If you’re picking up homoerotic vibes, it’s because they’re there.
Lucy, George and Mr Emerson are meant to be sympathetic because they are still struggling for freedom. They have not given in to the “darkness” of manners and lying to oneself, personified by the older Miss Bartlett, who is perhaps the most compelling character. Miss Bartlett is uptight, annoying, inconsistent, says one thing and means another, but she is also deeply tragic because “she gave up trying to understand herself” and her desires. Whence was this freedom lost? Mr Emerson explains that utopia is “The garden of Eden … which you place in the past, is really yet to come. We shall enter it when we no longer despise our bodies.” Throughout the novel Nature exists as the ideal we might return to, whether it be glorious spring meadows or wind-whipped autumn forests, symbolised ultimately by the view of the title and those who seek it.
Gay rating: 2/5 for several coded queer characters and general air of queerness.