Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 4)
Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1879–1970
Forster, an English novelist, short story writer, and essayist, was one of the major writers of our time. In many ways, as one critic noted, Forster was "the outstanding literary spokesman for humanist values." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
From many points of view [Forster] was a superb literary critic. He felt this himself, and had a pert way of exclaiming how acute he was, and what an easy business criticism turned out to be. His letters of literary advice to friends are admirable. No one was better, as they acknowledged, at sensing their intentions or putting his finger on the spot where things went wrong. As a critic he looked, he scrutinised the object as if nothing else like it had ever existed, and he emerged with a brand new, freshly-minted formula, fitting not only the work in question but, potentially, a whole new class of works. His published criticism has the same virtues; many of his judgments in Aspects of the Novel seem dated now, but his formulae are as lively as ever.
However, there was a price to pay for this ad hoc approach to criticism. He was so distrustful of system in all matters of art, as in matters of the heart and conduct, that he could not enter into the frame of mind of artists to whom system mattered. He could never get his mind round Henry James, for instance, though he thought about him, off and on, all his life. He would write James off as a futile cobweb-spinner; then he would pick up a new novel of his and be astonished at its marvellous power and solidity. The thing seemed a great mystery to him; it never occurred to him that James might have wanted to do one thing in one novel and another in another—that there was a system and larger artistic plan in his literary career….
I mention his limitations as a critic because they help to define his virtues, which were also his virtues as a thinker and writer in general. His mind was a vast breeding-ground for discriminations. He endlessly picked and chose and could distinguish between two blades of grass. No one ever made such restrictive remarks. I can hear them so vividly: "So-and-so, with an intelligent face, fairly"; or, "I am devoted to so-and-so's son, slightly."… Again, both as a critic and a creator, he was a master of angle. As all his friends remarked, nobody came at things from queerer angles. It was not whimsicality; it arose from his seeing things more concretely than other people. (It shows his respect for the concreteness of the world that he always realised his metaphors. Describing himself as having, like a rat, deserted the ship of fiction, he continues "and swam towards biography.") He planted himself firmly in the world and took sighting from where he stood; there was this that one could see and that which was concealed by the lie of the land. Of course, one could change one's viewpoint…. His great strength as a novelist was his sense for the angles at which people stood to one another and to the universe surrounding them and the constant dance of changing angles from which he makes us view them. For him, the art of fiction, like the art of life, lay in finding one's bearings. "One must face facts," a friend once said to him. "How can I," he replied, "when they're all around me?"
This leads me to what you might call his "secret" and his deepest originality; I mean his feeling for life. His knowledge of society was not particularly remarkable; what was superior to him was his knowledge of the possibilities of life. It seemed he could see through to life; it was not a vague generality to him but a palpable presence, and he could hear its wingbeat.
P. N. Furbank, "The Personality of E. M. Forster," in Encounter, November, 1970, pp. 61-8.
[One] of the effects of reading E. M. Forster is to feel a bit ashamed … at one's own obtuseness at not being able to see things—important things about relationships, about society, about the condition of being human—as he saw them: with lucidity, sympathy and absolutely in the round….
Technically,… Forster's novels form a connection between the ethical-culture and traditional forms of the 19th-century novelists and the main preoccupations of the novelists of the 20th—Forster takes up, that is, where George Eliot leaves off and leaves off where D. H. Lawrence takes up. But to place Forster in the immense stretch of literary landscape between George Eliot and D. H. Lawrence is really not to place him at all.
To find a writer of comparable position in the hearts and minds of his readers one has to go outside English literature—one has to go all the way to Russia and to the figure of Chekhov. How alike the two writers seem in their virtues: in possessing temperaments of exquisite balance, in being firmly anchored in their respective national cultures, in holding at all times to an essential decency. "People must never be humiliated—that is the main thing." Chekhov wrote that, but it could as easily have been Forster….
While "A Passage to India" is certainly Forster's most ambitious novel—it is also, incidentally, his most "teachable," which may account for its being far and away the best known of his books—Lionel Trilling among others has judged (rightly, I think) "Howards End" to be his masterpiece….
Thick with life, consummate in pace and plot, written in a tone of offhand elegance that is perfect to its subject, ["Howards End"] also displays a knowledge of human nature, with its quirks, range and complexities, that attains to nothing less than wisdom….
Forster's novels are fraught with the most surprising twists and turns of plot, including quite violent ones. He could kill off a character almost as fast as Evelyn Waugh, who, when he was working well, could do it faster than God….
