In a journal entry from July, 1910, E. M. Forster wrote, “However gross my desires, I find that I shall never satisfy them for the fear of annoying others. I am glad to come across this much good in me. It serves instead of purity.” Although Forster wrote this passage some two years after he published A Room with a View, it could have been written at almost anytime during his long life. However much he understood the “holiness of direct desire,” the emotional purity one achieves by following the heart rather than social orthodoxy, he spent his youth and young adulthood, as Lucy Honeychurch nearly did, repressing his sexual desires to adhere to the expectations of society. Forster was only twenty-nine years old when he published A Room with a View in 1908. He had already published two books, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and The Longest Journey (1907). He was a respected writer, but not yet a famous one, and the themes touched on in his earlier novels—passion and convention, truth and pretense—were now given complexity and eloquence, with the maturity of a more experienced voice, in his third novel.
The first seeds for an Italian novel were planted during an extended trip to Florence that Forster and his mother took in 1901. This journey not only unleashed Forster’s creativity, but also provided a source of spiritual release from the rigid moral codes of English society. His depression over his own self-deception and his increasing mistrust of English middle-class society are mirrored in the conflicted relationship between the cautious, thoroughly English Honeychurches and the impulsive, free-spirited, socialist Emersons. Forster was tormented, like Lucy, with the possibility of becoming one of “the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words.” While Lucy embodied Forster’s internal strife, Mr. Emerson was created in the image of a man Forster admired, Edward Carpenter, a social pioneer who believed in equality for women and open expression of homosexual love. First through his published works, and later as a friend, Carpenter was to Forster a beacon of spiritual and sexual liberation who guided him toward a deeper understanding of himself.
For Lucy, Mr. Emerson is the “kind old man who enabled her to see the lights dancing in the Arno,” who encourages her to follow her heart’s and her body’s desire, explaining that “love is of the body; not the body, but of the body.” This advice she must heed, as Forster makes sure, in breaking from the fettered world of Windy Corner and choosing truth over deceit. The happy resolution of A Room with a View did not come easily to Forster. He started work in earnest on the first draft of his novel in 1902, setting the story entirely in Italy. Forster began the final version in 1904, but put it aside to complete Where Angels Fear to Tread and The Longest Journey. Forster would not pick up A Room with a View again until 1907, when he commented to a friend, “It’s bright and merry and I like the story. Yet I wouldn’t and couldn’t finish it in the same style.” Completing the work would require another full year. The “bright and merry” surface of the novel owes much to the social comedies of Jane Austen and Henry James. Like the heroines of Mansfield Park and Daisy Miller, Lucy begins the novel as a naif on the threshold of adulthood in a strange new world. Forster captures the pretense and manners of her social world with uncanny acuity.
As Virginia Woolf wrote, “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.” Like his forebears, he described the world around him with remarkable precision and insight. Forster readily acknowledged his debt to the 19th-century domestic comedy, but said that he “tried to hitch it on to other things”—to the deeper themes of his work, such as the struggle for individuality and the barriers of social class. Forster’s plots and landscapes carry greater metaphorical weight than those of his predecessors: Lucy’s anguish in choosing between George and Cecil becomes a contest of modernity against the middle ages, honesty against hypocrisy, clarity against muddle. This subtext provides a richly textured counterpoint to superficial events. The novel’s ending is not unambiguously joyful. It almost seems that Forster allowed George and Lucy happiness against his own instincts. “Oh Mercy to myself I cried if Lucy didn’t wed,” Forster wrote in a letter as he was writing the final version of the novel.
Ultimately Lucy was more successful in fulfilling her desires than Forster ever was. As he composed A Room with a View in 1907, Forster was still more than six years away from writing his great celebration of homosexual love, Maurice, and his first fully realized romance lay even further in the future. How did this repressed desire color the development of the novel? The critical literature has shown great interest in the erotic undertones of the men’s bath at Sacred Lake and possible veiled references to Mr. Beebe’s homosexuality (“somewhat chilly in his attitude toward the other sex”). Some even believe that the entire work is a homosexual romance with Lucy as “a boy en travesti.” In the end the object of desire is probably less important than the passionate sentiment. What is remarkable, as critic Claude Summers notes, is that Forster’s wrestling with homosexual desire should give rise to one of the richest depictions of heterosexual love in the English language.
Certainly A Room with a View can be appreciated from this perspective as a story of sexual awakening that provides insight into Forster’s deeply felt struggle with his own sexuality. But it can be read on other levels as well. As a domestic comedy in the tradition of Jane Austen, it brilliantly skewers the world of Edwardian manners and social codes, providing some of Forster’s most riotous and revealing portraits in the characters of Cecil Vyse and Charlotte Bartlett. It also can be enjoyed as a book about the contradictions and conflicts of being human: how we reconcile our inner lives with outside expectations, and how it is possible, by opening one’s mind, to find faith and love in unexpected places.