In Santa Croce with no Baedeker

One's "Grand Tour" of Europe required the security of a Baedeker

E. M. Forster wrote the above chapter heading for A Room With a View (1908), and though he is not thought of as a travel writer, per se, in fact, his small selection of six published novels primarily involve British tourists coming to some kind of deeply personal self-realisation while visiting climates significantly warmer than their own.

Forster’s belief was that travel not only broadens you, it also opens doors to places in the psyche you did not know existed, and that this process was the most fraught for the British when abroad in a sunny, southern landscape.

For Forster, the English were trapped inside their cold, stodgy, Victorian morality, and he escaped every chance he got, mostly to countries with a warmer climate, like Egypt, which was more tolerant toward homosexuality. Egypt, in fact, was the country where Forster found romance, with a tram driver. He felt he could only be himself when he was out of England, away from relatives who observed and commented on his every move. Not coincidentally, Forster’s characters have many relatives to contend with (and leave behind).

In both A Room With A View and A Passage to India, Forster’s characters encounter darker dimensions of themselves than they knew existed, as they come to terms with events and people outside their conscious control, in sun-soaked countries where the natives are capable of expressing emotions the British are usually too repressed to admit they have. Now, I’m not British, and I don’t think I’m terribly repressed, but I am currently ‘in Santa Croce with no Baedeker,’ in the sense that I’m wandering through Europe on a grand tour of sorts, with no apparent plan or clear direction, and am thinking about Forster’s novels, since they have characters and experiences of interest to me at this time in my life.

Leaving one’s Baedeker behind in life is a risky business, and Forster gives us two stories with very different outcomes to illustrate the potential joys—and pitfalls—of living outside the rules with no reliable guidebook in hand to tell you what to do and where to go. First devised in the 1870s by a German publisher, Baedekers were often derided by Forster’s time, when crusty Victorian values gave way to increasingly sophisticated Edwardian sensibilities, and it was considered déclassé to rely on a guidebook or tour to determine one’s fate. Instead, better leave fate to the Gods, thought Forster’s Oxford and Cambridge-educated generation of Bloomsbury members, all steeped in the Classics, raised to see their forbears as intolerably narrow-minded, too afraid of the irrational to experience the deeper emotions of ‘real’ life.

The older generation thought one’s Grand Tour of Europe should be conducted rationally and reasonably, preferably in the tutelage of someone who knew where they were going and what to do once you got there. For the Victorians, life was serious, with important Truths to be Learned. The raison d’être of the Baedeker guide was simple, therefore, in that it filled in the gap between scholarly and scientific Victorian expectations and Edwardian neo-classical romanticism:

. . . for every traveler who joined a guided tour, there were others—the many thousands who combined within themselves a romantic personality and a bourgeois character—who insisted on traveling alone. For these travelers Karl Baedeker perfected his wholly new kind of guidebook.

“Its principal object,” he wrote in the foreword to his guide to Germany and Austria, was “to keep the traveler at as great a distance as possible from the unpleasant, and often wholly invisible, tutelage of hired servants and guides (and in part from the aid of coachmen and hotelkeepers), to assist him in standing on his own feet, to render him independent, and to place him in a position from which he may receive his own impressions with clear eyes and lively heart” (Deutschland, eighth edition, 1858).

Forster would probably have disagreed with the idea that Cornwall in any way resembled Italy, hence the need for travel to Florence.

A Room With A View is easy to dismiss as an innocent love story about a young, unmarried woman who has to choose between two suitors: the eminently suitable (and deliriously dull) Cecil Vyse, and the decidedly unsuitable, but provocative George Emerson, whom Lucy Honeychurch meets while staying at a pensione in Florence. With no preamble, one day he commits the egregious social error of kissing her passionately, unthinkingly, in a field of violets on a hillside. In a flutter, Lucy’s cousin and chaperone, provincial Charlotte, bundles the girl out of town, hoping to save her own soiled reputation, since she didn’t do a very good job of chaperoning Lucy, now did she?

