Close Up: Summer Reading - Durrell and Foster.
Literary travels to Florence and Corfu: Humanism and Naturalism in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) and Gerard Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (1956)
By April Gallwey
‘A smell! A true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell.’
‘Is it a very nice smell?’ said Lucy, who had inherited from her mother a distaste to dirt. (A Room with a View, 2011, p. 15)
When we experience a summer holiday abroad, the distinct smell of a place, the intense feel of heat and expansive views can keep a destination forever stored in our minds. The lines above are from E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View and give a taste of Forster’s depiction of the English, middle-class tourist abroad in the early twentieth century. The elder and ridiculous Miss Lavish is accompanying her young ward, Lucy, on a walk around the city and behaves as if the place were her dominion, condescendingly remarking on its characteristics and objectifying its inhabitants, she goes on:
‘One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness,’ was the retort; one comes for life. Buon giorno! Buon giorno!’ bowing right and left. ‘Look at that adorable wine-cart! How the driver stares at us, dear, simple soul!’ (A Room, p. 15)
Given the time in which Forster was writing, when the British Empire was at its height and class division shaped every interaction between the British, it is apt that Miss Lavish, a wealthy spinster, becomes excited by the idea she is surveying a baser way of life amongst the Florentines. Lucy, also from a privileged background, comes to know herself and her heart by the end of the novel as she breaks away from the conservative clutches of her upbringing and an oppressive engagement. Here, she speaks with the voice of her mother, not her own, eager for reassurance that she won’t experience something that would take her beyond the comfortable, ‘nice’ world she knows. Forster was particularly interested in exploring the dynamics of class and social hypocrisy in his fiction, and A Room with a View does this with great comic effect as this small extract demonstrates, a topic we will return to later. Whether you are going abroad this summer, or not, I suggest that Forster’s A Room with a View and Gerard Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (which has just celebrated its sixtieth anniversary) are two books which will make for excellent companions over the vacation.
Any good piece of ‘travel fiction’ aims to transport you to a foreign place, but these two novels do so in a way which is exemplary. Both Forster and Durrell lost their fathers as children and travelled extensively with their mothers when they were young. Perhaps it is this aspect of their own experience of travel, doing so in the company of their mothers, which gives them a special artistry at depicting foreign scenes. Their descriptions of the vistas of Florence and Corfu are deeply sensual, they can be said to encapsulate a paradise lost, the kind of paradise seen through a child’s eye as it takes in the beauty of the world by its mother’s side for the first time:
It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not; with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons. It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road. (A Room, p. 13)
This was Corfu, and we strained our eyes to make out the exact shape of the mountains, to discover valleys, peeks, ravines, and beaches, but it remained a silhouette. […] Rounding the cape, we left the mountains, and the island sloped gently down, blurred with the silver and green iridescence of olives, with here and there an admonishing finger of black cypress against the sky. The shallow sea in the bays was butterfly blue, and even above the sound of the ship’s engines we could hear, faintly ringing from the shore like a chorus of tiny voices, the shrill, triumphant cries of the cicadas. (My Family and Other Animals, 2011, p. 14-15).
Such stunning passages make the reader want to get up and go to Florence and Corfu, they transport us to summertime in places quite unlike England with all the colour and character unique to the landscape and seas of Italy and Greece. There is, however, much more to these novels than the transportation of the reader to the allure of a foreign land, they are most importantly about transformation, the transformation of the self. The central characters in both texts – Gerald, Durrell’s younger self and Lucy, Forster’s female protagonist – are both changed forever by their experiences of living in Corfu, in the former’s case and visiting Florence, in the latter’s case. My Family and Other Animals is an autobiographical novel about Durrell’s time living with his mother and three siblings (and let’s not forget, Roger the dog) on Corfu before the outbreak of the Second World War. Durrell was to become one of the most important conservationists of the twentieth century, setting up The Durrell Wildlife Conservationist Trust in 1959, which still exists today. In My Family and Other Animals we witness Gerald the boy falling in love with nature on the island of Corfu, his encounters and relationships with the wildlife there clearly forming the man he was to become. In A Room with a View, Lucy is changed forever by her experiences in Italy. She arrives a young woman who is constrained by her upbringing and unsure of what she really feels. After her encounters with society beyond her narrow life in England, in particular the radical and progressive Emersons (father and son), and in particular her attraction to the younger George Emerson, and of course the beauty and expressiveness of Italian culture, she finds a truer self. Both novels therefore demonstrate how a shift in our external world, to a place unfamiliar and wondrous can transform one’s internal world. For Forster, the transformation happens when the trappings of class and a false way of life are overcome through relationships of discovery; he places human interaction centre stage. For Durrell, the transformation happens when human beings take in the magic and meaning of their essential relationship with other species. Although human relationships (particularly between family) are important in Durrell’s novel, he places the human relationship with wildlife entre stage. It is these defining philosophies, for Foster that of the humanist, for Durrell, that of the naturalist, which make these writers so progressive and important.
