There’s something about being in a place like Florence that changes your perspective on life. Florence surrounds you with magnificent buildings and sculptures that have remained masterpieces for centuries and artworks that are famous all over the world. It makes you appreciate that fact that you’re alive; it makes you search yourself, discover what you love and hate, who you want to be and what you want to do. Lucy Honeychurch, a sheltered English girl from the countryside in E.M. Forster’s novel, Room with a View, discovers herself in Florence.
As many Northern tourists at the turn of the past century, Lucy is on her ‘grand tour’. She arrives in the Tuscan capital with her chaperon, Charlotte Bartlett, her mother’s overbearing cousin. We first meet the two women in the pensione Bertolini, a popular place for British travelers, where they are assigned rooms without any of the celebrated Florentine views. Another guest of the Bertolini, Mr. Emerson, offers Lucy and Charlotte his and his son’s rooms with a view on the Arno.
Lucy discovers, however, that having a room with a view isn’t all that necessary, and discovers that Florence allows her to open another, more important window: a window on life, love and self-discovery. The magnificence of Florence changes Lucy. The passion of the place, the lush landscape, the foreign faces, and of course the brilliant buildings make her do things she wouldn’t normally do, such as venture into Santa Croce without her beloved guidebook, the Baedeker. In the backdrop of this church, Lucy’s progression toward enlightenment begins, and Florence’s magic first strikes her. Forster aptly titles Chapter 2, “In Santa Croce with no Baedeker.” For Lucy abandoning her guidebook is like abandoning her Victorian education, conventions, and stereotypes. But without her Baedeker, Lucy is able to figure out who she really is and how she truly feels. She begins then to experience what Ms. Lavish, the liberated woman and aspiring novelist who snatches the Baedeker from her, suggests: “One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness …One comes for life.”
And Lucy does find life, in the shape of Mr. Emerson and his son George, who are waiting for her inside Santa Croce, into the magnificent nave of the church, where she finally ventures in order to see the Giotto frescoes. Mr. Emerson, a free-thinker and free-spirited man, leads her to the Giotto works in the Peruzzi Chapel. He waltzes right into the chapel, although it is already filled with people that Mr. Eager, a reverend, is guiding, and begins to interrupt the lecture by yelling out his own feelings about the frescos on the wall. Forster writes, “Inside, the lecturer’s voice faltered, as well it might. The audience shifted uneasily, and so did Lucy. She was sure that she ought not to be with these men; but they cast a spell over her. They were so serious and so strange that she could not remember how to behave.”
Why did Lucy stay with the Emersons? She had her chance to escape them, run off with the reverend in the next chapel and hear him provide accurate information about everything there. Mr. Eager represented the Victorian life she was brought up with, and all the stereotypes of that life. Instead, she chose to stay with the Emersons, because their different attitudes attracted her. They offered her an alternative to her Victorian lifestyle, and she wanted to further explore a new life.
Out of all the magnificent places in Florence, E.M. Forster uses Santa Croce as the place where Lucy transforms and develops as a person. Why might this be? Think about Santa Croce from the outside; it doesn’t seem too iconic of a church and, compared to the Duomo, it’s not exactly extravagant. Lucy even admits that Santa Croce kind of looks like a barn. She also can’t deny, however, that, Santa Croce, “though like a barn, has harvested many beautiful things inside its walls.” Santa Croce is magnificent for its inner possessions; its beauty and importance are not discovered until you look inside of it. Perhaps Forster saw Santa Croce as a sort of metaphor for Lucy and her experience in Florence. Lucy looks inside herself and discovers that she has not enjoyed life for what she loves, but for what other people expect her to love. She follows the Baedeker and not her own heart. And through this discovery, she finds the love of her life, George Emerson. It may be only in places like Italy where such a discovery is made, where inspiring monuments such as Santa Croce sit, inviting you to investigate your life and determine what makes you happy.
By the end of the story, Lucy is forced to make a decision. She is engaged to a man named Cecil Vyse, who represents everything a proper English woman should want: an intellectual, sophisticated and wealthy Englishman. But then, there’s George, who really is everything her family doesn’t want for her, but in essence, is sort of an escape from the proper life she lives. Being in Florence made her realize that she may not want to be the perfectly proper girl she’s expected to be. Florence allows her to see the life she wants to lead, and so she chooses George and enters the life she actually wanted.
Blogger Rose Picón is a Syracuse University student currently studying abroad at Syracuse University in Florence. She is a double major in Art History and Advertising and is passionate about writing about art and culture.
***Photo copyright: unknown***