The reason A Room With A View should not be dismissed as a ‘mere’ love story for the young, though, aside from the murder of an Italian street merchant and the frequent moral and sociopolitical dilemmas Forster strews in his characters’ paths, is that Lucy is pushed into traversing Santa Croce with no Baedeker.

Her ‘guide’ that morning was to have been Eleanor Lavish, a romance novelist, who has her eye on Lucy. She is convinced that Lucy would make an excellent character to model a story upon, and that Lucy is hovering on the brink of a great adventure, only needing a little push to be ‘transfigured by Italy.’ And so, she abandons Lucy inside Santa Croce, grabbing the girl’s Baedeker out of her hands, so that Lucy is bereft of her security blanket as she encounters the Emersons. The plot relies on her various chaperones abandoning her for their own reasons, forcing Lucy to confront herself. The message seems to be that being left alone to figure things out for one’s self is not the worst thing that can happen to you. Being on one’s own with no compass is scary at first, but can lead to exciting discoveries.

In sharp contrast, Adela Quested, an appropriate name for a young woman joining her fiancé in India, is too impetuous and emotional to rely on something so prosaic as Baedeker’s guidebook. A Passage to India (1924) takes place during the closing years of the British Raj. Adela, older and more self-assured than Lucy, is invited, along with her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore, on a day trip to view the mysterious caves at Marabar. No character with the surname of “quested” could resist, of course, so off she goes, sans chaperone. Mrs. Moore is unwell, and begs off due to the tropical heat of midday.

Adela goes into the caves with their guide, an Indian, Dr. Aziz. He has gone through great effort and personal expense to create this outing for the two white women. His friends have questioned his motives, wondering what it is he’s thinking, taking two white women off on a day-long journey, away from all comforts and with no British men as chaperone. But Dr. Aziz has befriended whites prior to this, and believes in working with the colonizing British, rather than rejecting their friendship.

E. M. Forster by Roger Fry, 1911

But something terrible happens while Adela is alone in the cave with Dr. Aziz. She encounters something dark within herself; her prejudices and fears are somehow magnified, and she runs, shrieking from the caves, accusing Dr. Aziz of rape. Aziz is put on trial, and Adela’s fiancé is one of the magistrates overseeing the case. Race relations between the British and the native Indian population are strained, and naive and innocent Dr. Aziz is vilified by the British, at the same time that he is supported by his own people.

Forster’s overall theme is about characters from dramatically different cultures trying, in vain, to understand one another, and “only connect,” as he says at the end of Howards End. Yet in this, more mature novel, when compared to the seeming simplicity of A Room With A View, his characters find it virtually impossible to connect, to understand one another, or to bridge the distances emphasised by different religions, races, and nationalities. Although both stories are about the British experience in foreign countries, only one story has a “happy” ending.

Even so, A Passage to India is my favorite book, largely because Forster had the courage to tackle themes of friendship and alienation, belonging and estrangement, all within the context of Colonial racism. I doubt A Passage to India is read as often as it should be. A Room With A View is much more popular, but it is much less ambitious in its attempt to analyse what makes it possible and impossible for strangers in a strange land to understand one another and ‘only connect.’

Also read, if you get the chance, Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. It’s one of those books that I fear will be forgotten, and yet it contains many points of interest for the writer of creative fiction. If you find you like his work, I hope you will read his six novels; they’re all very good. After A Passage to India, the best is probably Howards End, but Maurice is of interest primarily because it’s the only time he allowed himself to write about homosexuality, and is therefore quite poignant.

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9 thoughts on “In Santa Croce with no Baedeker

  1. Travel is like breathing for me. I grew up traveling cross country from the Midwest of the U.S to California, camping and taking in all the sights and whatever passed by the car window as a young girl on my family’s way to visit relatives every other summer. We always had two weeks. And in two weeks, we camped our way across the country back in a time when there were no lines or traffic in any of the State Parks. Back then Mount Rushmore had little to offer beyond the view but a small souvenir shop where you could bet on picking up a box of polished rocks, a favorite treasure of mine.

