a collage of a child reading in the window with an image of a library to the right and the cover of E.M. Forster's A Room with a View on the left.

The Life That is Waiting For Us

The first time anyone asked me what I thought of A Room with a View, I said, “sure, it’s a nice enough romance.” I was sixteen, reading it in that strange summer-between after I had finished secondary school and before I would enter sixth form. We would be studying the book in school the coming fall and, after my first read, I was preparing to be a little bored.

Notoriously, English classes can be painful lessons in rereading. They can render supposed works of great literature dead in the water (Of Mice and Men, I’m looking at you). They are not usually known for making books seem less boring. So it was a surprise to discover, when term began, that I enjoyed rereading A Room with a View, poring over Forster’s patterns of water and music and armchairs and color and muddle. By learning to read in new ways—to pay attention to Forster’s voice in the novel, his subtle sympathy, his alternating light touch and pouring forth of passion—A Room with a View became a book I loved. My favorite book.

Lucy, the novel’s protagonist, is not an automatically likeable character. She spends her time making frustrating decisions. Following a sudden kiss among rivulets of violets with George Emerson (an erratic, passionate man who is socially beneath her), Lucy becomes engaged to Cecil (obnoxious, wearer of a pince-nez, prone to interminable anecdotes) and then digs her heels hard into her own self-sabotage. Just as the reader is beginning to want to take Lucy by the shoulders and shake her, Forster turns to admonish us: “It is obvious enough for the reader to conclude, ‘She loves young Emerson.’ A reader in Lucy’s place would not find it obvious.” I was compelled by the idea that the depth and the clarity of our feelings often fail to align—and by the fact that Forster let this uncertainty live. The book, and its insistency on the reality of our internal obscure world, became central to me for a while.

I started buying up copies of A Room with a View. My original was the unattractive, course-recommended Penguin edition, diligently highlighted by theme and covered in sticky notes. When I got a university interview for Oxford, I went down to the local secondhand bookshop and bought an older, orange-striped Penguin version. My teacher at the time had a paperback which included Forster’s strange, sad postscript: A View without a Room. She would gesture with it when talking to us, loose pages cascading. I got into Oxford, and found a copy of that edition in the overpriced Oxfam shop. I stacked the three of them on my new bookcase, a makeshift statue. Sometimes when something is important to you, you can’t bear the thought that it might not be important forever.

A Room with a View was one of the first pieces of “safe art” I made for myself. Safe art isn’t easy or bland or cozy. You have to work at safe art. It’s intimate to your heart, familiar. You can connect with something immediately, but it can only get safe through return, and at some point the return becomes intentional, a way of building somewhere familiar to go. To escape, yes—but escaping in order to feel and think and explore in a place where you have the background feeling of being understood. When I read A Room with a View, I don’t feel I have to explain myself, even to myself.

Reading biographies of Forster, he seems both perfectly understood and a complete mystery at once. There is something sideways about him, just as there is in his books. Bloomsbury Set, but not a prominent feature in conversations about modernism. Capable of viciously caustic comments, but mostly within the confines of letters. Phases of lightning-strike inspiration mixed with laborious years spent toiling over one book.

As exams approached, I wrote out quotes, and my mum tested me on the flashcards. She picked up my Bloomsbury fascination and took me to Charleston, the former home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and a frequent haunt of the Bloomsbury Set. I asked our tour guide if she knew any stories of Forster at the house. The only thing she could remember was an account in someone’s diary of Forster’s long solitary walks, of seeing him trudge up the garden path, heavy with rain.

Lucy is a bright character. She’s central, lively. But she is also sideways, also trudging a solitary path in the rain. Trapped in the cat’s cradle of social customs with an unshaped passion squeezed tight inside of her, she plays piano:

“It so happened that Lucy, who found daily life rather chaotic, entered a more solid world when she opened the piano. She was then no longer either deferential or patronizing; no longer either a rebel or a slave. The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected.

‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting, both for us and for her.’”

In another summer-between, I went to Florence, following Lucy (though my teacher, when she found out, cast me as Miss Bartlett—the sensible and insufferable chaperone to her younger friend). There’s a photo of me by the River Arno, perhaps the most self-conscious photo of me ever taken: young and overeager, waiting for love to show up on time. I’m pale in my sun hat and trying to look serene. I was dreaming constantly of the shape of things to come, afraid, but unsure what to be afraid of. I read and reread Lucy, felt with her through the muddle.

