Chapter 1 The Bertolini:
We open in Florence at the Pension Bertolini, a pension for British travelers. Young Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, are bemoaning the poor rooms that they have been given. They were promised rooms with views. The two women sit at dinner in their pension, along with the other guests. Lucy is disappointed because the pension hostess has turned out to be British, and the décor of the pension seems lifted right out of a room in London. While Miss Bartlett and Lucy talk, an old man interrupts them to tell them that his room has a nice view. The man is Mr. Emerson; he introduces his son, George Emerson. Mr. Emerson offers Miss Bartlett and Lucy a room swap. The men will take the rooms over the courtyard, and Lucy and Charlotte will take the more pleasant rooms that have views. Miss Bartlett is horrified by the offer, and refuses to accept; she begins to ignore the Emersons and resolves to switch pensions the next day.
Just then, Mr. Beebe, a clergyman that Lucy and Charlotte know from England, enters. Lucy is delighted to meet someone she knows, and she shows it; now that Mr. Beebe is here, they must stay at the Pension Bertolini. Lucy has heard in letters from her mother that Mr. Beebe has just accepted a position at the parish of Summer Street, the parish of which Lucy is a member. Mr. Beebe and Lucy have a pleasant talk over dinner, in which he gives Lucy advice about the sites of Florence. This vacation is Lucy's first time in Florence. Soon, almost everyone at the table is giving Lucy and Miss. Bartlett advice. The torrent of advice signifies the acceptance of Lucy and Miss Bartlett into the good graces of the pension guests; Lucy notes that the Emersons are outside of this fold.
After the meal, some of the guests move to the drawing room. Miss Bartlett discusses the Emersons with Mr. Beebe; Beebe does not have a very high opinion of Mr. Emerson, but he thinks him harmless, and he believes no harm would have come from Miss Bartlett accepting Mr. Emerson's offer. Mr. Emerson is a Socialist, a term that is used by Mr. Beebe and Miss Bartlett with clear disapproval. Miss Bartlett continues to ask Mr. Beebe about what she should have done about the offer, and if she should apologize, until Mr. Beebe becomes annoyed and leaves. An old lady approaches the two women and talks with Miss Bartlett about Mr. Emerson's offer. Lucy asks if perhaps there was something beautiful about the offer, even if it was not delicate. Miss Bartlett is puzzled by the question; to her, beauty and delicacy are the same thing.
Mr. Beebe returns: he has arranged with Mr. Emerson to have the women take the room. Miss Bartlett is not quite sure what to do, but she accepts. She takes the larger room, which was occupied by George, because she does not want Lucy to be indebted to a young man. She bids Lucy goodnight and inspect her new quarters, and she finds a piece of paper pinned to the washstand that has an enormous "note of interrogation" scrawled on it. Though she feels threatened by it, she saves it for George between two pieces of blotting paper.
Lucy is young and naïve; she is bright but not brilliant, although she has enough imagination and compassion to begin to look beyond the social conventions of her class and time.
Forster's novel is full of insightful social commentary on the stuffiness of British social conventions. Modern readers are often surprised by Miss Bartlett's deep anxieties about accepting a room trade with the generous but socially outcast Emersons. Miss Bartlett is acting under social pressures from several different directions. For one thing, Lucy's mother has paid for Miss Bartlett's travel expenses, and Miss Bartlett therefore feels responsible for guarding Miss Honeychurch from any possible harm. For Miss Bartlett, life is lived in accordance with what are arguably very precious and ridiculous concerns. Nothing is worse than "a scene," and she must also guard Lucy from feeling obligation to a young man. Sex is a source of terrible anxiety for the British of this period, and a young woman's reputation must be guarded at all costs.
Lucy brings up an important theme of the novel when she asks about the delicate and the beautiful. Lucy wonders if delicacy and beauty might be different things, while Charlotte assumes that they are synonymous. As her social world defines beauty and delicacy, the two qualities are one and the same; beauty is found in politeness, in circuitous and subtle conversation, in avoidance of direct confrontation or over-earnest expressions of emotion. There is not beauty, therefore, in Mr. Emerson's generous offer of a room trade. But Lucy is more imaginative than her cousin, and she is able to see that there is beauty in Mr. Emerson's socially clueless but generous offer. He is completely unaware of the anxiety he is causing Miss Bartlett; either that or his is completely unconcerned about it. The important thing to him is the generosity of his offer. He does not intend to put Lucy or Charlotte under obligation. He sincerely thinks that a room with a view should go to the one who most enjoys the view. Lucy will have to learn to come to her own understanding of beauty.
