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From Austen to Forster in six steps

It’s time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best and for once I have read the starting book in the chain. For anyone unfamiliar with Six Degrees of Separation each month the idea is that from the book chosen as a starting point we find link to another book, and another using whatever flights of fancy and free associations our brains can muster. As always the books in my chain are one I’ve read.

The starting point this month is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in honour of the author’s bicentenary. The story of five daughters of the Bennett family was her third published novel and arguably most popular work in her lifetime, going through three editions before her death. The multiple tv and film adaptations produced since have helped maintain its popularity. One of the key turning points in the narrative arc is when Lizzie Bennet, second eldest daughter, visits Pemberley, the large country estate of Lord William Darcy, a wealthy landowner with whom she has previously clashed. Lizzie’s delight in seeing this estate brings her realisation that she might have misjudged this man and “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”

For my next link I’m choosing a book where the central character finds a door into a new world via another large country estate .

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh traces from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the life and romances of the protagonist Charles Ryder, including his friendship with the Flytes, a family of wealthy English Catholics who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle. He becomes seduced by the charms of the family but ultimately the relationship turns sour, not because Charles is of a different class but because they are Catholic and he cannot understand the hold religion has on their lives. Waugh wrote this as a convert to the Catholic faith and his novel reflects themes of divine grace and reconciliation as the characters struggle with their beliefs.

Like Waugh, Graham Greene was a Catholic convert who also explored the  drama of the struggles within the soul from a Catholic perspective. I could chose one of several books for my second link but I think I’m going to opt for  The Heart of the Matter (my review)  which is my favourite Greene novel. It details a life-changing moral crisis for Henry Scobie, an assistant police commissioner in a British settlement on the West Coast of Africa during World War II. A superb book about a tortured soul who wants to do the right thing but finds himself morally compromised.

Greene was at one time an agent of the British intelligence service and supervised and befriended by Kim Philby, a man later revealed as a traitor and Soviet spy. They worked together in what is known as MI6. Which gives me my next link …

John le Carré is a highly successful British author of espionage novels. He could write authoritatively about spies and their practices because he was, for a time, one of them. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for both the British Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service under his real name of David John Moore Cornwell.  He’s best known for his masterful novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which is a fiendishly intricate plot about a traitor at the heart of the security service. But I’m going to select his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which is a tremendously atmospheric novel set in Berlin at a time when the city was divided by the wall. Much of the force of Le Carre’s writing comes from the way he portrays the inner conflict of his characters and in this one, he features Alec Leamas, a British agent, who has been sent to East Germany as a fake defector with a mission to spread disinformation. By the end he has to choose between a German girl with whom he has fallen in love and his duty to his country.

Berlin and the cold war. Now that reminds me of the first Ian McEwan novel I read, The Innocent. Set in 1950, this centres on a joint American and British security operation to build a tunnel from the American sector of Berlin into the Russian sector to tap phone lines of the Soviet High Command. Leonard Marnham is the young Englishman tasked with the set up and repair of the tape recorders used in the tunnel. He’s out of his depth and bungles along until he finds in a spot where betrayal becomes easy.

 

That idea of an innocent caught up in something he doesn’t fully understand gives me my next link.  L P Hartley’s The Go-Between is the recollection of 1900 when 13-year-old Leo Colston spends the summer at a grand country house in Norfolk, rented  by the family of a prep-school chum, He gets caught unwittingly in a love affair between his friend’s beautiful sister and a neighbouring farmer.  Initially is involvement is all rather innocent, he just acts as postman between the pair but each of them is eventually very nasty to him and he’s made to feel an intruder rather than a welcome guest.

 

For my final link we’re going to visit another country house though this is on a less grand scale. Howard’s End by E. M depicts the clash of attitudes between three families, the rich and capitalistic Wilcoxes, the half-German Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Tibby, and Helen), whose cultural pursuits have much in common with the real-life Bloomsbury Group; and the Basts, a poor young couple from a lower-class background. Leonard represents the aspirations of the lower classes; he is obsessed with self-improvement and reads constantly, hoping to lift himself up. But he is never able to transform his meager education into an improved standard of living. Through an accidental encounter with the Schlegels he sees a chance to change his fortunes. The Schlegel’s well-intentioned idea of helping him go horribly wrong when, because of their advice he loses his job and becomes destitute. Another example of an innocent seduced by a world outside his own experience.

