a room with a view⎟an introduction to ‘englishness’

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Dear Reader,

I had been putting off reading EM Forster for an age. I am not sure why; I think I dreaded what I may read in A Passage to India. Orientalist novels can seem daunting because they truly represent a latent and manifest racism that pervaded imperialism, colonialism, and what we call post-colonialism. I put it at arms length; I own a physical copy and a digital copy of the text. I was wary of Forster for quite some time, but in my research for my PhD project I ran across Forster’s name. He wrote a book called Maurice that was written in 1913-14, but it was not published until 1971 because it was about the love that dare not speak its name–love between two men. I did a little more research into Forster, and I decided to purchase Maurice. At the same time I was ordering Maurice, I popped A Room with a View into my cart as well.

I’ve decided to read the books in the following order:
1. A Room with a View
2. A Passage to India
3. Maurice

So let’s begin our discussion.

I’ve just started reading and the first page keeps popping into my head, when I’m reading other pages, walking Misha, or making food. Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, have just arrived in Italy, Florence we later learn. The setting, however, is cast as extremely English, and not even a truly respectable English, according to Lucy and Charlotte. The Signora of the pension, or boarding house, speaks with a Cockney accent. Nor have they been granted the rooms with views that they were promised. The tables where they are eating lunch are set up for efficiency, ordered rows of English persons, bottles of water, and red wine. Behind the persons hang portraits of the late Queen Victoria  and the poet Laureate, ‘heavily framed’ (1). Charlotte notes that the meat they’ve been served was boiled to make a broth for soup.

Rather disappointedly, Lucy says, ‘Charlotte, don’t you feel, too, that we might be in London? I can hardly believe that all kinds of other thing are just outside’.

I find this sentence fantastic. Lucy feels so at home, in this interior Englishness, not comfort, that she cannot believe that she is, physically, outside of England. This sets a strong tone for the novel, these characters are going to have to overcome Englishness, whatever those terms may be. They will be, of course, revealed to us as the novel progresses, but I wanted to talk about this sentence right away. I will likely come back to it again, but it’s just such a perfect way to start a book about travel–the characters do not even feel transported to another location because their boarding house is so English.

Briefly, before I begin to discuss the implications of this, I’d like to nod at another novel that does this. And by this, I mean create a sense of one’s supposed national character taking precedence over their location, such that it determines their behaviour or aversion to local climate. Germaine de Staël’s novel Corinne, or Italy, plays with tropes of a national characteristic. Corinne is an Italian who is passionate and full of emotion. She meets a Scottish man, whose character is levelled as cooler and less passionate than Corinne’s. He is, however, very much in love with her. But, he chooses an English ‘girl’ over Corinne because she is the epitome of duty and domesticity, whereas Corinne is too public in her emotions, she is too Italian and the English ideal is chosen.

Of course, I have not gotten quite so far in the novel to know if a similar notion plays out, but we shall, indeed, see. My point, at this time, is that place and one’s ability to move within a place as either a member or an outsider is determined by a dominant culture and usually characters in an authoritative position within that dominant culture, male. To take this point to the extreme, these tropes are reflected in European writings that discuss the idea of ‘going native’. Rudyard Kipling touches on this topic in a few of his short stories. White men lose their Britishness as they act the part of a native or, crudely, savage. This is precisely why I dislike the word savage; it is just too laced into hierarchies of race and so-called civility and civilization, always determined by those who claim authority.

Let’s return to Lucy’s disappointment; her words are laced with fear, regret, and feeling duped. She and her cousin have travelled to Italy to experience Italy, not to find themselves in a coarse, English boarding house. But, I’d like to argue, this setting up of English domiciles is very characteristic of the British Empire. Ian Baucom explains in Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity that Englishness in Empire has always been discussed in Edward Said’s construction of an imagined East. Baucom makes the case that places and spaces, rather than just words and images, formed English identity abroad. This becomes quite meta as we apply it to fiction, i.e., Forster’s novel, but nonetheless very useful. Indeed, these English spaces signified the anxieties of not having a unified sense of Englishness ‘uncontaminated’ by locals and acted to reinforce Englishness to the English abroad and to colonize and reform non-English who entered and used these spaces.

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via tumblr: oscarwetnwilde

But what happens when even European spaces are, in fact, inundated with Englishness? Does that ruin the authenticity of that experience? Many Europeans went on grand tours of Europe, usually as a honeymoon trip. Read Foucault if you want some interesting thoughts about honeymoons and the loss of virginity. In Forster’s novel, two unmarried, young women (I refrain from using ladies, as it implies class, and I want to avoid classing these two characters just yet) travel to Italy to take in another culture. This indicates an extraordinary amount of privilege. Lucy’s mother partially paid for Charlotte’s trip to Italy, likely to accompany Lucy. It is also something to consider that Lucy’s mother did not travel with her, to ensure she was properly chaperoned. I am sure there will be plenty to say about women and their ability to travel and occupy space, throughout the novel.

I suppose this leaves us with some things to think about. How does Forster work to challenge the authenticity of the Italian experience by placing Lucy and Charlotte in an English boarding house? Perhaps, a lovely play on the notion of facades will come in–we are in Italy after all! Italian on the outside, English on the inside. I am certain class and race will emerge as central themes, as we can already see the way Lucy and Charlotte brush uncomfortably against the boarding house and its occupants in the first few moments of the book. Additionally, it is just after Queen Victoria died, how are these Victorian-Edwardians faring in the transition?

 

Let me know what you’re reading, and if you’re enjoying it?! I wish you all a really  lovely Monday and a happy start to the week.

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