This was a great book!
I though for the first 100 pages that it was an elegantly written light comedy. There were some delightful characters; chiefly the unbearable Miss Bartlett who is Lucy's chaperone and is that sort of spinster who sets more store on respectability than life and who manages to selfishly control everyone and get her own way all the time by the device of always insisting that she lives her life for the benefit of others.
The book is written as a two act play: the first act is Florence and the second act is the Surrey village of Summer Street where all the main characters coincidentally meet. Here Lucy, who encountered and was kissed by George near the end of act 1, is engaged to the hideous Cecil who sneers at the humble considerations of the simple folk of Summer Street because they are not so prententious as he is.
Charlotte Bartlett and Cecil Vyse are wonderfully written characters; perhaps it is easier to write bad people than it is to write good. Certainly the muddling clergyman Mr Beebe, Lucy's mother Mrs Honeychurch, Lucy's nemesis George, her brother Freddy, and George's father are all less well written.
There are a number of wonderful passages:
"George and I both know this, but why does it distress him? We know that we come from the winds, and that we shall return to them; that all life is perhaps a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness. But why should this make us unhappy? Let us rather love one another, and work and rejoice." (Chapter Two)
"Mr Beebe was, from rather profound reasons, somewhat chilly in his attitude towards the other sex, and preferred to be interested rather than enthralled." (Chapter Three) is a beautifully discreet way of saying that Reverend Beebe is gay. Later Mr Beebe suggests that Cecil, Lucy's erstwhile fiance, is also gay; he is quoted by Freddy as saying "Mr Vyse is an ideal bachelor ... He is like me - better detached." (Chapter Eight). Still later, George (Lucy's squeeze) himself says of Cecil: "He should know no one intimately, least of all a woman." Forster, a gay man when to be so was illegal, writes a pivotal scene of Freddy and George, "radiant and personable" young men, and Reverend Beebe, bathing naked in a pool and being surprised by the women: at least Mr Darcy kept his breeches on!
"For all his culture, Cecil was an ascetic at heart, and nothing in his love became him like the leaving of it" (Chapter Seventeen, beautifully misquoted from Macbeth).
Another aspect of Forster's craft is his ability to show the substance behind the stereotype. Both Mr Vyse and Miss Bartlett, though never engaging the reader's sympathy, redeem themselves by actions which show their essential humanity. Thus they escape being caricatures. And the whole scenario of the careful manners in the Florentine pension and the bloodlessness of the Edwardian village Anglican scene is mitigated by the boys who do not want to go to church (nor does the parson's neice) and the vicar whose passion is tea, and Lucy's mother who transcends the 'silly little mother' character by being quite forthright when she detects cruelty and pomposity, and the details such as the 'horrid' little cottages that are constructed by a builder who makes them ugly because he is following the dictates of Ruskin and the ugly house that Lucy's father built on the proceeds of being a solicitor and the fact that George works as a clerk in a railway office (at least he isn't a porter!).
But after the elegant writing and the delicate characterisation and the tres amusante drawing room comedy I was suddenly gripped by the apprehension that Lucy, having chucked one fellow, would NOT go on to marry her true love but allow society's manners to make her into an old maid. The last sentence of Chapter Eighteen states "The night received her, as it had received Miss Bartlett thrity years before." That I was so distraught at the possibility of a sad ending to the novel shows how much I had entered into the life of these characters.
And in a lovely endpiece written fifty years after the publication of the novel, Forster speculates about his characters as they progress through World Wars One and two in which George discovers that "away from his wife he did not remain chaste." This is the glory of Forster, he understands the weaknesses that are human beings.
Also read Howards End and Where Angels Fear To Tread and Maurice.
February 2010; 230 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57