And with that we’ve looped back to book number 2 in my chain and not just thematically. The TV adaptation of  Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons, was in fact filmed at  real country house called Castle Howard.

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

A scene from the film adaptation starring Helene Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith

A scene from the film adaptation starring Helene Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith

“A mystery is only a high-sounding term for a muddle.” declares a character in E. M Forster’s A Passage to India. 

Forster’s characters do seem to have a propensity for muddles. In A Passage to India it’s the sensation felt by a group of British visitors to the country. One of them, a young schoolmistress intent on seeing ‘the real India’, becomes so confused by what she actually experiences that she ends up falsely accusing a local doctor of sexual assault. In his earlier work, A Room with A View,  the muddle is the confusion felt by the main character caught between conflicting emotions: does she follow a life of conformity to Victorian values or embrace a life of passion even if its with a man whose social status makes him ‘unsuitable’?

What Forster means by ‘a muddle’ clearly varies between the two works.   In A Passage to India it denotes the failure on the part of a group of British travellers to India to understand the essence of a whole nation. Forster’s point is that the Westerners are seduced by the country but also confused and try to make sense of its chaotic nature by categorizing everything they see — what they fail to understand is that India is too great a melting pot of cultures, castes and religions to be easily labelled.

A failing of understanding also lies at the heart of A Room with a View. 

When Lucy Honeychurch visits Italy with her prim and very upright cousin Charlotte, she is unprepared for her encounters with the unconventional, lower class Emersons, a father and son who are staying at the same pension. Nor is she prepared for the passionate intensity of people she experiences in Florence. Her senses shocked but stirred by a stolen kiss from George Emerson, she flees Florence. Back home in the idyllic family home at Windy Corner, she drifts into an engagement with Cecil Vyse. It’s a good match since he’s from a better class than her own even if he is obnoxiously condescending most of the time. But when the Emersons arrive in the neighbourhood, memories of that time in Florence are re-awakened in Lucy. The tension mounts between her passionate desires and the conventions and expectations of the class and worlds she inhabits.

It’s left to the kindly clergyman Mr Beeb, to give voice to her dilemma.

It seems to me  that you are in a muddle.

Take an old man’s word, there’s nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. … It is on my muddles that I look back with horror — on the things I might have avoided. I used to think I could teach young people the whole of life but I know better now and all my teaching …. has come down to this: beware of muddle.

To clear up the muddle requires Lucy to change her point of view. Her happiness also depends on her chosen partner sharing that view. Cecil’s inability to do so signals that he is not the right man for her.

When I think of you it’s always as in a room, she said. To her surprise, he seemed annoyed.

A drawing-room, pray? With no view?

Yes, with no view, I fancy.

The “view” contained in the novel’s title thus has a symbolic resonance. Significantly, the book begins and ends with the same physical view seen from a room in the pension in Italy. Forster apparently struggled to write A Room with a View because he couldn’t decide whether it should end on a happy note. Without giving the game away, it’s fair to say that he chose the conclusion that best fitted his theme of personal growth.

It’s a tightly written story with some finely drawn characters —  I particularly warmed to Lucy’s cousin Charlotte with her unquestioning belief in the need to uphold what is “proper” and to protect her niece from the upstart Emersons. It feels however as if Room with A View is just a warm up for the more substantial main course of A Passage to India. 

Classics club spin result

A scene from the film adaptation starring Helene Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith

A scene from the 1985 film adaptation starring Helene Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith

The ball landed on number 20 in the latest round of the Classics Club spin. So that means I shall be reading E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. It would be more accurate to say I will be re- reading it since I first encountered this novel around 30 years ago. I can’t remember much about it however other than the first part is set in Italy and features a strong-minded female protagonist.

Published in 1908 , this novel was the last of Forster’s ‘lighter’ works before the heavy weights A Passage to India and Howard’s End. It reflects similar ideas to those later works, particularly the clash between the new liberal social ideas of the Edwardian age and the more sober ideas of the preceding Victorian era. Forster used his work to show his sympathy for the new belief in the importance of individuality and the potential for self improvement. In the character of Lucy Honeychurch he showed how the change of attitudes played out at the individual level since we find Lucy struggling to break free from the restrictions of the Victorian mores and embrace the new liberalism.

I’m sure I missed many of the book’s subtleties first time around, hence why I want to give it another go.

 

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