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Our August Readers’ Review discusses this classic novel about a middle-class, 19th century British girl who vacations in Florence.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. For this month's readers' review, an armchair trip to Italy and the English countryside with E. M. Forster's "A Room With a View". Published in 1908, the novel follows a girl who doesn't know what she wants as she tries to mature into womanhood with the courage of her convictions. Joining me in the studio to talk about the book, Dayo Olopade. She's a reporter for the "Daily Beast" and fellow at the New America Foundation. Richard Wolffe is MSNBC political analyst and author of "Renegade: The Making of a President" and Wendy Moffat, she's professor of English at Dickinson College and author of a new book titled "A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster". Of course, we invite you to join us during our readers' review. I'm sure many of you have read this book and will add greatly to our conversation. Join us on 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MR. RICHARD WOLFFEGood morning.
MS. DAYO OLOPADEGood morning.
MS. WENDY MOFFATGood morning.
REHMI have to tell you that before I read this book for the second or third time, I had just finished Stieg Larson's "Trilogy", that violent, that sexual, that every kind of imaginable book -- three books. What a contrast to read "A Room With a View". Richard, how did it play out to you?
WOLFFEWell, I had a wonderful experience reading it. I had the great good fortune to re-read this book while in Italy. I've just come back from vacation and I was actually in Tuscany. And I read parts of it, at least, on the train and back again from Florence. So one thing that was wonderful, just to have the opportunity to rediscover this book 'cause I'd read it as a teenager before and had seen the movie. Everyone, I'm sure, has probably seen the movie, the Merchant Ivory Production. And to be honest, it was fascinating reading it compared to how I'd read it last time.
WOLFFEBecause I had treated it on the superficial level of, you know, this young woman trying to decide is she gonna go with her heart or head and the constrictions of English manners, was it sort of Jane Austin-like or a little bit of Oscar Wilde maybe. Reading it now, having just finished a new manuscript for a book, I was struck by something really very different; how artistic, how self-consciously artistic this book is, how this is a book about art, a book about writing, a book about the role of writing and ideas in society and how it can shape individual lives, how it change a society and this turmoil that is going on at this period, which is sort of glimpse that. There's this beautifully sort of veneer of the romantic story...
WOLFFE... but the layers of wit, I mean, it's a tremendously funny book. I don't think I got the humor as an 18-year old. I actually laughed out loud while sunning myself in Tuscany. So it was a wonderful experience to re-read it.
REHMDayo, how about you?
OLOPADEI enjoyed the book as well. I actually had not read it before, but it's a perfect summer read in that you have a sort of -- it's an escape, essentially. It's a story of folks on vacation. And again, it sort of really highlights for me the idea of leisure, the idea of leisure as a class, the idea of leisure as an occupation, which is something that one would hardly imagine to be the case in the modern world. But certainly, in 1908, at the time -- I think the book is based on Forster's time in Italy in 1902. It was perfectly acceptable to sort of do nothing. And yet within that, there's this density of emotion, density of action when you know it sort of takes a lot to do nothing you discover. There's quite a bit behind the scenes. And all of the characters, I agree with Richard, are very -- they're almost caricatures, but they're all very specific. You have the Pastor and you have the sort of the meddling aunt -- or cousin, rather, and then you have this sort of witless, naive who is trying to find her way. And I don't know, is Lucy's age specified?
REHMShe's about 18, 20?
MOFFATShe's going to come into her fortune soon.
OLOPADEAh, that's right.
MOFFATSo she's just before 21.
REHMJust before 21.
OLOPADEOkay. And all of them are almost stock characters that we know and have seen repeated iterations throughout literature. But in this treatment, you really do see personal growth among a few of them. And the stock characters are not -- they're not just a background, but they really do move the story forward in each of their own ways. And I really enjoyed it. It's a great read.
REHMAnd Wendy, I know from your book, "A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster" -- how much of his own life, his own travels are reflected in this book?
