Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

"The truth is simple," a member of my defunct book club once said concerning the theme of this novel. A Room with a View is considered only social comedy, but that member was right – its theme is the rather serious one of how simple the truth can be in our lives. Young Lucy Honeychurch meets two men during her travels in Italy, where she gads about chaperoned, or not, by a poisonous but hilarious spinster aunt. One man she loves, and the other "makes her nervous." It only remains to be seen – for her to see – which is which.

One of the great things about this novel is that all of its characters are decent people, who nevertheless come into conflict for reasons of their own. So much of contemporary fiction seems to be about dreadful suffering brought on by characters who are absolutely vicious. "Trauma memoirs" they are sometimes called. A Room With a View is different in that its characters simply meet, and talk and think together, and end up with wildly different conclusions about the truth and how to find it. Lucy’s mother and brother have qualms about her future husband, but stay quiet for the sake of Lucy’s happiness. A pair of elderly neighbors, and a "lady novelist, and a freethinking father and son," also all have opinions about, and plans for, our heroine’s future. Two English vicars have their own ideas about which lovers belong together, and about what constitutes a life pleasing to God.

If there is one character who is tragic amid all the bowing and gossiping and how-do-you-dos, it is Miss Bartlett, the poisonous aunt. We don’t learn much about her, except that some romantic failure blighted her youth. She is described as one of the "armies of the night," not as a wicked person but as one who at some point denied the truth, or a truth, about herself. It didn’t cause great suffering – "I don’t believe in this world sorrow," says the sage Mr. Emerson – but it made her unhappy and unkind. It left her "in a muddle," and as Mr. Emerson goes on to advise Lucy, "there’s nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror."

Of course there is a happy ending. Darkness rises, and, back in sunny Italy again, "the snows of the winter are borne down into the Mediterranean." The truth is simple. Avoid muddle. This hundred-year-old novel is so full of wisdom as it entertains that I wonder whether E.M Forster just happened to be gifted, or whether it was a wiser, calmer era which could both desire and produce this gentle classic.

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