Rooms and Views | Daily News

Rooms and Views

If Cinderella’s fairy godmother comes to me tonight, as I write this story while the world around me is in deep sleep, if she waves her wand and tells me to ask for anything I want, I wouldn’t waste time thinking twice. Apart from the usual noble wishes of healing the sick and bringing peace to the world, I would ask her to take me to Italy – E.M Foster’s Italy as described so well in his third novel ‘A Room With a View.’

I will check into a pensione similar to the ‘Pensione Bertolini’ if they still exist in Florence and delete all the information I had gathered on my phone about this city of art, the way Foster suggests we should do in the second chapter. Throw away your guidebook. (Chapter II of “A Room With a View” is called “In Santa Croce With No Baedeker,”). Then, like the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, I will open the window of my room and gaze out across the Arno at the marble churches on the hill opposite, and watch with dreamy curiosity as the world trips by.

This will be the moment I would recall Foster’s usual mild irony: “Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveler who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.” I would know, of course, that he is not asking me to ignore Giotto or the magnificence of the city’s turbulent history, but that he is telling me gently, like how he tells Lucy, that the hours spent soaking up the dazzling Florentine sunshine with no cultural agenda may be valuable after all.

It would be exhilarating to know, when Forster himself first came to Florence in October of 1901, he had stayed as Lucy did (and as I am doing right now, in my imagination) in a pensione on the Lungarno delle Grazie, with a view over the Arno to the Bascilica di San Miniato al Monte and the dark hills beyond. He was on a grand tour, traveling with his mother, and was a dutiful sightseer. He wrote to a friend back home, “the orthodox Baedeker-bestarred Italy — which is all I have yet seen — delights me so much that I can well afford to leave Italian Italy for another time.” He was back the following year, at the same pensione, and by the time he’d finished “A Room With a View,” he’d struck a happy balance.

Lucy wasn’t so lucky. She wanders one evening, unaccompanied, into the Piazza Signoria, where the replica of Michelangelo’s giant David attracts a sizable contingent of art lovers and encounters the horrors of ‘Italian Italy’.

“ ‘Nothing ever happens to me,’ she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality — the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.”

And then something does happen to her: two Italians quarrel, one stabs the other in the chest, and Lucy, who sees the blood come trickling out of the fatally wounded man’s mouth, faints — as luck would have it, into the arms of the young man who is also staying at the pensione, George Emerson.

The first time Lucy, who is travelling in Italy chaperoned by her spinster cousin, Miss Bartlett sets eyes on George is at the dining table in the pensione when they complain about the rooms they have been given. The inn’s owner, the Signora Bertolini (an Englishwoman from London’s east side despite her name) has put them in rooms overlooking the courtyard instead of giving the two women the rooms with a view to the Arno River which they had been promised. George’s father, Mr. Emerson, seated dining at the same table, suggests that Lucy and Charlotte trade rooms with him and his son. But rather than accepting as Lucy wants her to do, Miss Bartlett is offended by the old man’s familiar manner (she immediately concludes that he is ill-bred because he ventures to speak to her without observing her for a day or two first).

Eventually, however, she does accept the exchange of rooms. Later on, George suddenly kisses Lucy in a field of violets in the hills above the city. The moment this happens you know you are going to hear wedding bells at the end, no matter how many twists the crafty author engineers.

One such twist is that a few months later, in England, Lucy announces her engagement to Cecil Vyse. As critic Roger Ebert observes, “Cecil is the sort of man who would never play tennis, who wears a pince-nez, who oils his hair and who thinks that girls are nice because they like to listen to him read aloud. Cecil does not have many clues as to what else girls might be nice for.”

It goes without saying, if I am ever in Florence, I would not want to be in Lucy’s shoes. I’d rather step into George Emerson’s, though they might be miles too big for me. George embodies freedom. George is the source of passion in a society that is otherwise tightly bound up in convention, timidity and dryness. He is the man to break the chains, to say what he thinks, to show Lucy a view worth seeing.

This view that Foster shows through the character of George is based on his belief that we all need room to express our personal truths, be open and free, especially when it comes to love. He shows the importance of self-knowledge over self-denial, of clear communication over muddled thinking, of the love and light that we can only express if we are true to ourselves.

The story is short, sunny and delightfully intriguing. Written in 1802 and hailed as Foster’s most cheerful and optimistic novel, if you find ‘A Room with a View’ is a love story that begins and ends in Florence, with complications in England sandwiched in between that moves as slowly as the Arno, do keep in mind, it does so, for the same reason we try to make ice cream last: because it’s so good.


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