A Room With a View: Themes and Meanings
A Feast for the Senses
I have just watched the James Ivory film, A Room With a View (1985), for the umpteenth time.
From its bustling outset to the tear-jerking scene at the end, it is a gem of a film, a bombe bursting with ingredients so delicious that it provides a feast for the senses. The movie takes us from Florence and the Tuscan countryside to the lush gardens and sumptuous house interiors of Edwardian England, all against a rich soundtrack incorporating the music of Giacomo Puccini, Beethoven and Schubert. In the narrative of the eponymous book, author EM Forster satirises the late nineteenth-century cult of the aesthete, embodied by the odious Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day Lewis), adding a note of comedy to the culture-heavy narrative. In spite of these wonderful elements and the happy ending, certain aspects of the storyline always leave me with a feeling of disquiet.
A Room With a View is a deceptively simple tale. On the surface, a boy and girl meet and fall in love. They part company and the girl becomes engaged to another man. The boy and girl are reunited in gloriously romantic circumstances, thus saving her from an unsuitable marriage and/or a life of boredom. But even as George Emerson (Julian Sands) triumphantly kisses Lucy (Helena Bonham Carter) in the room overlooking the Florentine piazza at the end of the movie, many questions assail me: is George going to make Lucy any happier than notionally, Cecil Vyse would not have done? And who is George, anyway? I will answer the second question first.
Who is George Emerson?
Initially, all we learn about George is that he is “on the railways”, an occupation that is as obscure as it is metaphorical, since he and his father are always on the move. This obscurity is in contrast to the immediate exposure of Lucy Honeychurch, about whom we learn everything from the outset of the narrative. She is a pretty, middle class and educated young woman, an accomplished pianist with enough wit to describe herself as a tourist when the Vicar of Florence enquires over the purpose of her foreign trip. Lucy’s social position is affirmed when we see her in the Surrey country house “Windy Corner” that is her home, in the company of her widowed mother (Rosemary Leach) and teenage brother, Freddy (Rupert Graves). She has just gotten engaged to Cecil and will soon be a county matron, a shadow of Mrs Honeychurch.
By contrast, George Emerson and his father (Denholm Elliot) seem to have no fixed purpose. What they do have is mobility, both in the social and geographical sense. Mr Emerson sports a working-class accent, and we learn from George that his father once worked as a journalist. But the Emersons have money in plenty, enabling them to stay in the comfortable Pension Bertoli that Lucy and her cousin Charlotte (Maggie Smith) occupied in Florence. There, the Emersons gallantly offered Lucy the accommodation that Charlotte wanted for her younger relative “a room with a view”, thus establishing a connection between the two parties. In England, the mobility of the Emersons enables them to occupy the cottage near the Honeychurch home, and to pack up and leave again when rheumatism begins to afflict the elder Mr Emerson. We never find out where they have originally come from or meet any relatives of theirs.
Masculine and Feminine
This mobility of the Emersons and the fixity of the Honeychurch family is one of the many contrasts in the tale. Another narrative dichotomy is that of male and female.
This is stressed when the picnicking group divides into single-sex parties at the outset of the meal. George and his father very definitely occupy the male world. The pair always seem uncomfortable while in domestic situations. Even in the Pension Bertoli, they readily relinquish their rooms with views to Charlotte and Lucy. By contrast, Lucy belongs to the female realm, illustrated by the touching relationship with her mother, the world of house interiors, pianos and garden parties. In one scene, Charlotte, Lucy and George are indoors in a large, round room, with net curtains over the windows. It is reminiscent of being under a female petticoat or underskirt. Lucy tells George that she never wants him in the house again, that is, she is recoiling from his passion and wants to remain safely the female world, a little longer. On the cusp of this male/female dichotomy is Freddy Honeychurch. Freddy is not yet old enough to leave the Honeychurch home, and he spends much of the narrative pulling away uncomfortably from his mother’s influence.
Pagan and Christian
The Emersons have barely arrived at the cottage when Freddy – delighted to have a friend of his own age - invites George to go swimming with him in a large pond in the local woods. On the way, the boys invite local vicar, Reverend Mr Beebe (Simon Callow), to swim with them. Mr Beebe doesn’t think twice before casting aside his clerical clothing, symbolising his Christianity, and jumping in the pond with the boys. The three men romp like Greek sylvan deities – pagan, classical world - unaware that Lucy, her mother and fiancé, Cecil Vyse, are on a woodland walk.