We see more of Lucy's sensitivity and naturally sympathetic and sensitive disposition when she realizes that she and Charlotte have been accepted by the other guests of the pension. She sees that Mr. Emerson and George have not been accepted, and this knowledge makes her feel sorry for them. But Lucy is not strong enough yet to affect the world around her. Note that Charlotte handles all the details of the room trade, and Lucy is not yet confident enough to articulate her doubts about the stuffiness and petty concerns of her social world.
Italy and travel make another important theme. The heart of this theme is a new place's ability to get under the skin of the traveler, transforming her. Though she is not yet fully aware of it, Lucy longs for this kind of experience. She is deeply disappointed by the Pension Bertolini, which to her seems like another piece of England. She wants to go out into Italy and feel it fully, as richly as she can, away from the safety of British décor and sensibilities. The pension is juxtaposed to the world outside; the inside of the pension is decorated like a room in London. British social conventions are preserved and protected from the foreign country that surrounds the pension on all sides. The pension protects the guests from Italy, and so it prevents the transforming experience that is the best result of travel. Italy is also a direct challenge to the idea of beauty and delicacy being identical. Italy's beauty is refined and sophisticated, but there is nothing delicate about its colossal Roman ruins, dramatic countryside, or rustic peasants.
Lucy's longing for a room with a view is a metaphor for her longing to connect with Italy and the new experiences the country offers. Instead of a view of the courtyard, she wants a view of the country. The window opening out into Florence symbolizes Lucy's openness to a new world.
Chapter Two In Santa Croce with No Baedeker:
Lucy looks out her window onto the beautiful scene of a Florence morning. Miss Bartlett interrupts her reverie and encourages Lucy to begin her day; in the dining room, they argue politely about whether or not Miss Bartlett should accompany Lucy on a bit of sightseeing. Lucy is eager to go but does not wish to tire her cousin, and Miss Bartlett, though tired, does not want Lucy to go alone. A "clever lady," whose name is Miss Lavish, intercedes. After some discussion, it is agreed that Miss Lavish and Lucy will go out together to the church of Santa Croce.
The two women go out, and have a lively (but not too involved) conversation about politics and people they know in England. Suddenly, they are lost. Lucy tries to consult her Baedeker travel guide, but Miss Lavish will have none of it. She takes the guide book away. In their wanderings, they cross the Square of the Annunziata; the buildings and sculptures are the most beautiful things Lucy has ever seen, but Miss Lavish drags her forward. The women eventually reach Santa Croce, and Miss Lavish spots Mr. Emerson and George. She does not want to run into them, and seems disgusted by the two men. Lucy defends them. As they reach the steps of the church, Miss Lavish sees someone she knows and rushes off. Lucy waits for a while, but then she sees Miss Lavish wander down the street with her friend and Lucy realizes she has been abandoned. Upset, she goes into Santa Croce alone.
The church is cold, and without her Baedeker travel guide Lucy feels unable to correctly view the many famous works of art housed there. She sees a child hurt his foot on a tomb sculpture and rushes to help him. She then finds herself side-by-side with Mr. Emerson, who is also helping the child. The child's mother appears and sets the boy on his way. Lucy feels determined to be good to the Emersons despite the disapproval of the other pension guests. But when Mr. Emerson and George invite her to join them in their little tour of the church, she knows that she should be offended by such an invitation. She tries to seem offended, but Mr. Emerson sees immediately that she is trying to behave as she has seen others behave, and tells her so. Strangely, Lucy is not angry about his forwardness but is instead somewhat impressed. She asks to be taken to look at the Giotto frescoes.
The trio comes across a tour group, including some tourists from the pension, led by a clergyman named Mr. Eager. Mr. Eager spews commentary on the frescoes, which Mr. Emerson heartily disagrees with; he is skeptical of the praise and romanticizing of the past. The clergyman icily leads the group away. Mr. Emerson, worried that he has offended them, rushes off to apologize. George confides in Lucy that his father always has that effect on people. His earnestness and bluntness are repellent to others. Mr. Emerson returns, having been snubbed. Mr. Emerson and Lucy go off to see other works. Mr. Emerson, sincere and earnest, shares his concerns for his son. George is unhappy. Lucy is not sure how to react to this direct and honest talk; Mr. Emerson asks her to befriend his son. She is close to his age and Mr. Emerson sense much that is good in the girl. He hopes that these two young people can learn from each other. George is deeply saddened by life itself and the transience of human existence; this cerebral sorrow all seems very strange to Lucy. George suddenly approaches them, to tell Lucy that Miss Bartlett is here. Lucy realizes that one of the old women in the tour group must have told Charlotte that Lucy was with the Emersons. When she seems distressed, Mr. Emerson expresses sympathy for her. Lucy becomes cold, and she informs him that she has no need for his pity. She goes to join her cousin.