    And with that frequent sojourn, I had been to virtually 3/4 of the National Parks west of the Mississippi before I ever set foot on an airplane, at the age of ten. I only now realize the gift in that, and all that time ago I thought we were “too poor to stay in a hotel”. And there may be truth in that, but waking up in Yellowstone in the middle of July with snow suddenly greeting you and the remnants of a “party of bears” having mucked through your camp site, offer me riches I cannot imagine the Holiday Inn would have afforded. It was real, and I fell in love with adventure of the pursuit of the unknown.

    And what a magnificent experience it was when I was finally in a plane, flying on my own, for a 2 week jaunt to my grandparents house in California when I was ten. I never left my seat. Truth is, I didn’t know I could. I was engrossed in all the new things I was seeing, the patchwork of fields, the odd sensation of flying through clouds, turbulence, cocktail peanuts, Coca-cola, a pair of plastic “wings”… I had earned them in some way, I now see. I had poured over the land enough to appreciate the Room with the View from the plane.

    Something was set inside me when I was young. The inability to get lost on the planet. To this day, I pride myself as someone who can drive anywhere and really not need a map. As least not for long. Some of us, I believe, are born with a compass inside that guides us like a Divining Rod to our self, however that path shall unfold. I believe Forster could not have nailed a more poignant phrase than, as you say, “travel not only broadens you, it also opens doors to places in the psyche you did not know existed.” I am, without a doubt the most invested in self realization out of all of the people in my family. To which, I am the most traveled as well. I’m the only person who holds a valid passport, and actually has stamps on it voluntarily, not because I was invited to a location wedding in Italy.

    It is a great irony that the person in my life that enjoys foreign travel the least is responsible for my love of travel, namely my Dad, who HATES to leave the comforts of his own country, ergo the fragile map of his persona. My sister cannot just up and go at a moments notice, nor, really can my mom. My mom is perhaps well traveled as she has a roadtrip loving companion in life now, and he indulges going off the beaten path, but it is not something she would ever do on her own. I’ve traveled solo from coast to coast and frequently abroad, and barring the common sense of political and social limitations as being an American woman, there is no where that I wouldn’t go alone. Being alone with yourself, surviving and adapting to the local flora, fauna and persona, is without a doubt a scintillating and scary proposition for most people. I’m perhaps a little “Auntie Mame” inside, minus the odd ball entourage and lovers in every port!

    Admittedly, I’ve never read an E.M. Forster novel. I’ve seen virtually every Ivory Merchant production every made and Forster was their muse. And A Room With A View has to be one the most pivotal and poignant movies that I saw as a young woman, at about the age of our heroine, Lucy. I was enamored with all the Venusian delights that the film managed to capture in the fields around Florence, the exponential immersion one gets into the arts of Florence, and the gentile and pasturally perfect world of idyllic Midland England. I had only left the country twice in my life to this point, to Germany and Spain, the prior as a family trip, sans Baedeker, the second as an exchange student, sans Baedeker, but with an agenda nevertheless. I was an incurable romantic as a young woman, far more “open to sensation” than dear Lucy, but perhaps all too naive as well.

    I went to Florence, in the spring of ’93, little more than a year to the day of meeting my then boyfriend. We were part Baedecker, part free roaming. Although, now that I think about it, we were probably more Baedecker than I realize. I was, in effect, in my Lucy stage, only I had no George Emerson with me. The truth is, I ended up with Cecil Vyse, a man who I WOULD go on to marry, despite the illusions that he was not George Emerson. I so WANTED him to be, but I ignored it. And, as a result, I did not “connect” with him despite all hopes. I divorced Cecile, which is a luxury a girl of the later 20th century could afford without too much social back lash and one that a contemporary woman of the 21st century is fairly fated to experience. I think about when Mr. Emerson talks to Lucy when she is trying to escape Cecil and George and distance her self from her decisive indecision about following her head and following her heart. Mr. Emerson, perhaps saw that the girl had to that moment followed her head, but realized that there was a far more sanguine organ available to lead her through life, and he says, “Poor Girl.” with the most earnest compassion. Yet Lucy, with her contempt of pity says, “On the contrary. I consider myself a most fortunate girl!”

