E. M. Forster is certainly a master satirist. The episodes that transpire in the novel depict society at that time in England (the early 20th century) while also revealing Forster’s somewhat low opinion of those prim and proper members of society. All of which he does comically and with a bit of romance thrown in. The story opens with Lucy Honeychurch (the heroine) and Charlotte Bartlett (her aunt and travel companion) complaining about the room they received at the pension in which they are residing in Florence, Italy. Charlotte’s complaints seem petty and I couldn’t help but sigh along with Lucy as she listens to her aunt’s diatribe.
Overhearing their conversation, Mr. Emerson offers the women his room as well as his son George’s room (both of which offer splendid views of the city). Instead of feeling grateful, Charlotte takes immediate offense and finds the Emersons to be vulgar. The women are shortly joined by the Reverend Mr. Beebe, who feels that because he is a man he is better than women even though he is just as gossipy and judgmental as they. Mr. Beebe meddles in everyone’s affairs and Charlotte reluctantly finds herself accepting the room with a view.
The rest of the trip is spent on excursions in Italy as Forster winds the paths of the characters inextricably together. The romance of the novel is begun as Charlotte finds herself attracted to George (though she masks her attraction as hatred). Her adventures and budding romance help open her up to discovering her own feelings and learning how to make adult choices. But just as she is on the cusp of breaking free of the repressed culture, she is forced to run from everything. An improper moment in the woods with George causes Charlotte to end their stay in Florence abruptly and the two women flee to Rome.
The second part of the novel finds Lucy back at home in Windy Corner and engaged to Cecil Vyse, a man who is the polar opposite of George Emerson. Cecil is a controlling man who views woman as creatures he needs to protect from the world. Lucy hides behind him and the approval she receives from her family in marrying him instead of following her passions.
But she has not escaped George, who ends up moving to the neighborhood. Lucy soon finds herself in the midst of a love triangle, and she must choose to either accept her repressed role in society or embrace her freedom of expression and choice.
Emerson’s novel is certainly a small piece of feminist literature, but that is not all that it is. The flat secondary characters he writes are great proponents of his satirization of society. Also, the comedic tone of the novel makes it an enjoyable read that isn’t too preachy (but still gets the message across). And, whether you enjoy his satire or not, you cannot help but find yourself wondering if Lucy will make the right choices.