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A Room with a View

By Kopkind, Andrew | The Nation, August 16, 1986 | Go to article overview

A Room with a View


Kopkind, Andrew, The Nation


A Room With a View

At first glance, A Room With a View appears to belong in the stately home of Masterpiece Theatre, that middlebrow structure built of blocks of nostalgia and beams of romance to display the relics of Britain's palmiest days to American spectators. The film, the latest from the fecund factory of James Ivory (director), Ismail Merchant (produce) and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (writer), also has the manners, the language, the clothes and the situations to place it in the category of Chariots of Fire, Brideshead Revisited and A Passage to India. There is a great deal of what Joan Rivers calls "fa-fa-fa': the barely intelligible argot and decorated drawl of English aristocrats meant to disguise the most awful platitudes and cliches about class and behavior. But here the disguise is imperfect and the first glance entirely misleading. The filmmakers have heard the heart of E.M. Forster's early novel as a work about social transformation, not a celebration of faded glory days, and they have lost none of the message in translating it to the screen.

Just down from Cambridge with nothing to do in the autumn of 1901, the year Queen Victoria died, Forster set out for Italy with his mother on the kind of culture tour that made British travelers a joke all over the world, until Americans topped them with loud shirts and louder talk after World War II. In Florence they stayed at a pensione with a Cockney landlady and a company of eccentric and mildly unpleasant Britons. Forster's mother, Lily, worried about the lad's health and his career, but mainly about his "muddle,' which was usually defined as awkwardness but in fact described a deeper confusion about his identity and an alienation from the sexual conventions of bourgeois life.

Muddle of the first kind brought Forster a broken arm, which allowed his mother and a pair of English spinsters to dote upon, dress and pamper him. Muddle of the second produced oblique observations of the characters in his pensione, a critique of the relationship of the cerebral English to the passionate Italians and a longing for love in all the wrong places. In his through biography, E.M. Forster: A Life, P.N. Furbank records one of the young writer's haunting descriptions of unconventional Italian attachments from that visit, in the story "Via Nomentana.' Two juvenes ("we have no word in English because in England they do not exist') are observed under a bridge:

They were walking together in the blue dusk, and all I saw was that their age was about twenty and their shirts not the same colour. They had their arms round one another's necks, as English youths have, and were not mawkish, and when they unlocked, and sparred and charged one another, as Hooligans do, they were not Hooligans. . . . To me they are Orestes and Pylades, always young, always beautiful, always together.

Well, well; out of that felicitous muddle came A Room With a View, published in 1908 to considerable critical acclaim and misunderstanding. In the novel, Forster's state of mind and emotions, and some of his predicaments in Italy with Lily, were foisted upon the lovely Lucy Honeychurch, traveling in Florence with a doting but repressive cousin, Charlotte Bartlett.

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