Sunday, July 05, 2020

A Room with a View

"I wanted so to see the Arno..."   

Disappointed Lucy Honeychurch gets her wish when Mr Emerson and his son George kindly offer to swap rooms ("women like looking at a view; men don't").  The next morning she wakes and leans from the window, 'out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.'  Forster spends a paragraph describing the scene below - river men, children, soldiers, a tram temporarily unable to proceed.  'Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.'  Eventually, over the course of the novel, Lucy chooses life over culture, George over the aesthete Cecil (memorably played by Daniel Day Lewis in the film), and A Room with a View ends with the newlyweds in Florence again, looking out over the Arno from the same window.

It is landscape - the desire for a good view - that leads to the novel's decisive moment, placing Lucy in the situation where George is compelled to kiss her.  Along with the other English travellers in Florence, they are invited by the chaplain, Mr Eager, to make an excursion into the hills.
"We might go up by Fiesole and back by Settignano. There is a point on that road where we could get down and have an hour’s ramble on the hillside. The view thence of Florence is most beautiful—far better than the hackneyed view of Fiesole. It is the view that Alessio Baldovinetti is fond of introducing into his pictures. That man had a decided feeling for landscape. Decidedly. But who looks at it to-day? Ah, the world is too much for us.” 
 Alesso Baldovinetti, Nativity (detail), between 1460 and 1462

And so they set off on the excursion and stop on the hillside with its view of the Val d'Arno. The group separate and Lucy finds herself at a place where 'the view was forming at last; she could discern the river, the golden plain, other hills.'  But then she slips and finds herself on a terrace covered with violets.
From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.
Here, unexpectedly, she encounters George who sees 'the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves'.  He steps forward and kisses her.

In the Merchant Ivory film there are no violets - presumably they couldn't find any on location. Instead there is long grass and poppies and a rather overwhelming Puccini aria sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. The second kiss, which again takes Lucy by surprise, takes place after a tennis match some months later, when they are back in England. As she observes George playing in the fading sunshine, she imagines the landscape of Italy overlaying the familiar surroundings of Surrey.
Ah, how beautiful the Weald looked! The hills stood out above its radiance, as Fiesole stands above the Tuscan Plain, and the South Downs, if one chose, were the mountains of Carrara. She might be forgetting her Italy, but she was noticing more things in her England. One could play a new game with the view, and try to find in its innumerable folds some town or village that would do for Florence. Ah, how beautiful the Weald looked!
Everything in Forster is tinged with irony (see my earlier post on Howards' End) and of course these lines are there to show how Lucy is unaware of her own feelings, for George and the place he first kissed her.  But having grown up on the edge of the South Downs, I would love to believe that they are capable of becoming the hills of Tuscany.

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