MOFFATA great deal. He's in all the characters. That's one of the things that's interesting. It's not as though he's chosen an autobiographical figure, although there's a lot of him in Lucy, which is an interesting thing for a young person to acknowledge in writing. I think Forster was way out over his skis emotionally at the age that he started this. He was 22 when he began it and he didn't finish it for eight years. He kept giving up and setting it aside and coming back. So he was acutely developed as an internal person, very alert to matters of the heart, from the feeling of a person inside of the heart, but utterly sexually inexperienced. Didn't know how men and women coupled literally, didn't know biological facts of life, had never had physical contact with anyone besides himself. And so there's a remarkable way in which that split in his own life, I think, is reflected in some of the innocence and humor and self-consciousness of this novel.
REHMDo you regard this novel as a romance, a comedy, a satire? How do you see it?
MOFFATIt's really a mixed thing. Some of his mother's friends, in particular, were quite put off by the fact that they didn't know what the genre was. They didn't know how they were supposed to feel about it and whether it was supposed to be funny or not. That was terribly important to them. And I feel, re-reading it now, that it's sadder than I thought it was or more anxious maybe or more alert to the internal sorrows of people.
REHMI must say I found it more serious this time. While I could look at Charlotte, for example, and think, you know, she's tiresome, she's meddlesome, she's a lot of things. She's sly. She's very acutely meddling, but she doesn't want to leave her fingerprints anywhere. And again, I come back to contrasting that view of his novel so subtle in his presentation to the Larson "Trilogy" when you're hammered over the head by action. So here, what we're doing is really reading each word carefully, not so much for the action, but for the internal thinking and behavior.
WOLFFEYeah, you know, I thought the plot of this book, such as it is...
WOLFFE... is sort of plunked in front of you. You know, the dramatic moments are excessively dramatic and he knows it.
WOLFFEBecause each scene is a painting, okay? This all -- every image is people either moving into a window or out of a view or in a scene and he self-consciously sets up these scenes.
WOLFFESo the most dramatic moments, the murder in the big square in Florence, is immediately turned into a work of art. For starters, it's incredibly dramatic, but it splashes -- the blood splashes on pictures of the scene. And the next day, this wonderful character, Eleanor Lavish, Lavish, Ms. Lavish -- what else is she gonna be? But she's lavish in how she interprets everything. She's the guide to art. And by the way, we should recognize that this show is a wonderfully forced-in moment, when we're interpreting art and we have a guide. Thankfully, we have a great guide.
REHMI should say.
WOLFFENot a Ms. Lavish, but someone who actually knows something. And so, you know, there I was in Florence in the square with my guidebook in one hand, not a bi-jacket, but a rough guide and E. M. Forster on the other. And, you know, so everything is layered upon meaning and interpretation. So when you get to the drama, the plot, the murder, immediately Ms. Lavish turns up the next day to write her bad novel about the murder, which turns out to be an important part of the next plot twist…
WOLFFE... in the second half. The plot moves along -- in other hands, I think, it would be clunky. But precisely because his language, his culture reference, his sense of play with the characters is so subtle, you sort of forgive him for it.
REHMRichard Wolffe, he's MSNBC political analyst. He's the author of a book titled, "Renegade: The Making of a President". He has a new White House book coming out in November. Dayo Olopade is a fellow at the New America Foundation, political reporter for the Daily Beast and Wendy Moffat is professor of English, author of a book titled, "A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster". Do tell us why it's a new life of E. M. Forster?
MOFFATIt's a new life because Forster was gay and he suppressed a huge archive of his personal life and his private life, which has been sitting there since he died in 1970 at the age of 91. And so it is a redressive life. It is a life that goes back to the beginning and starts with putting together the public and the private, the record of that, all the way through.
REHMAnd were you given access to all those papers?
MOFFATAll those papers have pretty much free access for scholars. I was the first person to see the late diaries, which were opened in 2008.
REHMWendy Moffat and her book once again, "A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster". Do join us.
REHMAnd welcome back for this month's Readers' Review. We're talking about E.M. Forster's novel, "A Room With a View." We have wonderful participants here in the studio and we'd invite you to join us as well, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Wendy, set this novel up for us. It begins in a tiny little boarding house in...