The writing of "Maurice" must have been part of an act of deep personal liberation on Forster's part—a novel that, for complex reasons, he needed to write, just as he may have needed to imagine a happy ending for a homosexual life. One likes to think that his own coming to terms with homosexuality ended happily, which it may well have, for he had an enormous talent for living an ordered life. Nor does having written one deeply flawed novel in any way invalidate all that is so very fine in the body of his work. The obvious nature of the flaws in "Maurice" somehow serves to make Forster seem even more human than before. "Maurice" after all, illustrates a very odd and very common point in the history of literary creation: in literature, psyche's gain is often art's loss.
Joseph Epstein, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 10, 1971, pp. 1-2, 28-9.
Since comparison [of Maurice] with Lady Chatterley's Lover is inevitable, perhaps all that needs to be said is that, as always, Lawrence had the greater imaginative force and intensity and depth of perception. The inner life of his protagonists seems to break out of the fissures which he points to in English society, and he knew how the poor thought and talked, and what working-class culture was, in a way that was denied to Forster.
Both novels, when set against the masterpieces each man wrote, are failures. All the more tragically, for both felt themselves possessed when they wrote and were convinced of the supreme importance of what they had to say about sexual relations. Perhaps for that reason the novels also have to perform the work of tracts, and creation gets elbowed aside by argumentation. If Lawrence's ambition, range, and achievement were greater, so too was his failure, and there is nothing in Forster so overwritten as some of the passages of sexual achievement in Lady Chatterley's Lover….
Forster knew he was writing a tract…. Tracts are rarely funny and we get hardly a glimpse of his humor. Those fierce contoured plots have disappeared…. [The] book feels thin in the way that Forster's other novels never do.
Nevertheless, Maurice is not negligible. We never doubt, as we so often do in the novels of our time, that Forster believes in the supreme importance of human beings, and hence of their actions, and hence of the moral meaning of those actions. His characters are never diminished by their environment. They are not allowed to shuffle off their responsibilities upon the inevitable processes of history or excuse themselves by identifying with the case histories in psychoanalysis….
He knew perfectly well that other homosexual worlds existed, such as the international set, and that numbers of homosexuals camped about as pansies and transvestites or felt impelled to solicit rough trade in public lavatories or to comb the pubs, or were in his time especially susceptible to guardsmen and sailors.
But he was not interested in them any more than he was interested in womanizers. He liked the comedy of sex but he disliked sexual boasting…. The great myth of potency which has so affected post-First World War American literature from Hemingway's heroes to Updike's couples never enthralled Forster. Forster thought sex was an attribute of love and, though ultimately indispensable, by no means the most important attribute. Loyalty was as indispensable and so was truthfulness. Love meant, as it did to others born Victorians, a lifelong involvement, changing its shape no doubt, but not something that in the nature of things would turn out to be a transitory affair….
Forster as a living artist had a long inning. The poets and writers of the Thirties admired and accepted him. In the Forties when it became clear that his main work was completed, Lionel Trilling acclaimed him, and he passed into the universities as a classic. The young in England continued to read him until he was over eighty. Then they stopped, and he became a monument. [Maurice and Albergo Empedocle and Other Writings] will be invaluable to those who want to pull it down and say that it is made of scrap iron and not bronze.
It does not matter. What they say will be virtually irrelevant. Forster the man has yet to appear and he will be found to have as many echoes and mysteries as his novels. The oddity of his mind expressed itself in the originality of his judgments (not, of course, always right) and of his perceptions about the nature of things (nearly always fertile, fruitful, and still sprouting). He was one of the greatest moralists of his time. He wrote one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Nothing else need be put in the scales.
Noel Annan, "Love Story," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission of The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), October 21, 1971, pp. 12-19.
Flaubert's imagined orgy in which the slumbering spirit of man wakens to an apocalyptic anarchy of sight and sound is a hope never dreamed of in Forster's philosophy. No one knows better than Forster the dictionaries of commonplace that define much of life and the fictions by which we attempt to transcend the prosaic…. But because Forster accepts the day that is and views the past as "a series of disorders," he seeks no escape into history, no grounds for an aesthetic martyrdom. That his novel is being written is neither an existential heroic cry against the conspiracy of silence nor a magical act of exorcism. Whatever superiority there is in the order of art consists in its recognition that knowledge is not power. Because art is not a history "pressed into shape from outside," it makes the unique claim of being the "only material object in the universe which may possess internal harmony" ["Art for Art's Sake," p. 92]. It is one order of life whose fiction, through its humor, may console us for our inability to remain silent and unjustified.
