I’m hardly an expert when it comes to Forster’s works – I’d only read A Room With a View earlier, but at least I’d read that countless times – and this lack of expertise might be the reason this novel was a big surprise to me.
First of all: I’m always intrigued to see how writers develop, how they enlarge upon their main themes and how they improve their favorite motifs from one book to the next. (This isn’t the main point here, so I’m not going into details now, but my theory is that in fact, everyone has only two or three really interesting things to say in their life – but it can take a good while until someone finds the best possible form, genre or mode of expression for that two or three amazing thoughts. And I like to read the experimental, voice-finding pieces of someone’s life work, too, not only the masterpieces.)
And it was interesting to compare this novel with A Room With a View (I don’t mean any kind of deep and involved parallel reading – I only mean that I’ve read A Room With a View so many times that I almost know it by heart), and to encounter a huge number of motifs and themes Forster must have found so irresistible and enchanting that he quickly put them not just into one novel, but two. Just a couple of examples: the charm and dramatic and dramatizing power of Italy; the view (yes!) you can enjoy from the balconies of Italian houses and from the walls of Italian towns, the view that’s more than enough to completely change someone’s direction in life; the purple flowers blooming all over the Italian hillsides every spring; little babies (real or otherwise); and so on. And further, it’s interesting how the same motifs can have such a different effect in different novels.
The reason this novel surprised me is because I had no idea Forster’s writing could be so dark. (I had no idea that A Room With a View is supposed to be his lightest novel, and all the others are way darker.)
And I didn’t suspect anything at first – this novel, too, starts out lightly enough: with two young English ladies embarking on the Big Italian Adventure, which around 1900 wasn’t supposed to involve getting romantically entangled with attractive Mediterranean demigods – but as it is, exactly this happens here, while all the relatives and neighbors back in England watch with horror as the events unfold, and then decide to send a rescue team to save the hapless ladies from the misfortune – a misfortune they got into out of their own free will. (Of course, Italy is attractive only as long as the English tourist can observe and admire it from behind the safe wall of the Baedeker. The approved plans of „learning” Italy never involve any real, non-touristy interactions with the locals, and if any such interaction occurs, Italy immediately becomes a barbaric country whose inhabitants all harbor evil plots to rid the innocent English ladies and gentlemen of their money and good morals.)
Anyway, up until this point, the novel is lighthearted and funny enough – then the mood turns gradually darker, and I don’t even realize how we suddenly get to topics such as gender equality; the cultural differences between countries, and how these differences might be insurmountable; and the possibly mortally dangerous English stiffness, cold blood, and hysterical regularity. To illustrate these points, Forster makes rather brutal things happen to his characters, and he doesn’t stop at being just nicely ironic and gently sarcastic. (He does these, too, of course – and with such wit and charm that he immediately climbs right next to Jane Austen on my fictitious list of top English authors who can make the most devastating remarks while maintaining a perfectly innocent face.)
I don’t mind, by the way, that this novel is pretty sombre. What I do mind a bit is that Forster doesn’t always seem to be in control, and it feels as if he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted with his characters and what road he wanted them to take. (Additionally, it seems he wasn’t sure what the characters want from each other, either.) But perhaps this is again the effect of Italy – that someone who used to be a moderately boring, moderately annoying, not particularly attractive neighbor in the good-natured world of rural England magically becomes a goddess in Italy. It’s possible, I guess – it’s only that Forster doesn’t manage to convince me how these things occur.
(If I ever found myself in Monteriano, though, I’d make sure to look for the places mentioned in the novel because even if Forster seems somewhat uncertain about his characters, he is absolutely sure about the magic of Monteriano. It’s a pity that Monteriano probably doesn’t exist.)