The title of E M Forster’s third novel, A Room with a View (1908) refers to the booking that his characters, Lucy Honeychurch and Charlotte Bartlett, believed they had made at the Pensione Bertolini, Florence. Forster uses this apparently banal situation to explore the rigidly class-based nature of Edwardian English society: the room’s occupants – Mr Emerson and his son George, who are of lower social standing – politely give it up on the more genteel ladies’ behalf. The situation is dramatically complicated when Lucy witnesses a stabbing and is embraced by George. In response, her cousin and chaperone Miss Bartlett, takes her back to Surrey where Lucy accepts a proposal of marriage from Cecil Vyse. But when the Emersons move to a nearby cottage, Lucy realises that she is in fact in love with George, and the novel ends with Lucy and George’s honeymoon back in the Pensione Bertolini.
Despite the somewhat conventional plot, Forster’s writing sits at the intersection between Edwardian realism and modernist experimentalism. Forster was not an avant garde writer in the sense of his modernist contemporaries, but the technical nature of his work demonstrates a more complex interweaving of the traditional and the modern than we might at first recognise. As the critic Santanu Das notes: ‘[Forster’s] complexity lies not in radical experimentation but in something almost more fundamental, more psychological, more transcendental: like Lucy Honeychurch, we are made to “cross” some boundary. There is always something that eludes, unsettles, lingers’. This is what makes Forster’s text, in many ways, so compelling.
Forster’s quiet undermining of Edwardian conventions is coupled with the realisation that the age in which he was writing was on the cusp of enormous social change. In the novel, modernity – that rupture brought about through the clash between the old and the new – is found in the tension between the affirmation of a pastoral England and a deep awareness of its fragility, depicted by Forster in his neat narrative framing of a comedy of manners. Looking back over the catastrophic opening to the twentieth century, Forster wrote in 1939: ‘The pillars of the twenty-thousand-year-old house are crumbling, the human experiment totters, other forms of life watch’. Back in 1908, as the old order is beginning to be dismantled, Forster recognises the beginning of a more ill-defined and fluid social structure.
Forster gathered the inspiration for the novel on a trip that he made with his own mother after graduating from King’s College, Cambridge in 1901; the hotel they stayed at was called the Pensione Simi, and Forster began writing the work in Rome and completed it in England. It seems that his character Lucy, like Forster, escapes the boredom of her surroundings by losing herself in playing the piano. Though Forster forbade adaptations in his lifetime, A Room with a View was made into an award-winning film by the Merchant Ivory company in 1985.