The novelist is not god, saint, or tortured artist; he is defined like his characters on the wirework of experience and expression, and all the alternatives of perspective and attitude that he cares about and can envisage are contained within the novel. His novel uses occasion; it cannot preserve experience from the attrition of time. By tolerating imperfections of cultures and personalities, the author refuses the nobility of tragedy for the self. Forster's conviction is that the days we live through provide the material to explore spirit. The word cannot release time into space; it is the superhistorical temper that insists on this conversion…. Forster's history is forever encased in a human mind and contradicts the spatial histories of Flaubert's Fontainebleau and George Eliot's Zionism. He does not lead us, however, to a frustrating nihilism, unless that is where we want to go….
Forster's humanism never allows an invulnerable history or nature to destroy or expand his subject permanently….
The humanist novelist challenges abstraction wherever he finds it, especially in varieties of humanism. If nature cannot annihilate men, neither can men control nature. The lordly imperialism of the superhistorical mind, which allegorizes culture and nature to possess them, is overcome by, as often as it re-forms, the exuberant independence of the universe. And the significant contribution of humanist fiction is that it does not choose sides but knows it must live with both. Chapter 10 of A Passage to India is a good illustration of Forster's endurance of both nature's indifference and man's compulsion for order. Here he typically undermines the props of his own novel: story and density of character. Following one of the several inconclusive talks between the characters, Forster takes us perilously near to utter unraveling: "The inarticulate world is closer at hand and readier to resume control as soon as men are tired" (p. 114). Both the wise and the ignorant suffer the fatigues of ordering. The habit of personification, a temporary strategy of human superiority, is regularly exposed by a tireless humor….
As he steps down from the sky, Forster shows us how he manages to control the risky pitch that sounds throughout the novel, a bold blending of derision and compassion. At first we are led to think that Forster's description will follow the deterministic line to its reductive finale. By using allegory familiarly, he implies that he has shared the habit of mankind in general to reach the unfamiliar by myths, to control it by such fictions as writing novels….
Forster does little to elevate the modest gesture of humanism, the attempt to be sensible, honest, subtle. But there is a tiny charity that helps it to persist. When Forster, however provisionally, rises above his characters' habitual perspective to criticize it, he compensates them by relinquishing his own superiority…. [We are led] to ask how far dignity can be enhanced by not being absorbed into the comedy. Is the evident poise of Mrs. Moore and Professor Godbole a permanent superiority? When Fielding is involved up to his neck, do we think less of his wisdom? For Forster, as for his most sensitive characters, there is no stopping point at nobility. The will is humbled by the spirit, the moral by the mystic, but these terms are explored by the stuttering word and felt by the faltering handshake….
Aziz's attraction to poetry … is that it dissolves distinctions by raising individual tragedy to universal pathos. This is the function of its romance—to overrate, for better and for worse, the possibilities of communion between man and man, man and his universe, culture and culture, history and apocalypse, the body and the spirit….
Romance unchecked by evidence caused Aziz's difficulties; now his dream of love fosters suspicion of the foreigner and his friend. It is the oldest of tensions, that between brother and brotherhood, between the difficulties of loving one's neighbor and dreams of love. But Forster goes beyond a simple dialectic. Even in dreams, Aziz's love distinguishes between national and universal. What Forster is ultimately telling us is that poetry or religion, where love may dwell without tension, cannot further the kind of personal relationship that is the center of the humanist novel, the relationship that barely holds on with dwarfed hands. Explicitly and in allegories of nature mocking man, Forster indicates that Western poetry, religion, and myth help us to order the universe and to relieve us from absurdity by yoking together man and man, man and nature, with imperative fictitious commands….
In contrast, Indian poetry deals with the absurd by dissolving distinctions between man and flower. It relieves anxieties brought on by the compulsion to moral order with the perspective of pathos, that view which sees all victory as fate. Aziz's divorce of poetry from friendship, with the separation of grace from justice, is an agonizing human pattern…. The humanist's recognition of the absurd is essentially the recognition of this separation.
Naomi Lebowitz, "'A Passage to India': History as Humanist Humor," in Humanism and the Absurd in the Modern Novel, Northwestern University Press, 1971, pp. 67-85.