A Room with a View was written at the beginning of the twentieth century, it portrays the Edwardian world giving way to a new one through the Emersons whose socialist politics, atheism and rejection of class propriety, promise freer and more honest relationships. The Emerson’s ideas and very way of speaking are a radical challenge to the world of the middle classes and to Lucy who exists on the threshold between these two worlds. The following exchange between Mr Eager, a chaplain of the old world, and Mr Emerson, vanguard of the new, perfectly illustrates Forster’s critique of Edwardian society and the social hypocrisy of the period:
‘Remember,’ [the chaplain] was saying, ‘the facts about this church of Santa Croce; how it was built by faith in the full fervor of medievalism, before any taint of the Renaissance had appeared. Observe how Giotto in these frescoes – now, unhappily, ruined by restoration – is untroubled by the snares of anatomy and perspective.’ […]
‘No!’ exclaimed Mr Emerson, in much too loud a voice for church. ‘Remember nothing of the sort! Built by faith indeed! That simply means the workmen weren’t paid properly. And as for the frescoes, I see no truth in them. Look at that fat man in blue! He must weigh as much as I do, and he is shooting into the sky like an air-balloon.’ (A Room, p. 22)
Lucy is diverted from taking the path set out for her as middle class woman destined for an empty and false marriage when she meets the Emersons and falls in love with the younger, George Emerson. It is Mr Emerson, most likely the voice of Forster himself, who wakes her from her slumber at the end of the novel, and brings her into contact with the ‘holiness of direct desire’, in one of the most remarkable concluding passages of English fiction:
‘Now it is all dark. Now Beauty and Passion seem never to have existed. I know. But remember the mountains over Florence and the view. Ah dear, if I were George, and gave you one kiss, it would make you brave. You have to go cold into a battle that needs warmth, out into the muddle that you have made yourself; and your mother and all your friends will despise you, oh my darling, and rightly, if it is ever right to despise. George still dark, all the tussle and the misery without a word from him. Am I justified?’ Into his own eyes tears came. ‘Yes, for we fight for more than Love or Pleasure: there is Truth. Truth counts, Truth does count.’ (A Room, p. 203).
She ‘never exactly understood,’ she would say in after years, ‘how he managed to strengthen her. It was as if he had made her see the whole of everything at one.’ (A Room, p. 203)
E.M. Forster’s humanist values permeate the novel; its critique of social hypocrisy and conformity make it a timeless masterpiece, which can be returned to over and over and still reveal something about our limitations and possibilities.
The title of Gerald Durrell’s novel is both comic and profound. ‘My Family and Other Animals’ encapsulates his view of the world as he saw it, and wished it to be viewed by others, one in which we acknowledge our proximity to, and dependency on, the rest of the animal kingdom. Although the novel depicts the familial eccentricities of the Durrell’s in their villa with humour and perceptiveness, it is the naturalists’ description of his encounters with animals which make it a significant piece of fiction. Durrell’s description of his family’s enchantment with Achilles, a pet tortoise who is one of the many animals that comes to live with them, or his earnest observation of a nest of earwigs (hardly a very appealing creature to behold and yet he makes them enchanting!) are amongst the defining moments of the novel. Durrell said of his work in conservation: ‘People think I'm just trying to look after nice fluffy animals. What I'm actually trying to do is stop the human race from committing suicide.’ In the following passage, we can see the man who spoke these words being formed when he witnesses a lacewing fly laying an egg as a boy in My Family and Other Animals:
I found a lacewing fly on the roses and watched her as she climbed about the leaves, admiring her beautiful, fragile wings like green grass, and her enormous liquid golden eyes. Presently she stopped on the surface of a rose leaf and lowered the tip of her abdomen. She remained like that for a moment and then raised her tail, and from it, to my astonishment, rose a slender thread, like a pale hair. Then, on the very tip of this stalk, appeared the egg. The female had a rest, and then repeated the performance until the surface of the rose leaf looked as though it were covered with a forest of tiny club moss. The laying over, the female rippled her antennae briefly and flew off in a mist of green gauze wings. (My Family, p. 36)
Durrell understood how all living things were part of an intricate and dependent relationship, and it is this relationship which he so beautifully captures through the child’s eye of his boy self in the novel: ‘The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider's web,’ he wrote. ‘If you touch one thread you send shudders running through all the other threads. We are not just touching the web. We're tearing great holes in it.’
We need Durrell’s and Forster’s foreign views, to take us away, to lift us up, but also we need their values, the values which spring directly out of these two books. In a world where the ecosystem is under constant threat, the gap between rich and poor seems ever wider and religious sectarianism sustains dreadful conflict, the ideas of the humanist and naturalist have as much relevance to our century as they did to the last:
‘Now it is all dark. Now Beauty and Passion seem never to have existed. I know. But remember the mountains over Florence and the view.’
Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals, Penguin Essentials, 2011.
E.M. Forster, A Room with a View, Penguin Essentials, 2011.