Lucy Honeychurch is visiting Italy with her old fashioned, Victorian cousin Charlotte Bartlett as a chaperone. Lucy is all friendliness and wonder while her cousin is repressed and terribly disapproving of breaking with old traditions. They arrive at the Pensione Bertolini to find that their rooms do not have the promised view. This becomes a topic of conversation amongst the English visitors, two of whom, Mr. Emerson and his son George, offer to exchange their rooms, which do have a view, with the rooms of the women so that Lucy and Miss Bartlett can have their rooms with a view. Miss Bartlett refuses the offer at once on the grounds that an acceptance would put them under obligation to two unknown gentlemen, which would be improper. However, Mr. Beebe persuades them that the offer was only meant as a kindness and that they should really accept it. Miss Bartlett acquiesces and they exchange rooms. Much of the rest of their trip then revolves around the possible, or possibly imagined, debt they owe for having exchanged rooms with the Emersons, especially as the two men show themselves to be devoid of conventional manners.
The second part of the novel continues at a later date back in England when all the characters happen to find themselves living near one another, which forces another breakout of minute speculation and analysis of everyone’s behaviour and how it might, or might not, affect others. Much of the novel focuses on the shift from Victorian conservatism to the new liberated age and rebellion against conventional repression. The old guard, such as Miss Bartlett and Mr. Beebe represent the last of the Victorians while Lucy and George belong to the new age where strict form no longer applies. Forster is really criticizing the extreme repression of the Victorian age and advocating that society leaves it behind to focus on a new and more liberated lifestyle which fosters happiness for oneself in lieu of a perpetual sense of duty to others.
In a sense, this falls into the category of Bildungsroman because Lucy begins as a naïve girl trusting in her elders for guidance but develops into a mature young woman who can think for herself. It’s about her journey into the world of adults who are no longer subject to the same repression the previous generations were subjected to. Making this journey becomes her salvation because without it, she would have almost certainly lived a miserable life, but having made it has at least a chance at happiness.
Personally, I like the idea of the book better than the book itself. Forster had the same effect on me with Howard’s End; the idea was brilliant, the execution somehow lacking in vibrancy. He somehow seems to have gotten stuck between the flowing style of Virginia Woolf and Daphne du Maurier and the more conventional writing styles of the earlier ages and being neither here nor there, it just lacks something that makes the stories come alive. Part of the problem might lay with the lack of explanation into why certain things should be considered offensive, such as trading rooms or speaking to fellow travellers one doesn’t know prior to the trip. This would have been clear to those living at the time, but as the old ways have been almost entirely forgotten outside of literature or history studies, so for me it was sometimes quite hard to follow why such a big deal was being made of such little things. I will say that his work makes for brilliant films though. It’s much easier to follow and imagine all of the characters and their foibles when being portrayed by talented actors.
I’m going to rate this one a 3 out of 5. Good, but not overwhelmingly so.