“The Signora had no business to do it,” said Miss Bartlett, “no business at all. She promised us south rooms with a view close together, instead of which here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart. Oh, Lucy!”
“And a Cockney, besides!” said Lucy, who had been further saddened by the Signora’s unexpected accent. “It might be London.” She looked at the two rows of English people who were sitting at the table; at the row of white bottles of water and red bottles of wine that ran between the English people; at the portraits of the late Queen and the late Poet Laureate that hung behind the English people, heavily framed; at the notice of the English Church that was the only other decoration of the wall. “Charlotte, don’t you feel, too, that we might be in London? I can hardly believe that all kinds of other things are just outside.”
Thus begins E.M. Forster’s most popular novel, something I never knew when I picked it up at random when I was seventeen years old, newly graduated from high school, and very dramatic about attending a college I hated. At the time I picked it up, A Room With a View seemed like a message from God. The back cover’s description alone was enough to prove to me that this book was sent to me by a higher power to help me through this extremely trying period of my life:
“A young girl, Lucy Honeychurch, and her chaperon visit a tempestuous, passionate Italy…Soon Lucy finds herself bound to an obviously ‘unsuitable’ man, the melancholic George Emerson, whose improper advances she dare not publicize.”
Two things stood out to my childish mind: that “Lucy” was one of my many nicknames, and that the college I’d wanted to attend was Emerson College in Boston. It seemed like a weird coincidence and, believing in book magic, I bought the novel, thinking I knew what to expect. And to be honest, the book confused me a bit. I was unused to the “comedy of manners” genre—I wanted a love story. I got one, but it was far more complex than I thought; it wasn’t indulging my selfish teenage angst. But I read into it what I wanted and loved it just the same.
I read about the young Lucy Honeychurch, a passionate young girl with progressive ideals who is constantly manipulated by her domineering family and by societal expectations. Lucy finds her principles and passion ebbing away the more she conforms. At the center of her confusion are two men: the “unsuitable” George Emerson and her wealthy fiancé, Cecil Vyse. George Emerson is the brooding, passionate young man plagued by philosophical conundrums; the only thing he is certain of is his love for Lucy. Cecil Vyse, on the other hand, is a stodgy, stuffy, upper class snob who calls Lucy his “Leonardo” and is determined to make his middle-class sweetheart “one of us.” I cheered at the satisfyingly romantic ending and felt my teenage desire for a love story fulfilled.
Fast forward to 2014, when I decided to slide A Room With a View off my shelf for a long-overdue re-read. By now, the text had attained holy status in my mind. I knew I loved Lucy, knew I was in love with George Emerson, but I never quite grasped how little I understood when I first read the book. I opened the book once again with elation, with expectation. And I’m so so grateful that I did.
“It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.”
This advice appears, from George Emerson’s wise father, toward the end of the novel. Lucy has broken off her engagement to the insufferable Cecil Vyse in the name of freedom, lying to everyone in her life about secretly loving George Emerson. Lucy is determined to quash her unsuitable love and flee from her feelings. When she meets George’s father, he is wise and kind enough to recognize her internal “muddle,” as he calls it: the unforgivable action of denying one’s feelings in favor of societal conventions. To achieve any kind of happiness and fulfillment, Lucy must say yes to Love, to Truth, to Joy. The “eternal Yes,” as the elder Mr. Emerson calls it.
This year, I found myself in a muddle similar to Lucy’s. I deceived myself just like Lucy does when she convinces herself she’s in love with the intolerable Cecil Vyse. I found myself believing I was in love because it was convenient. I wanted love so badly I thought I had found it. I was too sentimental to realize the complexity of the emotions I mistook for love. I didn’t recognize that mixed in with infatuation was selfishness, the desire for love, and the desire for acceptance. I was in a muddle.
As I re-read A Room With a View, Mr. Emerson’s words smacked me like a strong wind against my face. Like Lucy, the scales fell from my eyes and I saw the whole of everything clearly. I read about Love, about the eternal Yes, and most important, about Truth. “Truth counts,” the elder Emerson said. Truth counts. And the truth was that I loved the idea of love more than I thought I’d loved this person. I had strong feelings, but love was not the name of them. The truth was that I’d spent months calling something love that wasn’t, sacrificing my own happiness and barring me from finding something real.
Lucy found love in George Emerson, and reading the book again taught me the meaning of Truth and of being truthful to oneself. It made me see, very clearly, the machinations and manipulation of society, that it’s very easy to settle for something you think you want, because it’s hard holding out for something infinitely better.
“When I think what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love—Marry him; it is one of the moments for which the world was made.”
This year, during a visit to a secondhand bookstore, I stumbled upon a vintage edition of A Room With a View, embossed with a floral design and featuring pretty gold lettering on the spine. I bought it, and knew it was time to re-read. I love A Room With a View even more now than I did five years ago, and I know that I’ll return to it again and again.
Lisa Loparo is a freelance writer and blogger living near New York City. She likes to eat chocolate and look at cat photos on the Internet. At her blog, The Most Happy, and on Twitter, she focuses on beauty and fashion, books, and culture.