Indoors and Outdoors
The scene where the buttoned-up party and the nude men encounter one another is one of the more comic incidences in the narrative. Cecil thrashes the undergrowth with a stick, letting on to be battling dangerous intruders. Lucy struggles to stifle her giggles and Mrs Honeychurch admonishes Freddy, telling him that if he simply wants to bathe, their house is equipped with running hot and cold water. Like George and Mr Emerson, Freddy longs to be out of doors. His only other outlet for excess energy is playing lawn tennis, and he still manages to draw reprimands from his mother for his boisterous behaviour.
In fact, all scenes of unrestrained physical behaviour are placed out of doors. In contrast to the peace of the Basilica Santa Croce, Lucy witnesses a young man being horribly injured in a fight in the outside piazza. She receives her first and indeed, second, passionate kiss from George while out of doors. In contrast to the nature-loving Emersons, Cecil Vyse fails to kiss Lucy while they are in the forest. All she ever receives from him is a peck on the cheek while they are indoors. Later, he admits that he only feels at home indoors, while Lucy tells him that she always pictures him inside a room. Their break-up also takes place inside the house, their interaction as flat and bloodless as everything else that has happened between them.
Watching and Being Watched
One theme that runs through the narrative is that of looking and seeing. Much of the characters’ concerns centre around seeing and being seen in the right circumstances. At the outset of the narrative, Charlotte is anxious to procure “a room with a view” – ironically, the device by which she brings Lucy and George together – but she will not let Lucy stand by an open shutter in case she is seen. Novelist Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench) espies Lucy carefully through her monocle. Later, Eleanor tells Charlotte that she “has her eye” on Lucy, as a character for her next book.Cecil objects to being on view at Lucy’s engagement party, yet he places her in full view of his relatives and neighbours as she plays Schubert for his mother. For a while, Lucy becomes his muse, and he commands “stay where you are” as he spies her through a window and likens her to Ginevra de Benci, a painting subject by Leonardo Da Vinci.
By now, it is apparent that Cecil is not a suitable life partner for Lucy. The question is – what more can George Emerson offer her?
Love, Beauty and Freedom
While no right-minded viewer or reader would elect Cecil as Lucy's life partner, I ask another question: why did Lucy want to marry at all? Following the engagement break-up, Lucy toys with the idea of joining spinster sisters, the Miss Alans, in Greece. Lucy also voices the possibility of going up to London and sharing a flat with girlfriends, an idea that her mother dismisses instantly. This reaction is puzzling: in London, Lucy could have been a music teacher, at least, while continuing her study of art and architecture in the galleries. Cecil is unsuitable certainly, but is George any better? Surely, a man who shouts “love” and “beauty” while perched on top of a cypress tree, is not so far removed from the world of the sterile aesthete, after all?
In one scene, George tries to tell Lucy that Cecil doesn’t know what a woman is, but really, does George know any better? In Florence, George tosses a packet of photographs into the Arno, believing that Lucy wouldn’t be able to deal with them because the packet had become speckled in blood following the fracas in the piazza. In short, he believes that a young woman cannot cope with – the sight of blood?
In another scene, George promises Lucy to let her pursue her own interests and let her "be herself" if they marry. But with her financial freedom, an unmarried Lucy could have done this anyway. One clue to Lucy’s anxiety to be married is evident in the narrative’s treatment of single women. Charlotte Bartlett, and Catherine and Teresa Alan are financially independent women, and free to pursue cultural interests, in contrast to the fixed position of Mrs Honeychurch. But the narrative reduces the unmarried, older women to figures of fun “the tiresome Miss Alans”, and “poor Charlotte”, who did not regard herself as even entitled to a cushion when she sat on the grass during the Tuscan picnic. In keeping with the mores of the time, men – whether married or single, could acquire both status and freedom – as epitomised by the Emersons. But in the same narrative, only married and engaged women seemed to command respect.
Another Point of View
In that final scene we see Gorge and Lucy, framed in the open window of their Pension Bertoli room, kissing passionately. Lucy has brought George into her life, and he is now able to express himself indoors. He is now living, as his father put it, "for love". But a question remains: are Mr Emerson and his son really that naïve? If Lucy hadn’t been possessed of private means, if she had been a poor girl, would Mr Emerson have pushed her so eagerly as a suitable bride for his son? Whatever, I like to think that Lucy and George lived happily ever after. As the name of the book/movie suggests, it all depends on your point of view.
A Room With a View (James Ivory film, 1986)