The beginning of the 20th century marked a key turning point in English history: the Victorian traditions and values of before were now being contended by the increasingly progressive thinking of the Edwardian Era. Yet, the wealthy classes of England still controlled what was perceived as normal in society, including proper gender and class constructs. E.M Forster, who was keenly aware of these issues, illustrates the struggle of going against the norm through the character of Lucy Honeychurch in his A Room with a View. Much of his motivation for writing this novel came from his vacation to Florence with his mom, in which he distinctly remembers his mom asking for a view over the river Arno at the hotel where they stayed (Penguin). When Lucy visits Florence and stays at a similar hotel, which Forster calls the “Pension Bertolini,” she too finds herself desiring a room with a view. Many of the English vacationers she meets at the hotel force on her their socially confining beliefs. But on the other hand, the beautiful, picturesque sights of Florence as well as the unique encounters she has there force her to question the values of the society that she is so accustomed to. While the Pension Bertolini embodies the social standards of England that Lucy finds so restricting, it at the same time inspires her to defy these conventions.
The Bertolini acted as a bubble of English society in the heart of Florence. The lodge was owned by a Cockney women as Lucy admits disappointedly to her cousin Charlotte in the first lines of the book. Because of this, any attempts to include aspects of Italian culture in the hotel proved futile. Lucy makes this clear as she watches the signora bow greetings to the guests in the evening, commenting, “It made a curious little scene, this attempt of the Cockney to convey the grace and geniality of the South” (Forster, 7). The hotel was also decorated in a traditionally English fashion. Lucy compares its drawing-room to a Bloomsbury boarding-house because of the clear emphasis it made on comfort. An authentic Italian hotel’s drawing room of the time would in reality consist of much different furniture than that in a Bloomsbury boarding house of the time—the “tightly stuffed armchair” that Charlotte sits in would never appear in a legitimate Florentine pension (Zwack). Artwork, such as portraits of Queen Victoria and the famous Victorian poet, Lord Alfred Tennyson, two prominent figures in Victorian English history, further support this notion of the Bertolini as a purely English hotel (Forester, 34). All of this is enough to make Lucy wonder, “Was this really Italy?” (Forster, 7) The Bertolini clearly strives to make English tourists feel as comfortable as they would be in the confines of their own society.
In this fully English-occupied space, Lucy witnesses the limitations of society that she is beginning to realize take away heavily from her sense of freedom and independence. Immediately, from the moment she arrives, the other members of the Bertolini accept her as one of their own. As Forster writes, “The Pension Bertolini had decided, almost enthusiastically, that [she and Charlotte] would do,” simply because of their social status as upper class Englanders (Forster, 6). In contrast, the Bertolini’s treatment of the poorer Emersons shows the upper class’s unwillingness to include people of lower social standings in their circles. When Mr. Emerson interjects into Lucy and Charlotte’s conversation at dinner about their dissatisfaction with their room, Charlotte views him as suspicious. Even though he was being genuinely kind (and offering a solution to their problem), his intrusion into their conversation was an act of extreme impoliteness in her eyes, and she knew that he “was ill-bred, even before she glanced at him” (Forster, 4). Not until the trustworthy Mr. Beebe vouches for the Emersons does Charlotte accept his offer to switch rooms. Later, as Lucy is playing the piano one afternoon in the drawing room, she hears Miss Catherine Alan, an old rich lady, harshly describe her feelings about the Emersons. Even though the Emersons have only been kind and generous up to this point, Miss Catherine still asserts that she does “not like the Emersons. They are not nice… They don’t understand our ways. They must find their level” (Forster, 35). This is representative of how English high society viewed people who were “below” them. If people did not conform to their ways of thinking and behaving, members of the wealthy class viewed them as less important. Because of this, Lucy feels somewhat inclined to fit in and follow these unwritten rules, which prohibits her from truly acting as herself.
The part of Lucy that wants to break these rules and live her own life, though, still resides undeniably inside her. The Bertolini exposes her to a high concentration of these oppressors of society, which only fuels her increasingly harsh disposition towards high society. When she switches rooms with George and finally has a view of her own, the beautiful hills, river and other aspects of the landscape draw her to an alternative life, in which she would not be confined to the walls of her room in the Bertolini, nor the barriers that exist within English society. The Italian scenery was “unfamiliar” to Lucy, which she found both pleasant and curious (Forster, 14).
The freedom Lucy feels from looking out her window, and exploring Florence and its countryside, sparks her growing curiosity in living independently from English social norms. After watching the stabbing in the Piazza Signoria, Lucy, although deeply disturbed by the scene, wishes for more action in her life. She expresses her boredom to George, “How quickly these accidents do happen, and then one returns to the old life,” as she longs to escape the strict boundaries imposed on her in England (Forster, 42).
Later, after George kisses her on the terrace, Lucy feels confused. She understands that Charlotte and most other upper class members disapprove of George because of where he stands socially in comparison to her. Yet, Lucy does not view this as a severe hindrance to a relationship. As she and Charlotte argue over what to do about the situation, Lucy exclaims, “I want to be truthful… it is so hard to be absolutely truthful,” referring to the pressure she feels to conform to what society wants her to say (Forster, 67). This echoes her earlier quote, “I don’t know what I think, nor what I want,” and further emphasizes Forster’s claim about the social conformity that existed in England (Forster, 52). The Italian world outside the Bertolini provides Lucy with the opportunity to experience what she otherwise would not in England.
Flashing forward to the closing scene of the novel, after she has married George and left Cecil, she and George make their way back to the room with a view in the Pension Bertolini. At this point, Lucy finally realizes that acting on her on own accord gave her more freedom even if it meant losing the support of other people. By marrying the lower-class George, Lucy gains her independence from the social constraints she has faced her entire life. When she and George reach the Bertolini again, the novel has come full circle. Although Lucy still feels some societal pressure, she has grown enormously since the last time she visited. And although she still feels the restricting nature of the hotel itself, she is now well aware of the opportunities that exist just beyond it, which she witnesses with her view.
Forster, E.M. A Room with a View. New York, Penguin Books, 2018.
Zwack, Anne Marshall. “In Florence, Rooms with a View.” New York Times, 30 June 1985. https://www.nytimes.com/1985/06/30/travel/in-florence-rooms-with-a-view.html
“A Room with a View Reader’s Guide.” Penguin Random House, accessed 24 April 2019. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/296528/a-room-with-a-view-by-e-m-forster-introduction-by-wendy-moffat-notes-by-malcolm-bradbury/9780141183299/readers-guide/
Sullivan, Zohreh T. “Forster’s Symbolism: ‘A Room with a View’, Fourth Chapter.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 6, no. 3, 1976, pp. 217–223. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30225594.
Roszak, Suzanne. “Social Non-Conformists in Forster’s Italy: Otherness and the Enlightened English Tourist.” Ariel 45.1-2 (2014): 167-94. ProQuest. Web. 26 April 2019.