Give me a well-written book with a collection of quirky characters and I’m happy. For example, Room With a View introduces a bunch of British tourists interacting with another bunch of English expatriates in Italy during the Victorian era. A humorous examination of colonial thinking gone culturally amuck, it is a rewarding read, after a slow start. I gave it some grace and eventually E.M. Forster’s story paid some dividends.
Lucy Honeychurch, our cheerful but stifled protagonist, is in Florence, Italy, with her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, who is hauling a trunk load of morose self-interest and hypochondria. They are getting to know fellow travelers – such as Miss Lavish, Mr. Beebe, and the Emersons – and transplanted Brits – such as the supercilious Mr. Eager. All liberally share their wisdom with Lucy, but their flawed thinking is painful and hilarious. “How the driver stares at us, dear simple soul,” cries Miss Lavish of an Italian horse cart driver. Mr. Beebe pontificates that “The Italians are a most unpleasant people…They have no conception of the intellectual life.” At the same time, in a show of stunning insensitivity, Mr. Eager and Miss Lavish both heap disdain on “hot, dusty, unintelligent tourists,” saying the “narrowness and superficiality of the Anglo-Saxon tourist is nothing less than a menace.”
Ahem. Can anyone say pretentious class snobbery?
The lovely part of the book is Lucy’s gradual awakening. She starts off parroting her peers’ cultural posturing and then gradually finds her own perspective and voice, thanks in part to being away from home and able to loosen the suffocating grip of Victorian English expectations for young women. Much of this stirring is thanks to the Emersons, whom she initially assumes are “very odd people.” Yet they acquire more dimension and humanity even as her other companions diminish to cardboard cutouts.
Lucy did not know her mind and heart were asleep until she ventured out into a different world, where her habits and patterns were disrupted. She went to Italy the first time as a tourist. She goes a second time as a traveler. Someone fully alive, no longer in conflict with her inner self.
Will Lucy throw over her dashing fiancé Cecil for a life unscripted? You’ll have to read the book. I hear there is a good movie version from the 1980s with Helena Bonham Carter. It’s on my list.
Learn about Craigdarroch Castle.
Learn about heritage homes in Victoria, B.C.