    Thinking about that moment now, I see that I wish I had had a Mr. Emerson to say such a jarring truth to me. And I see how “fortunate” Lucy was that eventually she did indeed follow her heart… Sans Baedecker. And for that I cannot hold her in a moment of awe. For that road, the map of the human heart I’ve YET to travel sans Baedecker. And I think, while other marvel at my adventurous, traveling spirit, it is a wonder that I should have been be so incapable of throwing away the GPS when it came to my heart. And so, I relish, albeit with a modicum of sadness of bygone choices gone awry, the idea of trying to remember what it was like to be that young, that Lucy.

    It is a complete time warp to revisit this story, even if it is from the lazy bibliophile’s perspective of being a cinematic lover. A Room With A View was and is, my favorite movie. It helped me travel and hold on to that notion of “happily ever after” way past its prime. I fell in love with Florence on film, and then started a life long love affair with the English landscape as a result of this movie. It would be many years after seeing it that I saw England, well into my marriage to Cecil. And every time I went there, I knew that a deep truth was inside me, that I had not allowed myself to go off script and wait for George Emerson to show up. England haunted me every time I visited her, telling me that I was not were I needed to be, and that I should move on. A Room With A View stuck in my head as a I traveled the wolds of the Midlands, aching to be on a picnic and have some delightful romantic steal a kiss from me…

    And it was that last road trip I took in 2003, by myself without a map, and no real agenda, that I allowed my heart to go off the map. I knew my marriage was over and while I am now divorced, I still await meeting my George. Will he ever show up? Will I ever “connect”? I don’t know. But Forster knew that Lucy could not survive not connecting with Cecil. I wish I had been so wise and open to sensation as that. I wish I had seen Florence before I “thought” I was in love. I wish…

    Terrific blog, Alison… WHEW! What a rabbit hole that one was! : )

    • All I can say (prior to coffee) is that you really do have to have these experiences. Travelling is so much more than “mind-expanding,” and since I spend at least half my time researching anything related to the concept of travel (including going to travel-related stores while in the U.S.) I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about this stuff. I don’t just buy too many pieces of luggage in the hopes of finding the perfect set. Sigh. But I think the entire point of travelling with no Baedeker is to let whatever happens, happen, and give up the traps of expectations. Later in life, one is not going to regret when you went off the beaten, expected track, but I think you’re definitely going to regret the days stuck on the couch.

  2. Hi Alison:

    I’m honored that you choose to use my article on Giotto di Bondone as a related article. Thank you. I thought Passage to India and A Room with a View were wonderful movies. I have never read the books, but will look into them. Have a wonderful week!

    Ledia Runnels

    • You have to read the books!! The movies are wonderful, they really are, and Merchant-Ivory did a wonderful job, even with the more obscure Where Angels Fear to Tread. However… the books are different in some ways (although M-I was extremely faithful to Howards End) and deserve your time! Thanks for reading the blog and I hope others find your link!

  3. I always thought it was cleaver how they reference Where Angels Fear to Tread in the movie A Room with a View. During the scene where Ms. Lavish and Charlotte are on picnic, you hear Charlotte offer in a quieted gossipy tone, “And did she REALLY stay with the Italian?” (or something similar).

    • …. I know! The two of them are such gossips (in the movie… in the book, things are much less entre nous). In the book, actually, Eleanor Lavish is on her own a lot. I don’t honestly remember if she hangs around much with Charlotte. I don’t think she does, though. My book is in a box. 😉

    • We live in an ADD society. Does anyone sit down and read anymore? I am looking at a stack of books I bought and will now attempt to plow through. I love my books, and/but they demand my attention, like small children and cats. ;-0

  4. I read every day, Alison. I just haven’t indulged reading for pleasure whilst sitting with a hot tasty beverage and none of the ingrained urgency to command a subject matter. Most of the things I read are informative, educational or astrological or nonsense on the astrology forum ; ) However that is changing… I’m starting to allow for some Venusian delights : )

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