At the beginning of E.M. Forster’s book A Room with a View, the inn’s guest Mr. Emerson states: “I have a view, I have a view. . . . This is my son . . . his name’s George. He has a view, too.” On the most basic level, this statement is just as it appears: Mr. Emerson is talking about what he sees outside of his window. However, the comment also suggests one of the major themes of this book, as well as another early 20th-century novel, Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf: That is, the view one social class has of another. These books by Forster and Woolf described the times in socio-economic terms as well as how the characters related to them.
Forster’s novel A Room with a View details the happenstance of the young middle-class Englishwoman Lucy Honeychurch in the early 1900s on a visit to Florence, Italy, as she tries to resolve the inconsistencies between what she has been taught about her social status and what she personally would like from life. In a light, yet poignant manner, Forster clearly depicts the conflicting social standards in Europe at this time. In fact, in her essay “Death of a Moth,” Woolf, herself, praised Forster’s portrayal of social rights:
The social historian will find his books full of illuminating information. . ..
Old maids blow into their gloves when they take them off. Mr. Forster is a novelist . . . who sees his people in close contact with their surroundings … But we discover as we turn the page that observation is not an end in itself; it is rather the goad, the gadfly driving Mr. Forster to provide a refuge from this misery, an escape from this meanness. Hence we arrive at that balance of forces which plays so large a part in the structure of Mr. Forster’s novels.
In the first chapters of the A Room with a View, Lucy is traveling with a very protective older cousin and chaperon, Charlotte Bartlett. From the very beginning of the book, the reader learns how women of Lucy and Charlotte’s status quickly stereotype unconventional behavior of other individuals such as the so-called “ill-bred” Mr. Emerson who interrupts a conversation.
The ladies’ voices grew animated, and — if the sad truth be owned — a little peevish. They were tired, and under the guise of unselfishness they wrangled. Some of their neighbours interchanged glances, and one of them — one of the ill-bred people whom one does meet abroad — leant forward over the table and actually intruded into their argument.
The situation only became worse in Charlotte’s eyes as this man adamantly suggests that Lucy take his “room with the view.”
Miss Bartlett, though skilled in the delicacies of conversation, was powerless in the presence of brutality. It was impossible to snub any one so gross. Her face reddened with displeasure. She looked around as much as to say, ‘Are you all like this?’ And two little old ladies, who were sitting further up the table, with shawls hanging over the backs of the chairs, looked back, clearly indicating ‘We are not; we are genteel.’
However, Lucy at her younger age has not yet reached the level of not accepting other people’s behavior as does her cousin. Instead, she is torn between the expectation to ignore Mr. Emerson and his son and her desire to include them in the conversation. It is difficult for her to understand why Charlotte is so upset. Actually, as the rector Mr. Beebe acknowledges, Mr. Emerson’s only faux pas is that he speaks the truth. “It is so difficult — at least, I find it difficult — to understand people who speak the truth,” Mr. Beebe notes.
It is this honest and open view of life, as characterized by Mr. Emerson, which finally makes Lucy break out of her own room of social confinement and realize that life has so much more to offer. For Lucy, Mr. Emerson becomes the “kind old man who enabled her to see the lights dancing in the Arno” (13). He helps to resolve her internal conflict, teaching that love cannot be forgotten: “You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.” (25).
It is not only Forster’s belief in the equality of classes that is depicted in Room with a View. Through the Emersons, he also portrays his belief (unaccepted by most at the time) of sexual equality as well. Mr. Emerson and George strongly argue for men and women to be recognized on equal footing. One of the reasons why Lucy does not follow her heart sooner is that she is afraid to refute the expectations not only of her social status but also of sexual inequality. When returning from her trip, she first believes that she does not have the right to argue with her mother about the upcoming marriage to Cecil, although he sees her as an object “work of art” rather than a living, passionate individual and his equal partner.
By the end of the book, however, Lucy has clearly resolved her emotional turmoil. Italy and its lack of constraints has shown her the way to find inner peace: self-truth:
But in Italy, where anyone who chooses may warm himself in equality, as in the sun, this conception of life vanished. Her senses expanded; she felt that there was no one whom she might not get to like, that social barriers were irremovable, doubtless, but not particularly high. You jump over them just as you jump into a peasant’s olive-yard in the Apennines, and he is glad to see you. She returned with new eyes. . . . For Italy was offering her the most priceless of all possessions — her own soul.(93)
One of the themes of Room with a View, which also will be seen to a degree in Jacob’s Room, is that travel was an integral part of life for the upper-middle and upper classes during this time in Europe. For younger people, such as Lucy, it was a means for learning more about life at the same time as being protected by a travel companion. However, whereas most women at that time came back somewhat more dignified and astute about other cultures, Lucy returns transformed as another person. When seeing beyond her previous “room” of four walls, that is, leaving her childhood home, she is opening the doors to new worlds that she finds much more alluring and pleasing than the one she has left.
Lucy realizes that she wants to leave behind the boring and stagnant life that is planned for her and welcome in a new view of life that is much more fulfilling as a woman and an individual. A room without windows as she has known it, is isolating and lonely. It is a duplicitous world view that shapes, and spiritually starves her (26), because she longs to “give and receive some human love,” to experience “love felt and returned” (97, 181). Instead, a room with a view of an unlimited and exciting future has so much more to offer. She knows that George can provide this, and she loves him all the more because of it.
Lucy knows that she must follow her heart and personal desires and marry George rather than be constrained by the social conventions of the time. Only by being true to herself and meeting her own expectations, not those set by others, can she gain personal contentment and pride.
Whereas A Room with a View is primarily written in a lighthearted fashion, Jacob’s Room approaches the theme of social differences in a more serious fashion. The first two chapters of the book establish the mood and introduce the characters, as Betty Flanders, a widow, takes a holiday in Cornwall with her sons Jacob, Archer and John. The novel then quickly moves ahead to Jacob’s stay at Cambridge, a college community for the socially privileged. .
It is here where the reader clearly sees how social status is used as a vehicle for a person’s future place or “room” in society. Jacob’s mother has done all she can to make sure he will continue the Flanders’ tradition — ironically, she does not realize how much he will follow his father’s past. As Jacob watches the Plumbers, Woolf uses the symbol of the ladder to show his dislike for meaningless social gatherings and the rungs that must be climbed in society.
It was none of her fault — since how could she control her father begetting her forty years ago in the suburbs of Manchester? And once begotten, how could she do other than grow up cheese — paring, ambitious, with an instinctively accurate notion of the rungs of the ladder and an ant — like assiduity in pushing George Plumer ahead of her to the top of…