When I got to university, I put A Room with a View away. I was still perfectly capable of waxing lyrical about it every opportunity I got. I picked up other books by Forster, would recommend Howards End instead of A Room with a View to people, because it was a little less simple, a little less light on its feet, began with the crucial phrase “only connect,” the ultimate lesson I’d learned from Forster. Connect above and before everything else. Imagine depth and sincerity in everyone you encounter. Assume that behind every layer of Miss-Bartlett-beige there is a yearning glimmer, and in that glimmer, a whole well of feeling, no less real for being inaccessible to you.

In those years I read many other books where people stand and talk in rooms, waiting for the crisis to arrive and lead them to epiphany. I recognised these books as a type, effective but rote. I didn’t go back to A Room with A View, and the longer I left it the more I worried. If I went back, would the book go back too? Revert to that nice-enough romance, that slightly distant world? Maybe it was better to leave it there. To leave the foundation stone untouched.

In 2021 I was living alone, hemmed in by the pandemic. I had become habitual, lapsing into repetition and stillness. The streets were also very still; it was the day of the world cup final. Italy versus England. I skipped the match, got in the bath, opened that first copy of A Room with a View, coated in bubbling sticky-back plastic. “The Signora had no business to do it…”

I should have had more faith—as usual, I wasn’t going back, only forward. Rereading is not a repetition but a building on what came before.

Maybe I wasn’t quite in Lucy’s muddle anymore, but I’d come to see uncertainty as the air I moved through. Love was never going to show up on time; it would always arrive in a rush. Fears would pass before their shapes could become clear. Muddle was a perpetual state. I felt even more deeply the understandings and misunderstandings between characters. I realized my attention to the misfirings of human communication, something I worked hard at, had begun with my first readings of the book. I knew the whole book so well I could think through it, use it to test my changing ideas about the world the same way you’d use the intervals of a ruler to measure against.

I got a fourth copy of A Room with A View after I finished university. That had always been the plan, to get a final copy, to complete the narrative I’d built for myself. I hadn’t been sure why, I only knew I had to do it, because I had imagined doing it and it would complete something. I never even looked at Forster as part of my degree. There was a chance to write about Howards End in my first year, but I hadn’t the time to read it.

Now I saw that it wasn’t about the getting there, it was about the wanting to be there, knowing what reason I had to go and read books for three years. A Room with a View had proven that literature could do something to me. I want that from art, to be able to see its effects. But I think it’s true more broadly, it’s a species of proof people keep seeking: Please, let it be true that I can be changed by something outside myself. Let it be true that it isn’t all down to me.

There are other books that do something to me. There’s a bit in a Deborah Levy book about how going up an escalator made her want to cry, and I think about it without fail every time I come out of a tube station. But I honestly have no idea what that does to me. Does it make a difference that I have that thought for that moment on the escalator instead of the one I would otherwise be having? A Room with a View did more than put thoughts in my head. It made me new, and it makes me new each time. If you asked my friends what my primary preoccupations are, they would say something like: friendship, subjectivity, miscommunication, connection. All of those are rooted in A Room with a View. Built by rereadings and other readings, but seeded there.

This Christmas I got a tea towel with a Forster quote on it. What with being the sideways member of the Bloomsbury group, Forster merch is often quite hard to find. The tea towel says “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”*

When we reread, we think we are seeking for things to stay the same, to follow the plan. But that isn’t what rereading teaches us—teaches me. Instead, it is a lesson in letting things change. We cannot be always inside, playing piano. We must enter into the music, must live as we play.

* I can find no evidence that Forster actually said or wrote this. It has been frequently attributed without reference to both Forster and Joseph Campbell. The evidence for Campbell is more compelling, though a Forster expert pleasingly says “the idea is Forster-like.”

Maya Little is a writer and theatre director interested in connection, attention, and mis/communication. She has previously been published in the English and Media Centre Emag, Oxford Public Philosophy, and the Oxford Review of Books. She was recently commissioned by Chronic Insanity to write ONLYCONNECT, an interactive digital story about rentable friends. She hopes never to have a personal brand.

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