The following article first appeared in The Independent newspaper in March 2016.
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 first read A Room with a Viewat 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 having read it so many times, 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.
There are so many books one should never re-read: books that spoke soulfully to your younger self seldom work when read again (most notably, for me, Paolo Coelho’s By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept).A Room With A View, however, has entertained me at all stages of my life so far. Wherever I’ve travelled, I’ve encountered Forster’s characters. In Jordan, I could discern Mr Beebe and Mr Emerson visiting the temples of Petra. Last year I was in Norway when I saw a family sit down for a picnic – and they actually possessed “mackintosh squares”. I have visited churches, temples and mosques all over the world and have lost count of the times I have been informed “this was built by faith”, to which I always intone in my mind Mr Emerson’s words: “Built by faith indeed! That simply means the workmen weren’t paid properly.” So far, I have managed to prevent myself from saying it out loud. I hope E M Forster would smirk a wry smile at that.