For some cheer in these challenging times, a post from the Novel Readings archives about one of the most joyful novels I know.
“We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm — yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.”
A Room with a View is a novel that doesn’t just make me laugh but also fills me with a glow of what I can only call delight. Comedy alone (as I found with Mapp and Lucia) isn’t necessarily uplifting: too acid an undertone can compromise the pleasure and make you (or me, at any rate) feel a little smaller for having partaken. A Room with a View, however, is so humane, so forgiving — even in its satire — of the muddles we all make of our lives, that it always makes me feel better, bigger, more hopeful.
Zadie Smith quotes Forster calling A Room with a View “bright and merry,” and it is, but it never ignores shadows, darkness, or trouble. I was thinking, reading it this time, that its brightness really relies on its constant reminders that the light is always embattled, that its characters’ small struggles — to be, to do, to love, what is right and beautiful — are part of a wider struggle, the same one Dorothea invokes in Middlemarch when explaining her guiding belief to Will:
That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.
Though her struggles are longer and more painful than Lucy’s, Dorothea is more consistent in her pursuit of the light — less prone to deceive herself, or to lie to others. Wrong as she so often is, she at least sees more clearly through the stifling inadequacies of petty convention. Lucy, on the other hand, is constrained and inhibited by convention to the point that she is almost unable (and certainly unwilling) to recognize love and truth when they offer themselves. As a result, as Forster’s wonderful chapter titles itemize for us, she lies — to George, to Cecil, to Mr. Beebe, to Mrs. Honeychurch, to Freddy, to Mr. Emerson, but worst of all, to herself. Her lies put her among “the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words. . . . The night received her,” Forster intones solemnly. “I have been into the dark,” George tells her urgently, “and I am going back into it, unless you will try to understand.” “It is again the darkness creeping in,” exclaims Mr. Emerson, despairing; “it is hell.”
It is,” as the narrator says, “the old, old battle of the room with the view,” and the joy of the novel is that even as we feel the horror of violence and death and the lesser but equally inexorable horror of everything Lucy must overcome, we see the view open up, we see the light and the violets and the sunshine, we heed the driver’s cry of “Courage and love!”
It’s easier, in a way, to scorn a joyful ending, to belittle as unserious a novel that champions happiness, than to admire novels that rend our hearts with “all the troubles of all people on the face of the earth.” But just as Will cautions Dorothea against the “fanaticism of sympathy,” we shouldn’t shut joy out of literature even when – maybe, especially when – we are all too aware that the world is full of troubles. Sometimes it’s important to stand facing the sunshine.
Originally published December 22, 2014. I hope to have the time and mental clarity to write some new posts before too long! In the meantime, all my best wishes to everyone as we make our way through all this.