Forster's work is built on a traditional intellectual and literary inheritance…. What the tradition is he himself has brought alive for us by showing, in many essays and in books like Marianne Thornton, his own intellectual origins and lineage, which go back to the world of the Victorian upper-middle-class, dissenting intelligentsia from which he descended, and beyond that to Romanticism. To the cultural historian the fascination of this intelligentsia lies in its responsible and unconditioned spirit, its capacity to act beyond interest and to embody without a sense of radical alienation the critical intelligence in society, the demand for culture and wholeness. This in turn goes back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, and especially to that engaging synthesis, in Wordsworth and Coleridge, of the romantic imperative of the imagination and the social imperative to right reason and moral duty. There could be, then, a romantic critique of society, a critique which took it as solid, real, and worthy, which is precisely what Forster's kind of novel assumes. His novels also assume the compelling power of the imagination in human dealings; he demands a personal connection between inner and outer worlds, demands that both man and society be whole, which is why his novels are about individual redemptions and personal relationships and at the same time very social novels, in which the passion to see life steadily and see it whole provides the moral thrust, in which the object of criticism is those 'vast armies of the benighted' who fail not only the heart but also the brain….
Forster is an historical ironist; he knows the problems of his lineage very well. His last two novels, and his finest works, Howards End and A Passage to India, are both about that—which is why they are, differently, complex modern works. Howards End (1910) is a romantic novel about emotional and social wholeness, the reconciling of the prose and the passion, the commercial bourgeoisie and the intellectual, the material activity of society and the ideal of felt, living personal relationships. A classic kind of comedy which is also a deep inquiry into the state of the nation and the state of the culture, it is a very central and exemplary kind of English novel. A Passage to India, which comes fourteen years and a World War later, is about human and cosmic wholeness, the reconciling of man to man in a global sense, and then of man to the infinite. A book of decidedly symbolist aspirations, its world is one in which social existence is dwarfed and made a feeble invasion on the surface of a harsh, implacable, yet also spiritually demanding earth. But the difficulties are patent and turn ironically back on both books, so that the thrust of their values is unfulfilled. In Howards End Forster touches in with the greatest power those processes in history which will destroy the favoured world and cannot be gainsaid; the proliferating energy of urbanization and industrialism attacks his own metaphors and symbols, and the spirit of a pastoral England which seems the one offered base for wholeness. A Passage to India contains one of the most powerful evocations of modern nullity we have in our literature: the worlds within us and without, at the extreme of romantic dejection, echo together the sound of boum from the caves; visionary hope faces an alien, unspeaking, self-reflecting nature. In both books the will to vision, the liberal drive to right reason, the urgent claims of the holiness of the heart's affections, are confronted with unyielding forces in history; it is the irony resulting from that confrontation that makes Forster's works so very modern, a modernity that intensifies as we read his novels in sequence….
Forster's first three novels were social comedies with romantic moral implications, works set in a relatively stabilized world in which the bearers of the Forsterian virtues—the virtues of the developed heart, spontaneous passion, trust in the imagination—battled with the armies of the benighted and won their illuminating moral victories. So is Maurice, mostly written in 1913–14. But Howards End, though still very much concerned with a mode of social comedy open towards the world of the unseen and the visionary, turns on a new historical acceleration, an instability in the world order; the relationship between the formal world of art and the historical world of time is central. Hence the book has been seen as divided inside itself; the social metaphor Forster distils in connecting two of his central characters, Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox, and the spiritual metaphor Margaret inherits from Wilcox's previous wife, seem imposed on the worked and felt life of the novel….
Howards End I take to be a novel, treated in the comic mode, about the circumstances in which the moral life, which is also the full life of the imagination, can be led in society, about the compromises it must effect with itself in order to do so, about the moral and imaginative value of making certain compromises, and about the historical pressures underlying them. The concerns here are deeply associated with Forster's 'liberalism'—his devotion to what is decent, human, and enlarging in daily conduct, to personal relationships and responsiveness to life, to finding that truth and goodness coincide—but the book also considers questions of whether this moral life can become transcendent, and by what means reality may be known. There is in the novel a push, on these lines, towards wholeness, and contact with the infinite; and Forster's liberalism apparently proposes to justify itself when it mirrors infinity—intimations of which can reside in personal relationships, harmonious living, and contact with the earth…. It is thus possible to read the novel as a dialectical work moving towards synthesis, which is spiritual completeness. But to see Howards End like that is to underplay what is also in it: a real devotion to society, an ironic spirit, an ambiguous ending. For the book is also concerned with the necessary conditions of life in a particular community, and indeed with those 'great impersonal forces' that Mr. Wilcox complacently appeals to when he wants to purge the personal from conversation. This makes Forster very quizzical, and one of the main functions of the comic tone here is surely to enforce this, indeed to let Forster be sceptical about his spiritualizing thrust. This makes Howards End more ironic than the very positive interpretations the novel has earned suggest; and that irony is of the essence, for it is a mediating presence between the parts of the book that are preeminently social comedy and those concerned with the poetic, which is also the infinite….