MOFFATIt begins in a little pension, the kind of small place that middle class respectable British tourists would feel comfortable traveling to at the turn of the century in Florence. And they're a little bit disappointed because they're looking for very authentic Italian places and they discover that the person who owns the Pension Bertolini actually is Cockney and has come down to make a buck. So there's a constant tension about this. But this is ladies traveling -- unmarried ladies traveling and so there's a whole apparatus for Lucy Honeychurch that she must have a chaperone. And her older unmarried spinster cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, comes along to protect her from the vicissitudes of whatever Italy might pose for them.
REHMAnd, of course, they are doubly disappointed because the room they have does not overlook the Arno River.
WOLFFEExactly. They had been promised it, as so many people are. You know, I was in Venice and they -- the person said, you know, you can't be sure that when you book the room, it's going to have a view of the Grand Canal. So people are still looking for the perfect room with a view. And there is this whole melodrama where Charlotte Bartlett has -- she's passive aggressive, what we call passive aggressive. She's offended by the offer of a room with a view by these two gentlemen.
REHMHelp me to understand why she is offended by the offer, Dayo.
OLOPADEI think, again, this novel is very classic in that it is about manners, right? It is about protocol. And the juxtaposition of the stiff Brits in body Italy recurs throughout the novel. And so the presumption is that, in order to keep up appearances, it's not appropriate to accept the room from these two gentlemen who are staying in rooms -- a father and son who are...
REHMTotally kind gentlemen.
OLOPADE...right, who are beneath their station. And so to accept their charity is outside of protocol and so can't be done.
WOLFFEAnd not just beneath her station, but one of them may be a socialist.
OLOPADEThat's so true.
WOLFFEYou know, they're working-class. One of them has been a journalist for a bit. I mean, you know, they're writing for the masses. And of course, these aren't aristocrats traveling.
WOLFFEThis is not the 18th Century grand tour of Europe. This is a shabby, genteel, middle-class scrimping-and-saving tour of Europe. And so this thing with this working-class woman with a Cockney accent who's running it, who is called Signora Bertolini herself. A Signora -- how could the Signora do this? And she speaks with a London accent -- a working-class London accent. They're offered this room by these two gentlemen. They don't want to be obliged to them and that -- obliging, it's an interesting transaction...
WOLFFE...because there's a -- you know, money plays a role in the second half of the book. There's a whole discussion about change and have you given the right amount of money? Really, what's going on in that first discussion about the book is an exchange of money. Are you -- do you owe them anything? Do you owe anything if someone is kind to you in some way? So it's better to be offended and then they owe you, even though they're giving you something. It's a very clever game.
REHMSo after a lot of backing and forthing, they do accept the room with a view.
MOFFATThey accept the room, although they discover that the room has been accepted because one of the two men, Mr. Emerson, the elder, cannot come out and say, yes, we'll swap rooms because he's in the bathroom. And that's also the sort of thing one doesn't say. One does not ever talk about something like that. So it's more confirmation for the ladies that they really aren’t the right sort of people. The Emerson's are very unusual people. They are very modern people. And the first sign that Lucy has of that is that when she finally gets into the son's room, George Emerson's room, he's left only one thing behind and that's a piece of paper with a huge question mark written on it.
REHMWhat does that signify?
MOFFATWell, she doesn't know. It seems like a very strange thing to do and he's a very questioning young man. And she doesn't know if the question is for her or for him. So it's a little mystery that Forster puts in there that's a quirky.
REHMThis book is dedicated to the letters H-O-M. Who was H.O.M.?
MOFFATH.O.M. was Hugh O. Meredith, who was Forster's roommate and first real love at Cambridge at King's College between 1897 and 1900 or so. And Hom, as he was known to everybody, was a really interesting person. He was one of the first of the generation of truly bright people who went to Cambridge, even though he was lower middle-class. And he seemed to have a brilliant career in front of him. And it was largely an unrequited love of Forster for Hom, although they stayed friendly for much of their lives. But Hom is sort of the beginning, the germ of George Emerson; the idea that you could have real intellectual merit in a person who you didn't expect to have it in. And so he is the first -- when Forster first sketches out when he's 22, he actually has Ms. Lavish and Charlotte and Lucy with a different last name, and then H.O.M. He actually uses the initials of his friend to be the character in the first draft of the novel.
