A Room With a View is E.M. Forster's brilliant coming of age novel disguised as a love story. While the romance between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson is undeniably moving, it is essentially a vehicle through which the heroine learns to stop putting the opinions of others ahead of her own personal truths. In exploring a theme that still carries weight for today's reader, Forster surrounds the heroine with characters who both help and hinder her, each bearing qualities that may be uncomfortably familiar.
Since I'm a sucker for intelligent romance, it was George and Lucy's first kiss in a field of violets that drew me in. However, the kiss itself would not have born the same power without a genuine, emotionally honest love story to support it. Lucy is a bright, passionate woman torn between a childlike wish to please those around her and her own adventurous, independent spirit. George has already chosen to yield to the latter, but like Hamlet and many of Salinger's heros, he is so at odds with the ways of the world he is plagued by melancholy. After witnessing a murder in an Italian square, the two young people find kindred spirits in one another. George naturally wishes to pursue their relationship. Lucy, uneasy with his counterculturalism and reputation as a bohemian, has considerable trouble coping with her attraction to him. Forster builds the tension between them with patience and insight, making their eventual kiss not just believeable, but inevitable.
The fact of this kiss being witnessed by Lucy's chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett, catalyzes a fateful choice for Lucy: to follow her heart or to let the supposed opinions of others guide her. A fretful, passive-aggressive train wreck with a martyr complex, Miss Bartlett represents those who have yielded, and continue to yield, to the latter. Obsessed with appearances, she has long forgotten what makes Charlotte, well, Charlotte. She simpers, coos, worries, and over-apologizes. She consistently misinterprets people, rather than connecting with them. From Lucy's point of view, Forster points out that while "it is possible to be kind" to such people, one "can never really love them." For such people live in the author's interpretation of a personal hell, a "muddle" or perpetual state of self-delusion which destroys almost everything true and good in a person, and from which few people ever awaken.
Much of the book's latter half shows Lucy following Miss Bartlett's influence (at times, not even consciously). As a result, she furthers her own unhappiness with each passing day. Ironically, this path makes those around her unhappy, as well. Many troubles she causes for those around her could easily be avoided by a healthy dose of honesty and self-awareness. As events come to a head, she only digs herself in deeper, until she is actually compared to Miss Bartlett herself.
What's really interesting is that when Lucy finally regains her senses and follows her heart, many of her loved ones do become angry with her. A few even abandon her. But it is not her love for George that they condemn. What they can not forgive (at least easily) is the deception and hypocrisy with which she tried to conceal her feelings from them and herself. Forster can not seem to drive home the point hard enough: try to disguise your heart and mind to protect others, and you're guaranteed to hurt them even worse.
I often come back to this book. At political/cultural odds with my family, trying to be an actress in Hollywood-- where the powers that be are constantly trying to "improve" you, and healing old war wounds that tell me that I must be A, B, or C, to please the people I really care about, I find myself consistently struggling against Forster's "muddle." When I find myself in danger, I know I can rely on Lucy's journey as both a cautionary tale and a source of inspiration.
And, yes...it's on the list.