I have been working on a novel, and it’s always wonderful to see how the masters solved the problems with which I as a neophyte am still wrestling. A novel sets up certain expectations as the plot unfolds and the novelist must fulfill them. If the plot expectations are not fulfilled, it doesn’t matter what else s/he does, the novel will disappoint. Sometimes the success of that expectation hinges on the turn of just one scene. If that one scene doesn’t work, no novel.
I recently re-read E.M. Forster’s comic masterpiece A Room With a View, and it is a perfect example of a novel whose success depends entirely on the execution of one crucial scene. This short turn-of-the-century novel, a social romp through the new 20th-century world of a rapidly changing society, is full of wry commentary and third person omniscient observation. The comedy of social manners of young people caught between the ways of their conventional elders and the almost-liberated woman was a popular subject of the time. With Women’s Suffrage movements as background, George Bernard Shaw and others were making a career out of writing plays about women who, much to the consternation of their elders and the men around them, were asserting their independence.
In a short time afterwards the hopes for change embodied in these plays and novels would turn sour with the aftermath of the Great War. But in those pre-war years at the turn of the century, it was still possible to write humorously about the ways conventions could be overturned with a strong dose of Idealism and Passion.
Forster’s story is about a group of British guardians and their almost-of-age children who meet at at an Italian pensione during a sightseeing vacation. Conventions are upset by the unconventional socialists, the Emersons. They have the uncultured habit of saying what they mean. When the elder Emerson offers his Room with a View to the young filly Lucy, her older prudish cousin Charlotte is shocked at the impertinence and forwardness of such an offer. The younger Emerson, George, and Lucy have other ideas of propriety, and the rest of the novel very quickly becomes a vehicle for delivering the otherwise-engaged Lucy to her real love George. Unfortunately, Lucy herself is still bound to conventional ideas and is too scared to break with them. On her return to England, Lucy denies her love of George and instead sets off to marry the upper-class twit Cecil, in accord with her family’s expectations. But George and his father both know that Lucy is lying to herself and really loves George.
As the novel moves its scene from Italy to Britain, Forster has fun skewering the mores of the drawing room set. But ultimately the success of the book depends on whether he can pull off the culminating scene. Because delightful as the book’s whimsy, characters, and pointed humor are, if it doesn’t deliver on its obligatory scene where Lucy is confronted with her real feelings, then the book fails.
But Forster at the ridiculous age of 26 executes the scene so beautifully that this one scene in my opinion makes the novel a classic all by itself. Forster in the penultimate chapter of the book has Lucy, on the verge of marrying Cecil, running into the plainspoken father of George once more. In a remarkable monologue, George’s father talks to Lucy passionately of Truth and Love and Lying and Lucy breaks down. She can no longer run from her true feelings. She knows she must have George.
It’s a breathtaking and daring turn. The whole novel depends on whether the reader can be as persuaded as Lucy about the holiness of Love. If we don’t feel it, the novel, despite its other fine qualities, is a throwaway. In the otherwise wonderful 1985 movie, the filmmakers don’t entirely trust the moment. They end the scene too soon and Denholm Elliot’s wonderful performance as the father is somewhat short-changed. But Forster’s father’s full speech is a breathtaking tour-de-force and as a reader I was affected by every word. When I reached the end of that chapter, I felt as if I had been taken by the hand of a master and whirled around in the air, landing giddily with an exhilaration at hearing a truth so plain, yet so inspiring, that I was left, like Lucy, with the feeling of a renewed strength to face life.
Did Forster write that novel with that scene in mind first? I don’t know. But what a dare, what a wager, what an achievement. Set up the expectation, then brilliantly fulfill it. Lesson learned. Simple.