REHMAnd he calls this book his Lucy novel. Why is it his Lucy novel?
MOFFATWell, it's really about Lucy Honeychurch and her inward journey to figure out what she's going to be like...
REHM...and who she is.
MOFFAT...and who she is. And that's actually -- I mean, it's a tried and true idea. Austen was interested in that and Emma, certainly, in "Pride and Prejudice." But it's also a modern question, what a woman is going to be and whether she's going to be an object of her husband's observation, a kind of work of art, which is what her fiancé, Cecil Vyse, thinks she is.
REHMDo you want to read for us from a portion...
REHM...of the novel, Dayo?
OLOPADEThis portion is after Lucy has left Florence and has traveled to Rome and is now back in England, where she is at her family home in English countryside. And her new fiancé Cecil is...
REHMWhat a snob.
OLOPADEAnd Cecil is another stock character. He's got...
MOFFATI love Cecil.
OLOPADE...his nose straight in the air...
MOFFATI'm going to speak up for Cecil.
OLOPADE...and he's very refined. And Lucy is consumed with anxiety about performing for Cecil and this is on the lawn where they're all sort of hanging out, as it were, at their home. And Lucy picks up a book. "She glanced at the title listlessly, 'Under a Loggia.' She no longer read novels herself, devoting all her spare time to solid literature in the hope of catching Cecil up. It was dreadful how little she knew. And even when she thought she knew a thing, like the Italian painters, she found she had forgotten it. Only this morning, she had confused Francesco Francia with Piero Della Francesca and Cecil had said, 'What? You aren't forgetting your Italy already?' And this too had lent anxiety to her eyes when she saluted the dear view and the dear garden in the foreground, and above them scarcely conceivable elsewhere, the dear sun."
REHMI'll tell you why I think of Cecil as just a big snob. He makes Lucy feel as though she knows nothing.
REHMAnd he's playing on that. He is taking this role of, I know everything and you are my Pygmalion...
REHM...and you better learn right away.
WOLFFEAnd it has a political implication, too, because women's role in society is changing. There are women who are pressing for the vote and at one point -- well, after she breaks off with Cecil, Lucy suggests she might become a suffragette and take up this room and be a spinster and politically active. She doesn't want to be held back. But, by the way, that thought is planted in her head by the Emersons who say to her that this is the kind of man who has held back women and held back society. The interesting thing is, Cecil -- he is loathsome clearly and -- but he's another failed novelist really. He -- there's this whole passageway. He gets, by contrived circumstances, the Emersons to move in to where the Honeychurches live in England. After he meets them, looking at the Italian paintings in a national gallery, which is very self-consciously artistic, of course.
WOLFFEBut he then has this idea of -- I don't know if you've seen this movie the -- well, in the French version, it was the "Le Diner De Cons". But the idea of having these idiots -- it's just been remade. They're having these idiots come together and it's going to be for his entertainment. So he invites the Emersons over for his entertainment. And he's very self-conscious because he wants the comic muse to undergo all these proceedings. Well, that’s what Forster is doing. He is playing with a comic muse and very self-consciously jumping all these candidates together -- jumbling them up for our and his entertainment, but to also reveal something about life. So Cecil is a horrible snob, but he's a bookish snob. He's a cultured snob. And there are values that he has, which Forster clearly is enjoying himself.
REHMI think we are neglecting to mention one of the central events in the book. And that is the first kiss because that sets up a drama all its own, Wendy.
MOFFATWell, there are three kisses...
MOFFAT...and they're all very important kisses. And the first kiss takes Lucy by surprise. She's in a view. She's on the hillside outside of Fiesole, which is an extraordinary view spot and she's in a field of just liquid purple violets. And he's -- George Emerson is overtaken by that view and his own passions and he kisses her. And that starts everything in motion. But I also think that Cecil's very carefully scripted kiss, because he feels it's important to have a kiss if you are going to be affianced to someone, is another great moment. And it's at the place where we see the real eruption of eroticism, which is the bathing pool.
