Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pond of Doom!

Current book: A Room with a View
Pages read: 9 - 72

Well, we're back to gawking at the idle rich, as we always do in novels from the period between 1800 and 1940. Gee, isn't it fun? Don't you just love observations about the privileged classes?

Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, are visiting Florence as part of a tour of Italy. Lucy is quite young and Charlotte has been engaged by Lucy's mother to act as her chaperone. They are staying in a pension, which is basically a rooming house with meals, and the story so far is pretty much about their interactions with the other guests. Everyone is, of course, English, but there are still snotty little cliques and vendettas within the pension. (Don't get the idea that this is something that's happening over a long time period, either, because it's maybe a week. But you know how alliances and prejudices are - they pretty much occur instantly. Especially if you're a snotty Brit.)

A father and son, Mr. Emerson and George Emerson, are also staying in the pension. Nobody likes them because they say what they mean. (No, really. They're nice, but completely without guile, and it drives all the snobby tourists crazy.) Ms. Lavish, who has been in Italy for a long time, is a stuck-up artist type trying to write a novel. She constantly goes on about "her Italy" and likes all of the most squalid parts of it. Mr. Beebe, a clergyman from Lucy's parish, seems nice enough, actually tolerates the Emersons, and tries to promote relations between all the guests at the pension.

Plot-wise, Lucy encounters the Emersons several times in her tours of Florence and has positive experiences with them, so is inclined to like them. After wandering around the square alone one day, she stumbles across a heated argument between two Italian men and ends up seeing one of them stab the other right in front of her. She faints, and, by chance, George Emerson is there to catch her. She begs him not to tell anyone about it, and he agrees. Later, the pension guests go on a driving tour together during which they get out of the carriages to take a stroll through the countryside. Lucy, alone, comes upon a hill covered in violets where George is standing. Seeing her overcome with joy at the beauty of it, he kisses her, at which instant her cousin Charlotte arrives as well.

My goodness, the scandal! I was reading the introduction to this edition and found that they described the novel as a "comedy of manners." It's fair in that it's certainly using manners and politeness as fodder for absurdity, but honestly, it's a good deal more cutting than that. The British tourists that populate the pension are cruelly caricatured versions of the rich, and we laugh at them accordingly, but it feels more spiteful than comedic. There's definitely some contempt on Forster's part for people who spend all their time looking at guidebooks and none of it actually experiencing their surroundings. That said, there's also a lot of contempt for people who set too much stock in experiencing the "authentic" and in so doing still fail to understand the places they visit. Honestly, Forster's main message seems to be, "For the love of God, just relax." Which, you know, is kind of fair.

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