by EM Forster236 pages, Penguin
Review by Pat Black
Not so very long ago, I was leaping up and down like a maniac at a wedding. It was a good wedding – everyone was thunderously drunk and having a wonderful time. One key test when we evaluate weddings: were people dancing? If loads of people were dancing then it was a good wedding. This is immutable.
Anyway, I was wearing a kilt – I’m Scottish, and also a bit of a tart – although the do was taking place in the lion’s den itself… well, in south-west London, at any rate. It’s quite common to wear the kilt up north at social functions, and I’d long been threatening to do it since migrating south. There’s a woad-splattered Celt in me who takes a perverse pleasure in being asked about the kilt, or more accurately, being challenged on it.
And so it happened that during the wedding party, New Order’s “World In Motion” was played. I was already up and running on the dancefloor, and myself and another lad wearing a kilt decided to play along, for a laugh.
The significance of this to the civilised planet: “World In Motion” was England’s official song for the 1990 football World Cup campaign, a reminder of that horrible few weeks when They Nearly Won It. The song is a memorable rose poking out through the landfill site that represents most other football-related musical releases, I would grudgingly admit, madcap genius from an inspired time in British culture. It was at number one for weeks, even before England threatened to win the tournament, losing to the Germans as usual in the semi-finals. The English get rather misty-eyed about this song – a reminder of a better time.
The chorus features New Order, one or two gurning celebrities of the time, and the England squad, chanting: “En-ger-land!”
For any Scotsman, the idea of England winning the World Cup, or even winning a corner at the World Cup, is death. So of course, my fellow Caledonian dancefloor partner and I chanted nothing of the sort, substituting “En-ger-land!” for “Scot-er-land!”
Well, you know, I say “death”… not really. It doesn’t matter. We weren’t serious about it. We were hardly going to stomp off the dancefloor in a huff, swearing blood oaths or anything. It was a giggle.
So after the music stops, this fellow taps me on the shoulder. He sneered: “But… you’re wearing a kilt! And you’re singing ‘World In Motion’.”
“Yes,” I said, “it’s a joke.”
“You’re singing ‘En-ger-land’! I heard you! Ha ha ha ha!”
“No, I wasn’t. I was singing ‘Scot-er-land’. And, it’s a joke.”
He shook his head. “En-ger-land! Ha ha! And you’ve got a kilt on! You do realise what this song is about?”
“It was a joke, mate.”
In some parts of the world, another key test of a good wedding is whether or not there was a fight, but we shall skip over that.
Finally, I spit out my point: acting out of place is still a very frown-worthy endeavour for many people in England. That could refer to a sight such as a Scotsman doing the highland fling to New Order; or it could be something a bit more subtle, and much more sinister. A sense of place is not an exclusively English phenomenon, of course, but you do still encounter it here and there. Writers of the late Victorian and Edwardian period captured this beautifully.
I once heard about someone who retired to the south of France (without bothering to learn the language), complaining about the influx of refugees and asylum-seekers into that country. EM Forster understood this attitude acutely – that proper behaviour travels only in the cool English blood, with savagery and base passions diverted to alien veins. The notion is illustrated, and subverted, in the best way in A Room With A View.
It’s a two-parter from the Edwardian era, when the British Isles still had plenty of clout in world affairs, and modern warfare and Bolsheviks were still to crush notions of class, place and society. The nation was also slowly shedding the mantle of Victorian repression, too. European sensibilities (even I’m buying into that sense of one’s place… what the hell does that even mean?!) were starting to cross the Channel to England’s green and pleasant land. Conservativism and buttoned-down social barriers were being challenged by new attitudes.
Forster’s heroine is rosy-cheeked ingenue Lucy Honeychurch, taking a tour of Florence with her horror of a cousin, Charlotte Bartlett. The older Charlotte is a waspish prig who acts as chaperone to young Lucy, and along the way they meet several comical characters including Miss Lynch the hopeless novelist and the father-and-son act of Mr Emerson and his boy George, the latter pair sharing the Italian pension they are staying in.
“They’re socialists,” Charlotte hisses.
In many ways the book’s key scene comes right at the start, when Charlotte complains the girls didn’t get a room with a view. The Emersons gallantly offer to swap their rooms with the two ladies.
There is an embarrassed silence.
Finally, once an awkward sense of protocol and one’s place is followed to the letter, Charlotte finally agrees to the swap deal and the journey continues. Along the way, Lucy and George witness a fatal stabbing in a town square, close enough to bloodstain the picture postcards the girl has bought. Swollen with a sense of occasion and of violent passions building up in even the most chaste breast, Lucy and George share an intimate moment during a flash of lightning.
And intimate moments, particularly with people like the Emersons, will not do. Especially when they are also witnessed by a breathless and conspicuously scandalised Charlotte.
A hasty retreat is beaten, to Rome, where the Vyses have a place that would take in Lucy and Charlotte at a pinch. From there, the story moves to England, where we meet Lucy’s family a number of months later. It turns out that Lucy has agreed to marry Cecil Vyse, a nice enough chap, but one who “would never wear another fellow’s cap”, as Lucy’s brother Freddy puts it.
But fate – and maybe mischief, on the part of the faux-innocent Charlotte, who of course swears she never told a soul about what happened on the violet-strewn Italian hills – intervenes to place the Emersons once more into Lucy’s path. From there, she is forced to confront a rather un-English idea indeed – following one’s heart, in defiance of all social conventions.
It’s a brilliant novel, with great comic moments. There’s one particular scene where George Emerson, Lucy’s young brother Freddy and the Reverend Beebe, the vicar, decide on a whim to go skinny dipping in a pond. This being an English comedy, and this being an English vicar, the trio are of course discovered in their plashy endeavours by a passing troupe of flustered parishioners, including Lucy and Cecil.
As it’s a comedy, the story has certain lines that it must travel along. But it has a very dark heart. The elder Mr Emerson’s impassioned plea to Lucy near the end of the novel puts a dagger to the throat of convention, spits in the eye of a sense of entitlement, and punches the idea of turning away from our deepest desires in order to do the decent thing - right in the balls.
Forster could well have written a different ending to this novel, one which might have had more in keeping with Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and certainly one which would have been in keeping with the occasionally dark tones he strikes. We know only too well how this story would have ended, and which suit Lucy would have accepted, in the real world. But A Room With A View stands as an irreverent masterpiece, and showcases the British class system in the best light possible – by not taking itself in any way seriously.