REHMAnd some people have wondered whether, in fact, that isn't sort of homo eroticism.
MOFFATOh, I don't think there's any question once you really see Forster's diaries. That Mr. Beebe is probably gay, that his detachment is very cultivated to try not to be a dangerous position. He's going to stay above the fray. I think that it's a mistake to read Cecil that way. But the great come-and-have-a-bathe, which Freddy Honeychurch invites...
REHMWho is Lucy's younger brother.
MOFFAT...Lucy's younger brother and a bit of a sort of a jock and an airhead, actually. But a lovely young teenage boy.
MOFFATHe's full of physicality. And his first response to these untoward neighbors, who are the wrong class is, hey, come and strip down and jump in the swimming hole.
OLOPADEYeah, I mean, I think that scene is interesting in that it also marks a sort of a change within George Emerson, who's the younger son and Lucy's eventual lover, in that he has been suffering from some malaise where he can't understand -- and this is what the question mark is about. He's struggling internally in the same way that Lucy is. And the bathing scene marks a sort of a rebirth for him where he sort of becomes very cheerful...
REHMThat's a lovely thought.
OLOPADE...he waves and greets her. And so that is another sort of key pivot turning point. And while he's with her for the rest of the time in England, he suddenly becomes more emboldened and sort of professes his love for her. And then, you have the third kiss, which is stolen on the grounds of the English estate and very much changes the course of Lucy's life.
REHMDayo Olopade, she's at the New America Foundation. She's a political reporter for the Daily Beast. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I am not quite sure whether we have not had callers because they didn't like the book -- they haven't read the book. I am amazed we have had e-mails, but thus far, we've had no callers. I am wondering why. So give us a call. Tell me why. Here's an e-mail from Brian in Louisville. He says, "Readers interested in Forster's sense of equality should follow up 'A Room With a View' with the novel, 'Maurice,' which he purposely did not publish in his lifetime. Look at how he portrays relationships. In both, he has realism and optimism that we could use today." Do you agree with that?
OLOPADEI think it's a wonderful link because I think that they're both very similar internal kinds of books. And "Maurice" is a book that Forster wrote to have a happy ending to prove that gay love was on the same plane as straight love.
OLOPADEAnd that was important to him. He needed it to have a happy ending because he was full of sad endings in front of him. He'd seen Wildes (sp?) get carried off to prison in chains and he'd seen friends kill themselves and he wanted to believe that it was possible to have a real intimacy in a gay love relationship.
REHMI want, for just one moment, go back to Cecil because it is Cecil who arranges for the rental of the house next door to Lucy's. And it's Cecil who becomes really a character of manipulation.
WOLFFERight, he is. But he's not the only one. The Reverend...
REHMThat's for sure.
WOLFFE...Beebe -- you pronounce him Cecil, I'm going to say Cecil -- but I thought it was Beebee and then Wendy told me it was...
REHMAnd I thought it was Beebee, too.
WOLFFE...which sounds even worse -- he -- there are all these characters who were trying to manipulate each other. And some of them do it successfully. A lot of them have unintended consequences, as indeed Cecil/Cecil does with the Emersons. He thinks it's going to be entertaining. And it will be all for his sport. He doesn't much like the countryside or this very middle middle-class family. He presumably thinks he's upper middle-class. These are all little layers of English society within the middle-class strata, but none of them are actually upper-class or working-class. So then -- but then the Reverend Beebe/Beebee also wants to manipulate characters and move them around. Some he cares about more because they're going to be his parishioners and others not.
WOLFFEMiss Lavish, Eleanor Lavish, is having her novel and she -- you know, there are all these people who are trying to teach each other the meaning of life or interpret life. And none of them do it as well as Forster himself.
REHMAnd what Lucy finds out is that, though Charlotte, her cousin, has pledged secrecy about the kiss, she has, in fact, told. And so...
OLOPADEWe're still told a novelist.
REHMWell, exactly. And it comes out in the novel. And heaven forbid that not only can she now no longer trust Charlotte, but she thinks the whole world will now know about this kiss. Really a fabulous novel. If you haven't read it yet, I hope you will. We're talking about E.M. Forster's "A Room With a View." When we come back, we will take your calls, 800-433-8850.
