This book was featured recently on BBC Radio Four's "Book at Bedtime", read by the excellent Juliet Stevenson (for people outside Britain, this is a nightly 15-minute reading, usually of a book specially condensed for the purpose). The condensation in this case prompted me to look at the original, which I found at Feedbooks
Forster analyses the emotional coming-of-age of an upper-middle-class girl in Edwardian England. We meet her first on holiday in Florence with her older cousin, Miss Bartlett, staying in a pension run by an Englishwoman whom they deprecate as being a "Cockney". The whole book is riddled with such snobbishness, including Forster's own, occasionally precious and pretentious, use of the language: but one of the outstanding characters, in fact possibly the central character, Mr Emerson, is a radical with a Christ-like simplicity and love of humanity. Forster obviously admires Mr Emerson greatly, and his own snobbishness is used as a weapon against itself, just as Mr Emerson operates against the hidebound morality of his fellow guests. You may be sure, reading Forster, who was a very great writer, that nothing is what it seems on the surface.
The ingenue (Forster's word), Lucy Honeychurch, once free of England, begins to live. She is someone who until now has always deferred to the opinions of others. In a wonderful scene set in the Piazza Signoria her metamorphosis begins. She witnesses a fatal stabbing:
"Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. 'Cinque lire,' they had cried, 'cinque lire!' They sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.
"That was all."
The "message" is indeed an important one. I won't give away any more of the plot, but the subsequent scene, in which Lucy is rescued by Mr Emerson's son, represents one of those forks in the road which, if one rather than the other path is taken, can change a life for ever. Lucy does not choose the right path at once. She still vacillates, seeking approval. Forster reserves his most bitter anger for emotional cowardice. After a conference with her cousin, he writes:
"Lucy was suffering from the most grievous wrong which this world has yet discovered: diplomatic advantage had been taken of her sincerity, of her craving for sympathy and love. Such a wrong is not easily forgotten. Never again did she expose herself without due consideration and precaution against rebuff. And such a wrong may react disastrously upon the soul."
The book is a hymn to youth, and spring, and sincerity. Because Forster is such a clever and subtle artist, this is achieved without mawkishness, and with a good deal of sly humour, much of it directed - as mentioned above - against himself and, in the person of Miss Eleanor Lavish, one of the guests at the Florence pension, the writer as a species of emotional vulture.
It's marvellous. Four and a half stars; maybe even five.