In the end, Forster seems to say both, to indicate both total unity, the oneness of the world and what lies behind it, and total multiplicity. He does so because comedy and poetry share [A Passage to India] between them in perpetual interplay, proliferating muddle, yet manifesting formal order. The human world may be unredeemable, but Forster venerates those who try to redeem it; it may be plurally incomprehensible, existence without value, but [he] values those who seek to comprehend it. Yet the world of wholeness and vision is, in a sense, too easy, and not enough; the material and human world must subsist first before it may have credit. The task of the full novel must therefore be undertaken not alone by the social novelist, and not alone by the symbolist one, as Virginia Woolf undertakes it. The result is, finally, a dualistic world, a world founded on contradictions at once potentially mystery and muddle. As Virginia Woolf—who shared Bloomsbury with him, but maintained her novel as a rather purer species—complained, Forster is a materialist novelist, very much aware of the powers of time, refusing to live life at the level of perpetual vision: for to him vision is rare and not always redemptive. So the human plot tells of life in time, and Forster awards enough meaning and tone and style to that to make it matter fully; the verbal plot tells of transcendence, of epiphany, through art, through suggestion, pattern, and leitmotif, the opening out of meanings, and Forster gives wholeness to that too, the wholeness which is the unity of art.
Malcolm Bradbury, "E. M. Forster as Victorian and Modern: 'Howards End' and 'A Passage to India'," in his Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel (© 1973 by Malcolm Bradbury; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 91-120.
Altogether, [Forster] stood in an odd relation to time. He remained current, a writer speaking to men here and now, unusually long; and yet, at the same time, he was peculiarly Edwardian. He seems to have received his vision of life and art more or less complete at a very early age; and insofar as this vision was a social one, the figures peopling it were and remained Edwardian. His Anglo-Indians in A Passage to India are pre-First World War Anglo-Indians. And when, in old age, he wrote that very fine story 'The Other Boat', it was Edwardians his imagination dwelt on still. This trait would not have been significant in a poet, but for a novelist, depicting society, it created difficulties.
More and more, Howards End strikes one as the Edwardian novel, taking up the common preoccupations of its age and interpreting them originally. The age was concerned about physical degeneracy, and Forster commended athleticism—but an athleticism of love: it was love, he said, which must develop 'thews'. Edwardian England—this was part of the same preoccupation—was obsessed with Germany, and Forster's novel subtly probes this obsession, so that, for instance, Mr. Wilcox stammers when the word 'Germany' rises to his lips: 'England will never keep her trade overseas unless she is prepared to make sacrifices. Unless we get firm in West Africa, Ger … untold complications may follow.' Forster carpeted the common notion that Prussian strength spelled 'manhood' and let it discredit itself. He even gave weight, a limited weight, to the idea of war as a purifier: thus, it is a German sword, sheathed after Sedan, which finally cuts through the tragic muddle in Howards End.
Howards End is the novel of Forster's which most worries present-day critics. Some, partly as a result, take the line that A Passage to India is his only acceptable work. This seems to me too much of a manoeuvre; though to my mind Howards End, magnificent as it is, has one glaring fault, the treatment of Leonard's wife Jacky. Here I do think one runs up against grave limitations in Forster. He truly couldn't imagine a Jacky, and here charity failed him as well as imagination; one feels offended with him over it.
P. N. Furbank, in The Listener, January 31, 1974, p. 155.
The tone of Forster's essay, 'Not Looking at Pictures,' is similar to his ironic and satiric use of art in his two Italian novels [Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room With a View]. In these books the English characters learn to see life through the medium of art, which revives both their visual and their sensual feelings, and awakens their 'fantasies' about painting as well as their capacity to love….