REHMAnd we're back. Now, it's time to open the phones. We'll go first to Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Good morning, Carol. You're on the air.
CAROLHi. I absolutely adore this book. I was stunned to hear that you didn't have any callers about this. I have reread this book I don't even know how many times. I've watched the original film with Maggie Smith and Julian Sands a million times. I just re-watched it last week. I've listened to it as an audio book. I just adore this. I wanted to point out that E. M. Forster was also, I believe, the tutor to Elizabeth von Arnim's children. And she's the one that wrote "The Enchanted April", which is another book about English people coming alive, detailing the landscape. But also, I've got two quick questions...
CAROL...about the book. Yeah, one of them is, there's a scene in which Lucy -- this is after she's broken up with Cecil and she's kinda talking about George and Cecil and she says something -- she's kinda musing about this. And then, E. M. Forster addresses his audience and he says, reader, can you please point out to Lucy what it was that she said wrong? And I don't know what it is. I've reread, you know, this book so many times and I still can't figure out what he's referring to.
CAROLAnd also, the very last scene when George and Lucy are on their honeymoon and they receive some letters from her younger brother and from Charlotte -- from Freddy and Charlotte. And, again, they're kinda talking about those letters. And there's something about the letter from Freddy like, well, silly them, they knew that we were gonna come away in the spring. And I'm still not -- I'm not sure what that's referring to either.
CAROLSo can anybody elucidate that, please?
REHMAll right. Wendy?
MOFFATI'll take a stab at the first one. I'm trying to find it in the book. There we are. Thank you. It's an interesting moment where the narrator sort of comes in. And afterwards, the narrator says, Lucy thought this was a rather good speech. The reader may have detected an unfortunate slip in it. The unfortunate slip is the word papa and that is that she's talking about the Emersons and she's trying to keep her cool about not giving in to the fact that she really is in love with George Emerson. But she refers to Mr. Emerson as papa, which would be a very intimate thing that you might call your father-in-law. And so she's kind of belied herself in that. And so I think the point there is that he's -- he, the narrator, is calling attention to the fact that Lucy doesn't even know how deeply she feels. The slip is unconscious for her.
WOLFFEBut there's another slip. I thought there was another Freudian slip in there.
WOLFFEFirst, remember that Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams" has just come out. So this whole playing with the idea of this subconscious, the unconscious, is very modern and actually contemporary, too. There's a difference here. But this is British modernism and all these bubbling ideas coming up here. She is describing falling into this field of the violets where the kiss happens. And she says, I fell into all those violets and he was silly and surprised, talking about Mr. Emerson who lost his head. I don't think we ought blame him very much. It makes such a difference when you see a person with beautiful things behind him unexpectedly. She should've said behind her unexpectedly.
WOLFFESo the Freudian slip here...
WOLFFE...being purely Freudian about the sort of sexual piece of it is that she -- well, this was the moment not just when he fell for her, but she, falling down, fell for him.
REHMInteresting. Dayo, anything to add?
OLOPADEYeah, I had spotlighted papa as the slip. But I think that's just right. I think that in both cases it sort of underscores how little Lucy is aware of her sort of -- of the subliminal emotions and her own interiority, which is ostensibly the point of the book that Forster is describing, but is not even -- but is mystified to her still. And I would also say that I'm not a great fan of Lucy, the character. I think, you know, for all of the talk about women's liberation and this sort of underlying discourse of her independence and her coming into her own and making her own choices, there are just better examples, I think, in this type of literature of women who are actually seizing the moment.
OLOPADEYou could look at "Madame Bovary" which is, you know, Flaubert's protagonist who's very famous for being an independent woman 50 years prior to the publication of this book. And even some of the other great heroines, such as Anna Karenina. And I think, at this time, she's a contemporary of Coco Chanel, who is the subject of a great new movie about her life as a woman in this end of Victorian era, who does take more liberties and does have more freedoms than those that Lucy has not been able to take for herself.
REHMWell, you have to wonder how much of her restriction she imposed on herself...
