Should Your Book Club Read A Room With A View by E.M. Forster?

An Edwardian comedy of manners in the mode of Jane Austen, this little gem can be read as a simple love story–sweet, endearing, and a glimpse back in time.  Yet, dig deep, and you will find this book to be very profound.

Quick plot review:  Young and innocent Lucy Honeychurch has traveled from her country home in England to the land of art and passion–Florence, Italy–with her older cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett.  They arrive at the Pension Bertolini, run by a Cockney from London, to find that their room has–no view!  Two other guests, Mr. Emerson and his son George, offer to swap rooms, as theirs has a view and “women like looking at a view; men don’t.”

Charlotte Bartlett is horrified.  How very improper!  If they accept Mr. Emerson’s generosity, and let’s face it, Mr. Emerson is really not the sort of person one is used to associating with, they will be obligated to him.  And Charlotte, who must protect the purity of her charge Lucy, cannot allow that.

Yet Mr. Emerson persists and asks the questions which is perhaps being asked by the book itself–addressed to everyone about everything–“Why?”

We tour Florence and its surroundings with Lucy and the other characters from the Pension Bertolini and witness a murder on the Piazza Signoria.  But what can this mean? the reader wonders.  Thank goodness Mr. Emerson’s son, George, was there to rescue Lucy when she fainted from her shock.  Not so, thinks Lucy.  Something has happened on that piazza, but not only to the poor Italian who was stabbed.  Something has happened to Lucy–and she is changed forever.

What has happened to her, you ask?  Well, that’s something your book club can–and should–discuss at length.  For this scene (and Forster, like Jane Austen, writes in beautifully rendered scenes) is central to the book–on many levels.  For this book is about so much–

Yes, it’s a coming of age story on one level.  But not only for Lucy.  This was a time of tremendous change in England, when the gentle countryside was being invaded by urban grit, industry was crowding out agricultural life, and the class system was becoming destabilized.  So you can read the novel as a coming of age story for England itself as it moved, inexorably, from the Victorian era into the modern age.

Lucy returns to England and becomes engaged to Cecil.  All right, I must say, Forster rivals Jane Austen for his characters, and any book club should take each one and talk at length about him or her.  Cecil is priceless.  We know he’s wrong for Lucy–we know Lucy is in love with George Emerson–but will Lucy do anything about it?  Or will Fate step in?  Ah, yes, another question running through this novel–is there such a thing as Fate?  And going a bit further, does God exist?

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop with the plot review here, but if your book club does read the book, pay close attention to Forster’s writing.  For example, see how the imagery of light versus dark is so prominent in the novel, and how it carries the theme of “coming of age” throughout the story.  One can do a wonderful psychoanalytic reading of this novel, digging deep into the unconscious layers.

Pay attention to nature, and how it is being portrayed.  What is the importance, for instance, of the scene at the Sacred Lake, when Mr. Beebe, a clergyman, removes his clothes and prances around?  Pay attention to the roles that art and music play in the story.  And pay close attention to the settings–and how they carry the meaning of the story to the reader.

And, whatever you do, pay very close attention to the muddle.  As I said above, I think this book is quite profound.  It’s full of religion, art, philosophy, and more.  But if you miss it all, just take one little pearl of wisdom from it–and it regards the muddle.  One of my favorite lines in literature is “only connect” from Forster’s Howard’s End, and now I have another favorite line from Forster’s A Room With a View–“Beware the muddle.”

If you, or your book club, reads A Room With A View, enjoy! and let me know what you think!

Should your Book Club read Emma by Jane Austen?

As you know, I am currently running a Jane Austen Literary Salon, and we just finished discussing Emma, the fifth of Jane’s six novels that we’re reading.  One of the members, let’s call her Diane, had to miss last month’s discussion of Mansfield Park, but she had a good excuse–her first grandchild was born!  And guess what Diane did while helping to care for her new granddaughter?  She read Emma out loud to her–I love it!  A little Janeite in training!

So, should your book club read Emma?  Are you looking for a classic?  Are you looking for one of Jane’s novels to read?  I can recommend Emma for the individual reader and for a book club, but I have to be honest here…this is not my very favorite of Jane’s novels.  Don’t get me wrong–it’s a wonderful, sometimes hilarious novel, with much to appreciate on many levels.  I just happen to prefer Mansfield Park (usually everyone’s least favorite), or Persuasion.  But that’s just me.  Emma is usually everyone else’s favorite, along with Pride and Prejudice.

If you do read Emma, there’s lots to discuss.

You probably know the plot, or some of the plot.  Emma is rich, spoiled, and rather self-absorbed.  She’s also very snobbish, but not when it comes to her new friend and pet project, Harriet.  Harriet’s class and rank are hard to pin down, as she has never known her parents–she is “the natural daughter of somebody”–and has lived at Mrs. Goddard’s school.  Emma, who sees the world as she would like it to be rather than how it is, decides with no evidence whatsoever that Harriet must be the daughter of a gentleman and therefore deserves to marry a gentleman.  But which gentleman will it be?  And will that chosen man see Harriet the same way Emma sees her?  Emma sets her sights on the perfect man (or men?) for Harriet and the hilarity begins!

There’s much more to the plot, but suffice to say that it reads like a Shakespearean comedy with all the confusion of who’s in love with whom, and who’s falling out with whom and who will end up with whom.  As I said, it’s quite funny, but there’s an undertone of serious business going on, and the careful reader will pick up on that.

The serious business of marriage, for instance.  Your book club will have a grand time discussing what this novel is saying about romantic love and marriage.  The class system looms large in this story, and impacts everyone and everything–you can see what you think the novel is saying about class and rank in Jane’s day.

Actually, the list of what you can discuss would be too long to list here.  How genders are being played with in the story, and what this means, for instance.  Or if Knightley has “proper pride” and whether he is an ideal man.  Or how Jane’s use of free indirect discourse impacts the reader’s view of the characters and plot.  Or what to make of the themes of duty, the individual versus society, education, and authority, to name a few.
You could spend hours just talking about the characters, like Emma’s father, a pathetic hypochondriac, or the inimitable and insufferable Mrs. Elton, one of the more loathsome characters in all of English literature.

I read and re-read Jane’s novels because I love her use of language.  She is incomparably brilliant and I am in awe as I read.  I also read her because I appreciate how there seem to be so many different, yet simultaneous, discourses in her novels.  In our Jane Austen Literary Salon, we are trying to get to “know” Jane–through her texts, of course.  But this is tricky, as she can be very slippery–you think you understand what the text is saying only to find it’s saying something quite different elsewhere.

Bottom line, Jane’s novels can be read on many levels, which may be a key to her staying power.  Have a go with Emma and let me know what you think.  No cheating by just watching the movie, however!  As beautiful as the films of all Jane’s novels are, they do not compare to reading the books–I assure you!