On the threshold of adulthood, it is easy – even mandatory, perhaps – to find oneself feeling adrift. In many ways, like travelling, coming of age is fraught with exploration, doubt, isolation, and fulfilment (or sometimes lack thereof). While travel may embody a physical journey and all of the various psychological implications that come along with that, growing up is its own kind of internal voyage in which the passage from childhood to adulthood is made.
In his classic homage to Italy, A Room with a View, E.M. Forster captures this congruous relationship between travel and the denouement of adolescence. When the novel’s protagonist Lucy Honeychurch, a proper upper class English girl, finds herself in Florence, Italy at the turn of the century, she does not know what she wants. Without the guidance of a cohort of adults and tastemakers to help her make decisions (or rather, it seems, make them for her), and stripped of the safety net of home comforts, Lucy struggles to establish her point of view and opinion:
There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was truly beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin. (Forster, II)
Forster uses art as a vessel with which to convey Lucy’s weak grasp on her sense of self and her childish reliance on others. In the Sante Croce church, she finds herself left to her own devices, a side effect both of her increasing independence as a young adult, as well as being a ‘tourist,’ so to speak.
Travel promises the opportunity for escapism in all of its forms; escape from the mundane and routine can either be refreshing or formidable, and usually ends up being a blend of both. This rings true for Lucy, whose holiday is not the picture of relaxation and freedom embodied by our idillic constructed view of travelling. Wandering Florence with the desire to escape from her overbearing chaperone – Miss Bartlett – and be independent, Lucy buys a picture of the Birth of Venus by Boticelli near Piazza della Signoria, but despite wandering and exploring as a traveller is supposed to do, she still does not feel close to how she thinks she ought to:
…the gates of liberty seemed still unopened. [Lucy] was conscious of her discontent; it was new to her to be conscious of it. “The world,” she thought, “is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them” (Forster, IV).
In this disillusionment with her surroundings, Lucy is, ironically, being honest about how she really feels for once, even if that feeling is one of overwhelming disorientation. The pressure to have a transcendent experience while travelling is one that may be universally familiar, but the rarely discussed inverse to it that Forster raises here is one where the mythic, life-changing epiphany does not materialise, and disappointment ensues. Once again, this presents one of A Room with a View‘s central themes and Lucy’s key problems, wherein she looks outward for her identity and self-actualization, rather than in herself. Caught between the demands of her background and culture to be ‘sensible’ and think a specific way despite her contradictory feelings, Lucy is disillusioned not only with Florence, but furthermore with who she is as a person and who she thinks that she should be.
A piece of critical advice on this matter comes from Mr. Emerson, a foil to Lucy and Charlotte’s upper class rigidity, and the embodiment of honesty and authenticity throughout much of the novel. Gleaning some of Lucy’s internal struggles, he tells her:
…let yourself go. You are inclined to get muddled, if I may judge from last night. Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them. By understanding George you may learn to understand yourself. (Forster, II)
Although his wisdom seems to pertain to getting his son a date at this point, it also speaks truths about Lucy’s struggles more broadly. Mr. Emerson reminds her, and the readers, of the value of being honest with oneself and following your heart, rather than convention or what is expected of you. This is the source of the liberty that Lucy cannot find elsewhere, and it has been in her – in all of us – the entire time.
Source: A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, published online by Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2641/2641-h/2641-h.htm