Though the effect of Forster's wit and playfulness is frequently humorous, the themes of both novels are serious and even sombre; and Forster uses the paintings of Ghirlandaio and Giotto in a subtle way to suggest the symbols, reveal the characters and emphasize the themes of his books. The subject and content of the paintings provide numerous allusions and analogies to the substance of the novels, and the characters are often defined by their response to the paintings. And Ghirlandaio [called Giovanni da Empoli in Where Angels Fear to Tread] and Giotto are also used as aesthetic models for significant scenes so that the visual element matches and heightens the psychological significance of the action….
Ghirlandaio's fresco, like Donizetti's opera that the English visitors see in Monteriano, provides an aesthetic model for Where Angels Fear To Tread, for the novel is composed of a series of operatic and dramatic scenes ('The vista of the landing and the two open doors made [Gino] both remote and significant, like an actor on the stage'), and the English regard Italy as a 'pageant' and a 'spectacle'. When Philip sees Gino and Caroline just after they have bathed the baby and at the crucial moment when she realizes that she loves Gino they form a composition like the Ghirlandaio fresco—with a similar view and a similar copper pot—that is at once theatrical, aesthetic and religious….
The 'sweetness and barbarity' of the saint's life, portrayed in the fresco, is not only an aesthetic model for certain scenes in Forster's novel, but also a thematic source that relates the characters to a single image. For like Fina, Lilia dies an exemplary and expiatory death, liberating Caroline and Philip, as she had freed herself, from 'the idleness, the stupidity, the respectability, and the petty unselfishness' of Sawston. Caroline's rescue of Philip, the fictional equivalent of Fina's miraculous cure of Beldia's paralyzed arm, is also presented in a dramatic, aesthetic and religious composition similar to the 'Virgin and Child, with Donor'….
Ghirlandaio's fresco records the life of a saint who struggled against the devil, and the novel's theme is an ambiguous and ironic reversal of the painting. Gino is twice called the 'devil', but he is also the agent of self-discovery for the principal characters. Like Fina, first Lilia, then Caroline Abbott and finally Fra Filippo are tempted by the attractive but unfaithful Gino, who is associated with the powers of evil….
The legend of Santa Fina also provides a major symbol in the novel, for when the saint died the rotten wood of the bed was covered with violets and masses of violets were seen flowering suddenly on all the towers of the town. When Philip first arrives in Monteriano his caustic interrogation of Caroline is suddenly interrupted by a long and lyrical description in water imagery of the violets that seem to symbolize Italy….
The characters and themes of Where Angels Fear To Tread are repeated three years later in A Room With A View, where Gino becomes George, Philip is Cecil, Caroline is Lucy, and Harriet is Charlotte. In the later novel, however, George and Lucy achieve a fulfilment of love, analogous to the divine love portrayed in Giotto's painting, that is denied to Philip and to Caroline.
The second chapter of A Room With A View (1908), 'In Santa Croce with no Baedeker,' focuses on Giotto's fresco The Ascension of St John, and the significance of the painting reverberates throughout the novel. For just as Giotto presents, in the characters grouped around St John, two distinct ways of viewing experience, so Forster reveals his characters' approach to life through their approach to art. One character complains of the Italians, 'From the cabdriver down to—to Giotto, they turn us inside out': images lead to ethics. In the course of the novel the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, moves from a separation to an integration of art and life, and her development is measured by her change from a purely aesthetic object to a mature woman awakened through art to self-knowledge….
Like Baedeker and the violets, the 'compositional' scenes of Where Angels Fear To Tread reappear in A Room With A View. George's kisses, prompted by the example of the driver Phaeton, take place in the context of an aesthetic landscape: the view over the Sussex weald is compared to pictures in a gallery and the Italian view is similar to the one that Alessio Baldovinetti was fond of introducing into his paintings….
In A Room With A View Forster first uses Giotto's The Ascension of St John to reveal his themes through the characters' approach to the painting. But as the novel develops these purely aesthetic responses become identified with moral issues. Forster constructs a witty analogy between Lucy and St John, for whenever Lucy follows Mr Emerson's advice and moves toward illumination (portrayed in the painting by the golden rays that emanate from Christ), she is described in the imagery of ascension…. The theme of A Room With A View is Lucy's reticent yet triumphant response to the call of life, and the victory of the intuitive and impulsive over the rational and repressive modes of experience. Italy and its art work some marvel in Lucy: they make her aware of her craving for sympathy and love, and manifest their power to evoke passion and bring it to fulfilment.
Jeffrey Meyers, "The Paintings in Forster's Italian Novels," in London Magazine, February/March, 1974, pp. 46-62.