REHM...and how much was imposed from outside her. But finally, to take this leap and go off to Italy with George and sit there, that closing scene, in both the book and the movie, is absolutely superb. Except that there is an implication that, in fact, they won't be welcome back home. Did you get that impression?
WOLFFERight. This is clearly an elopement and it's embarrassing. And there are all sorts of social issues...
OLOPADEIt's a bit like "The Graduate" I thought.
WOLFFEBut there's something I found really troubling about that image 'cause he painted the scene.
WOLFFEThis is another...
WOLFFE..another piece of art that he's done. And she's doing something incredibly domestic. This is the woman who is out there for women's liberation and suffrage. She's darning one of his socks...
WOLFFE...and treating him like a baby.
REHMYes, it's true.
WOLFFEHe's having his head stroked.
WOLFFEIt's a very ambiguous image about these newlyweds and what their relationship -- how domestic they are. Is she a mother? Is he a child? I find it really troubling.
MOFFATWell, it's like the end of "Howard's End", too...
MOFFAT...which has Mr. Wilcox basically incapacitated by allergies. I sympathize with him, but it does make him into a strange kind of baby like...
MOFFAT...figure. It's almost as though there's no way to figure out what kind of sexual agency a woman could have that would be legitimate for Forster at this point.
REHMLet's go to St. George, Utah. Good morning, Mom (sic) .
MOMGood morning. My question is about the -- both of the films that were made of this novel. When I -- I first saw this film when I was -- I guess I was in high school or just out of high school and I had not read a lot of English literature yet. And seeing the movie really helped me then be able to access the novel, especially, I guess, the details of the manners, the rules you've been talking about. I'm just wondering what your guests think about the pros and cons of introducing literature to kids by film.
REHMThat's an interesting question.
WOLFFEWell, I couldn’t stand the movie, I'll have to admit.
REHMYou could not.
WOLFFEI couldn't stand the movie at the time.
WOLFFEAnd I haven't seen it since. No. And it was -- when was the movie at? It was in the '80s or something?
WOLFFEA highly political time. I thought the movie was like many of these Merchanty reproductions, very just pretty, pretty, beautiful...
WOLFFE...and too much of a sort of reaching back to a beautiful past and too much of a classic love story. And reading the book again now made me realize what the movie actually lacked, which was this great narrative figure; the wit, the layers of irony and the playfulness with the characters, which I didn't feel was there in the movie, at least, in my teenage recollection.
REHMHow about you, Wendy?
MOFFATI think it's interesting that Forster is so associated with the Merchant Ivory films because it's as if you just took the surface of things and it's all about the costume. And I think he's virtually unfilmable for the reasons that Richard has just laid out. I wanted to go back to the original question that I think the caller asked, though, which is whether literature or films sort of has primacy and which should come first. And the visual is so powerful, in this, as in so many things, that I think you can lose if you see the film first and then read a novel. Not that a film isn't independently a very important thing to do and not an art form in its own right. But it's as if you supplant those visuals that you have. Go to Italy before you see the Merchant Ivory...
MOFFAT...then read "Room With a View."
OLOPADEYeah, I agree with all that's been said. I think that the text is so subtle and so concerned with -- even though it feels as though it's being slammed over your head, light and dark, people who are associated with rooms versus people who are associated with views. There's no way to articulate that in a visual form. Obviously, you can have characters recreate the dialogue. But the subtlety of the text, the romantic nature of the language, all of the things Richard's describing in terms of being an art piece can be replicated, but are ultimately translated when you're doing a movie.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling, Mom. To Chas, who's driving in Florida. Let's see if I can get this. Are you there?
CHASFirst time caller, have been listening to the show for years.
CHASWell, listen, my question or comment, rather, was closer to the last comment. I mean, I was a freshman at the university and I had just gotten a scholarship to go to drama school. And I'm from a very, very, very insular, dare I say, area in Miami. I'm -- I was a street urchin in the Little Havana area. So, you know, I understand -- as a matter of fact, I saw the movie when I was 18 and I was in this other -- and like the characters, I was dealing with social hierarchies. I couldn't afford the outings that my fellow students could afford. And what I love about the novel is that it's life affirming.