Although Miss Lavish prides herself on being "original" and "unconventional," Forster subtly shows that her radicalism is polite, precious, and limited. She disapproves of the Emersons just as much as everyone else does, and though she pretends to be worldly and well traveled (she takes away Lucy's Baedeker guide), she gets the two women lost. Nor does she understand the value of getting lost: she is so fixated on getting the women to Santa Croce that she rushes past the beautiful Square of the Annunziata without noticing a thing. Her attitude toward the Italians is patronizing in the extreme: she defines democracy as being kind to one's inferiors. Although Forster is writing incisive social commentary on the stuffiness of British society, he uses Miss Lavish as an example of a certain kind of false rebelliousness. She is ultimately as snobby and precious as everyone else, and her brand of radicalism tends to reinforce stuffy conventions rather than challenge them.
Lucy is not a brilliant girl, and she lacks the originality and confidence to make her own judgments about art. In Santa Croce, she longs for her Baedeker guide so that she can know "good art" from bad. She lacks the confidence to just look at the paintings; she wants to know which frescoes have been pronounced by the critics to be "truly beautiful." Lucy has some generosity of spirit and often feels uncomfortable with stifling social conventions, but she is not a genius or revolutionary. She is still young and very naïve; by the novel's end she will be a much wiser and independent person. Part of Forster's brilliance is his restraint. He resists the temptation to make Lucy into a brilliant firebrand, and instead makes her to be, in many ways, a very typical girl for her class and education. She is often caught between convention and an inner sense of what is "beautiful rather than delicate."
She is unquestionably drawn to George Emerson. In Santa Croce, she notices that his face is rugged and handsome, and she also notices the strength and physical attractiveness of his body. But his melancholy attitude puzzles her, and his angst seems humorous to her in some ways. Mr. Emerson compares him to the child that stumbled and hurt his toe on a tomb statue of Santa Croce. The tomb becomes a symbol of mortality, and George has stubbed his too; George is upset by mortality and the transience of human existence. Life itself hurts and puzzles him.
Mr. Emerson's social awkwardness and earnestness combine to make him a very unpopular man. Even Lucy rebuffs him at the end of this chapter, resenting his pity for her. But we can see from his attempted apology to Mr. Eager that he does not mean to offend; in fact, he earnestly desires that everyone should always have a nice time. And his criticism of Mr. Eager's romanticizing of Giotto's art and time has its own valid perspective, although Mr. Emerson has difficulty expressing his ideas tactfully.
Chapter Three Music, Violets, and the Letter "S":
One day after lunch Lucy decides to play the piano. The narrator tells us that Lucy has a great love for playing; she is no genius, but she is talented and passionate, always playing "on the side of Victory." Mr. Beebe recalls the first time he heard her play, back in England, at Tunbridge Wells. She chose an unusual and intense piece by Beethoven. At the time, Mr. Beebe remarked to someone that if Lucy ever learned to live as she plays, it would be a great event. Now, Mr. Beebe makes the same remark to Lucy directly. Miss Bartlett and Miss Lavish are out sightseeing, but it is raining hard outside. Lucy asks about Miss Lavish's novel, which is in progress. Lately, Miss Lavish and Miss Bartlett have become close, leaving Lucy feeling like a third wheel. Miss Catharine Alan enters, complimenting Lucy's playing. She discusses the impropriety of the Italians with Mr. Beebe, who half-agrees with her in a subtly and playfully mocking way.
They discuss Miss Lavish, who once wrote a novel but lost the thing in heavy rains. She is working on a new book, set in modern Italy. Miss Alan talks about Miss Lavish' first meeting with the Emersons. Mr. Emerson made a comment about acidity of the stomach, trying to be helpful to another pension guest. Miss Lavish was drawn to his directness. She tried to stand up for the Emersons for a while, talking about commerce and how it is the heart of England's empire. But after dinner, she went into the smoking room with them. A few minutes later, she emerged, silent. No one knows what happened, but since then, Miss Lavish has made no attempt to be friendly to the men. Lucy asks Miss Alan and Mr. Beebe if the Emersons are nice; after some discussion, Mr. Beebe gives a qualified yes and Miss Alan a no. Mr. Beebe, though he does not say it, does not approve of the Emerson's attempts to befriend Lucy. Mr. Beebe feels badly for the Emersons nonetheless; they are thoroughly isolated at the pension. He silently resolves to organize a group outing so that everyone will have a good time.
