My last post made me think about another fictional public-reader, who lives in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. In the book, Lucy Honeychurch returns to her home in England from an exhilarating trip to Florence, where she has met the eccentric Mr. Emerson and his equally eccentric but intriguing son George, who knows how to kiss, to become engaged to the prim and proper Cecil, who doesn’t.
To further set the scene, I refer you to the casting in the wonderful 1986 adaptation staring Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy, her small face quite overwhelmed by her Gibson Girl hair; Julian Sands as George; and the incomparable Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil. In Florence, Lucy has a brief but passionate (read: early 20th century passion means they kissed!) encounter with George that is witnessed by chaperone Miss Bartlett (the Downton Dowager herself, Maggie Smith), who agrees to keep mum about it.
No else knows about the encounter. (Or do they?) Certainly not Cecil. (Or does he?) To Lucy’s dismay (pleasure?), George and his father move to her village. Mid-way through the book, Forster sets the scene at Lucy’s home, where the characters — Lucy, George, Cecil, and others — have converged:
The garden of Windy Corner was deserted except for a red book, which lay sunning itself upon the gravel path…. The sun rose higher on its journey, guided not by Phaeton, but by Apollo, competent, unswerving divine. Its rays fell … on the red book mentioned previously.
“Lucy! Lucy! What’s that book? Who’s been taking a book out of the shelf an leaving it about to spoil?” [This is Lucy’s mother speaking.]
“It’s only a library book that Cecil’s been reading.”
“But pick it up, and don’t stand idling there like a flamingo.”
Lucy picked up the book and glanced at the title listlessly, Under a Loggia.
Later, Lucy is playing tennis with George and two others, while Cecil — who is a bit of a dandy, and has refused to play — reads from the book mentioned previously. He identifies the author, whom Lucy realizes with amusement is Miss Lavish, one of the women (Dame Judy Dench!) that was part of their tour in Florence and who was friendly with Miss Bartlett. Cecil reads on, poking fun at the story, but because everybody –in particular, Lucy and George — is ignoring him, he’s growing agitated. Lucy tries to placate him, and picks up the book to open it to the passage he has been trying to describe to them.
“Chapter two,” said Cecil, yawning. “Find me chapter two, if it isn’tbothering you.”
Chapter two was found, and she glanced at its opening sentences. She thought she had gone mad.
“Here–hand me the book.”
She heard her voice saying: “It isn’t worth reading–it’s too sillyto read–I never saw such rubbish–it oughtn’t to be allowed to beprinted.”
He took the book from her. “‘Leonora,'” he read, “‘sat pensive and alone. Before her lay the richchampaign of Tuscany, dotted over with many a smiling village. Theseason was spring.'” Miss Lavish knew, somehow, and had printed the past in draggled prose,for Cecil to read and for George to hear. “‘A golden haze,'” he read. He read: “‘Afar off the towers of Florence,while the bank on which she sat was carpeted with violets. All unobserved Antonio stole up behind her–‘”
Lest Cecil should see her face she turned to George and saw his face. He read: “‘There came from his lips no wordy protestation such as formallovers use. No eloquence was his, nor did he suffer from the lack of it.He simply enfolded her in his manly arms.'” “This isn’t the passage I wanted,” he informed them, “there is anothermuch funnier, further on.” He turned over the leaves.
“Should we go in to tea?” said Lucy, whose voice remained steady.
Do you see what’s happened? Cecil has chosen this book from the library; he’s decided to bring this book to his fiancé’s home; his intent is to read from this book as Lucy and George oppose each other in a vigorous game of tennis; and he manages to, supposedly, misdirect his fiancé to the very passage depicting her encounter with the very same young man that sits near her now. Coincidence? Or does Cecil know, and is he trying to tell Lucy to know that he knows? And look what happens next, because of Cecil’s library book:
She led the way up the garden, Cecil following her, George last. She thought a disaster was averted. But when they entered the shrubbery it came. The book, as if it had not worked mischief enough, had been forgotten, and Cecil must go back for it; and George, who loved passionately, must blunder against her in the narrow path. “No–” she gasped, and, for the second time, was kissed by him. As if no more was possible, he slipped back; Cecil rejoined her; they reached the upper lawn alone.
Seriously??!! Cecil could very well have his suspicions — and bear with me, as this requires a bit of speculation: he knows that Lucy and George were in Florence at the same time, at the same small hotel; maybe he already has some familiarity with Miss Lavish and her connection to the Florentine tour; he knows that George and his father have eagerly moved to Lucy’s town; and the breathlessness of the pair during the tennis match probably further prompts his uneasy Victorian sensibilities . Even if unconsciously, Cecil’s public reading sends a message. His disdain for the writing and the events depicted is a commentary on the current running between Lucy and George, which Cecil can’t help recognize and which makes him jealous and uncomfortable. And perhaps to test them, or himself, he leaves them for a few critical moments to retrieve the very book that tells their story, so that it can continue.
On the other hand, if I’m wrong, and Cecil is blissfully unaware of the romance and this all comes down to the mere chance of checking out a book of romance from the library …. Well, good on you, E.M. Forster. It’s one of my favorite scenes in all of literature.