On my first visit to Italy I was 13. It was on a Schools Abroad trip, on which we spent a night in the port of Brindisi, where I and my fellow schoolmates were sexually harassed by scary sailors, made sick by the stink of diesel and where nothing could have been further from the Italy of Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson. The next time I went to Italy I was about to go to university – I was in love with life, in love with travelling, in love with love and more than ready to fall in love with the Italy I knew from the works of E M Forster. It is a love affair that has never ended.
I read A Room with a View at the age of 14 – and have continued to do so, on a regular basis, ever since. I turn to it whenever I need comfort reading; it’s the literary equivalent of hot buttery mashed potato on a miserably cold day. Despite that, I seem to discover something new each time I read it.
The first time I visited Florence, I felt I knew it already. Seeing the Arno and knowing this was the same river on which Lucy, Charlotte and the Emersons also gazed, gave me a thrill of connection to a past age. In 2015 I gave a talk on my biography of Princess Louise at the British Institute in Florence. Stepping into the building, on the banks of the Arno, was to enter a world where nothing seemed to have changed since Princess Louise’s time (incidentally, a woman whom Forster knew). I felt as though I’d stepped into the Florence the Rev Eager would recognise, and was sure I could discern some of his “flock” in the audience. […]
First published in The Independent on 10th March 2016. Read full article online.