Evening comes on and the rain stops. Lucy decides to go out for a walk and enjoy the last bit of daylight. Clearly, Miss Alan disapproves and Mr. Beebe does not approve entirely. But Lucy goes out anyway; Mr. Beebe chalks her behavior up to too much Beethoven.
Music and Lucy's relationship to her music is one of the novel's themes. Mr. Beebe's comment becomes the reader's hope for Lucy: perhaps one day she will play as well as she lives. Forster speaks in this chapter's opening pages of music's transcendent abilities. It can be the gift of anyone regardless of social class or education. Through Beebe's statement, Forster is suggesting that these qualities also apply to passionate living. To live life well is within the grasp of anyone, despite the prejudices and proprieties of Lucy's world. Her choice of unusual Beethoven pieces is indicative of her passion. She needs more of an outlet than music, but for now her music will have to do. Music puts her in touch with her desires and feelings; the passion of Beethoven makes her resolve to go out alone, despite the disapproval of others.
Lucy goes out longing for adventure, hoping for something great. She buys some photographs of great artworks at a junk shop, but remains unsatisfied. She wanders into the Piazza Signoria; it is nearing twilight, and the world takes on an aura of unreality. Nearby, she sees two Italians arguing. One of them is struck lightly on the chest; he wanders toward Lucy, trying to say something, and blood trickles from his lips. The light strike was actually a stabbing. A crowd surrounds them and carries the man away. She sees George Emerson, and then the world seems to fall on top of Lucy; suddenly, she is with George Emerson, sitting on some steps some distance away. She fainted, and George has carried her here.
She thanks George and asks him to fetch her photographs, which she dropped in the square; when he leaves to get them, she tries to sneak away. George calls to her and persuades her to sit down. The man who approached her is dead or dying. A crowd surrounds the man, down by the fountain, and George goes to investigate. George returns, and they talk of the murder. They walk back to the pension along the river, and George suddenly tosses something into the water. Lucy angrily demands to know what he threw away, suspecting that they might be her photographs. After some hesitation, George admits that they were. He threw them away because they were covered with blood. At George's request, they stop for a moment. He feels something incredible has happened, and he wants to figure it out.
Leaning over a parapet, Lucy apologizes for her fainting and asks that he not tell anyone at the pension what happened. She realizes that he is not a chivalrous man, meaning he is a stranger to old-fashioned ideas of courtesy and propriety, but she also realizes that George is intelligent, trustworthy, and kind. She says that events like the murder happen, and that the witnesses go on living life as usual. George replies that he does not go on living life as usual. Now, he will want to live.
Forster spends the first part of the chapter explaining Lucy's character. She is naïve, but she has some strength and passion. She is frustrated by the constraints on her gender, but she is also no firebrand by nature. She feels that she should be ladylike, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, but in practice she wants to be more free and adventurous than that label allows. She feels her emotions most passionately and deeply after she has played piano.
Forster often uses the landscape to mirror Lucy's mood. After she finished playing the piano, the rain cleared, mirroring Lucy's tendency to know her own desires most clearly after playing music. As she wanders into the square, the world seems touched by unreality. She longs for an adventure, and she is conscious of being in a different place and wanting to see something rule. It is twilight, a transitional time between day and night, and Lucy is about to have a very confusing and important experience.
She is rescued by George, and she cannot seem to decide what to think about it. For his part, George is as taciturn and strange as ever. Forster lets us into his characters' heads, but with George and Mr. Emerson we have only their outward actions and dialogue. Lucy's experience is confusing not only because she watches a man die, but also because she is not sure how to deal with George and how he makes her feel. She recognizes that he is not chivalrous or proper, but she sees goodness in him. She stops by the river and feels somehow comfortable with him, but she nervously asks him not to tell anyone that she fainted and he carried her.
For George too, the experience is important. For whatever reason, and in ways that Forster will not allow us to see directly, he is changed. He tells Lucy that he will not return to life as he lived it before; now, he wants to live. The experience has made him appreciate life, perhaps in part because he shared something extraordinary with Lucy.