- The Good: Classic Edwardian romantic social comedy and travelogue
- The Bad: Not quite as forwardly feminist as people say
- The Literary: References to Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Thoreau, in addition to art, music, and opera
During a visit to Rome, young Englishwoman Lucy Honeychurch and her chaperone switch rooms with a Mr. Emerson and his son George in order to have rooms with a view. Lucy and George find themselves meeting all over the city. And when she finds she is attracted to George, who is entirely unsuitable and whose father may be a socialist, Lucy must decide between convention and passion.
This classic Edwardian social comedy explores love and propriety, and is often found on best book lists. The characters are delightful, including outrageous spinsters, pompous clergymen, and arrogant suitors. It critiques English society at the beginning of the 20th century, both at home and abroad.
I love the exploration of Italy through British eyes, from starry-eyed Lucy herself, and especially from fussy chaperone Miss Charlotte Bartlett, who steals the show. Miss Bartlett undertakes to save Lucy from herself, especially when she “plays too much Beethoven”, which obviously riles the soul. From Lucy’s perspective, Miss Bartlett talks way too much about lost luggage.
The narrator notes that tourists are often delivered through cities like parcels, herded together in hotels and tourist sites, with an anxiety to get through with their sites and on to the next one. Spoken Italian from an English mouth is like an “acid whistling fountain”. When a new friend throws away Lucy’s guidebook, Lucy is bewildered when she looks at so many renaissance paintings, because she has no idea which ones are the masterpieces.
Cecil, another of Lucy’s love interests, is the embodiment of London sophistication. He’s described by Mr. Beebee (another traveler acquaintance of Lucys) as a Gothic statue, well educated, well endowed, but with a certain celibacy. Back in England, Cecil looks down on the middle-class country ways of the Honeychurches, who worry about broken boilers and who sit in the dark so their furniture won’t fade in the sun. The rural is not romanticized, but because Cecil is the antagonist, the slow way of life still wins.
But more than urban versus rural, this story is an exploration of the intellectual English and the passionate, artistic Italians, with Cecil as the English and George as the Italian romantic. Other characters are a good mix of the two. Art and music feature heavily and are classified as either reserved or exceptional. As Lucy comes of age, she tries to balance both.
The romance is by far the most annoying part of the novel, especially to modern eyes, for two reasons: First, both love interests throw themselves on Lucy when neither are really wanted. George becomes so enraptured by Lucy against a backdrop of tulips that he kisses her without permission. Cecil proposes to Lucy twice in Italy, which she declines, and then again back in England, which she eventually accepts, not because she particularly likes him, but because it’s a good match.
In addition, Lucy as the protagonist has surprisingly little motivation, at least until a man explains to her what she should do. George’s speech about how terrible Cecil is opens Lucy’s eyes about Cecil; and Mr. Emerson’s speech about his son George is the only reason Lucy realizes her true feelings for George. Lucy’s character arc is to grow from a meek, conservative, and polite young lady to an outspoken young woman who takes what she wants, even if it means eloping and being disowned from her family. Too bad she has to be groomed by her male counterparts for it to happen.
Highly recommended as an accessible classic and a very funny travelogue!