CHASIt breaks social hierarchies. It breaks cultural hierarchies. One literature is not better than another. One may be read longer, And that includes Forster, than another. But it also made me go -- become dual major And I went to study English literature. And I enjoyed a dual major and later I got a Master's. But, you know, for -- you know, for a lot of people, especially in the states, you know, the Merchant Ivory film, we shouldn't pooh-pooh them. They actually introduced a different time and place that our theater for instance doesn't do and that most of our films don't so I'm for many different versions of novels.
REHMI must say, I love the film. Dayo?
OLOPADEYeah, I mean, I think that you're right to spotlight the issue of class and culture within this novel, which is a huge part of it. I think this book is less overtly political, as we've mentioned, than some of the other novels that deal with this period, that deal with class and English culture. I would recommend to you also "The Swimming Pool Library" by Alan Hollinghurst, which is a more contemporary book about a gay protagonist, an aristocrat trying to deal with the changing world, and also "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro...
OLOPADE...which is another book that treats this sort of -- this distinction between class and culture in England very well and are more contemporary books that -- I think both also have films...
MOFFAT...and speak to this clash of civilization, which is mentioned in this book, which surprised me because this was published in 1908.
REHMYes. And of course, the author of "The Remains of the Day" was on this program so listeners can go back in our archives and find that. Thanks so much for calling, Chas. Here's an e-mail. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." An e-mail from Travis in Brooklyn, N.Y., who says, "I was struck by how quickly Lucy Honeychurch's life changed the moment she decided to stop avoiding her love for Mr. Emerson's son. Do your panelists know if this was a common social etiquette at the time to jump from one suitor to another so quickly or was it simply Forster's need to ramp up the novel? I found myself missing Forster's elongated prose and scene descriptions near the end of the novel in what appeared to be an attempt to show the couple was happy and all was fixed." Wendy?
MOFFATI think that's right. I think that the plot is really secondary to Lucy's growth. And once that happens, Forster's pretty much done with it. He certainly felt that way in his own writing about this. He found the revision of the second half very, very difficult. He called it bilge. He really disliked this novel. Of all of his novels, he disliked this the most. And I think it's because he lived with it a long time. He tinkered with it for eight years. And he started it and set it aside and wrote two other novels in the middle; "Where Angels Fear to Tread" in eight weeks, which is depressing, and "Longest Journey" which was a very autobiographical novel and then, came back to it because he had a contract for another book. So there may be a little bit -- your caller may be picking up actually a little bit of a sense that once you work out all the changes inside of Lucy's heart, he's done.
REHMHe wanted to work it out and be off with it. To St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Jane.
JANEGood morning, Diane.
JANEI had you on speaker there.
JANEFirst of all, I just wanted to express my appreciation for your Readers' Review show. I discovered it in the car one day when you were discussing whatever it was before "Little Bee". And I've stuck with you from "Little Bee" on. And I have to say that it sort of orders my monthly life to read this book. And I eagerly anticipate the hour discussion and find that it's so expanse, my understanding and appreciation of the book, whatever it's been. I have told everybody I know about it. And one of my daughters said, mom, that's great. That's like your own personal book club and you don't have to clean your house or fix dessert.
REHMOh, that's terrific. I'm so glad, Jane.
JANEBut I really appreciated the third person omniscient narrator here and the way he throws, not only his British witticisms, which I love, but also his comments about life in the book. And it was so refreshing after Steve Larson. He says, life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice. And in another place, he says, though life is very glorious, it is difficult. Just the uplifting of truth.
REHMYeah, Jane, you know, I so agree with your comments. And if I had put my finger on them, I would've read them myself because those little nuggets of wisdom just seem to me so important to the appreciation of the novel. And I so appreciate your reading it for us, Dayo Olopade of the New America Foundation. She's also political reporter for The Daily Beast. Richard Wolffe, MSNBC political analyst. He has a new White House book coming out in November. Wendy Moffat, she's professor of English, author of "A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster." And for our next Readers' Review on September 22, we're going to jump forward in time to the story of an American family, Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections." So I hope you'll join us. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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