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.

All Writing Is Collaborative

Lady writing a letter with her maid: Vermeer, 1670-72.

Here’s why: even though I write alone at this moment, I share ideas with other writers. Other writers give me inspiration. I also could not write without outside influences affecting me, such as music, paintings, museums, films, screenplays… anything someone else has created affects me, makes me think, inspires me.  It’s one thing to have the impetus and will to begin a project; but it’s the inspiration derived from collaboration that keeps it going.

I used to think Descartes was the one writer who created alone in his garret, but it turns out I was wrong about that. It seems that he actually belonged to a collaborative group, as do almost all writers. He met with his friends at coffee houses, prevalent in the Netherlands, where Descartes spent much of his life. It was during those mostly friendly, but often argumentative, meetings that he worked out many of his theories.

There are innumerable examples of writers throughout the ages relying on one another for inspiration. Inspiration is the problem for writers and creative types, not isolation. Well, isolation is one problem, but it’s illusory. Writers never have to work alone; they do need to reach out to one another, however.

Think of the Bloomsbury Group in London (inhabited variously by Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, and others) , the Inklings, which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in Oxford, and the informal literary group formed by expatriates Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein in Paris. These writers came together because they needed to talk to one another, to feel connected, to create new ideas. They stole from one another, and often got into arguments about plagiarism, but plagiarism, for writers, is the fine line between inspiration and innovation. It can be virtually impossible to know for sure who created what, when you work in collaboration. This can be a real problem, but that’s for another post.