Lucy Honeychurch, a young upper middle class woman, visits Italy under the charge of her older cousin Charlotte. At their pension, or guesthouse, in Florence, they are given rooms that look into the courtyard rather than out over the river Arno. Mr. Emerson, a fellow guest, generously offers them the rooms belonging to himself and his son George. Although Charlotte is offended by Mr. Emerson's lack of tact and propriety, she finally does agree to the switch. Lucy is an avid young pianist. Mr. Beebe, watches her passionate playing and predicts that someday she will live her life with as much gusto as she plays the piano.
Lucy's visit to Italy is marked by several significant encounters with the Emersons. In Santa Croce church, George complains that his father means well, but always offends everyone. Mr. Emerson tells Lucy that his son needs her in order to overcome his youthful melancholy. Later, Lucy is walking in the Piazza Signoria, feeling dull, when she comes in close contact with two quarreling Italian men. One man stabs the other, and she faints, to be rescued by George. On their return trip home, he kisses her, much to her surprise. She keeps his rash behavior a secret.
On a country outing in the hills, Lucy wanders in search of Mr. Beebe and the supercilious chaplain, Mr. Eager. However, the Italian cab driver leads her instead to George, who is standing on a terrace covered with blue violets. George sees her and again kisses her, but this time Charlotte sees him and chastises him after they have resurnedreturned to the pension. She leaves with Lucy for Rome the next day.
The second half of the book centers on Lucy's home in Surrey, where she lives with her mother, Mrs. Honeychurch, and her brother, Freddy. A man she met in Rome, the snobbish Cecil Vyse, proposes marriage to her for the third time, and she accepts him. He disapproves of her family and the country people she knows, finding them coarse and unsophisticated. There is a small, ugly villa available for rent in the town, and as a joke, Cecil offers it to the Emersons, whom he meets by chance in a museum. They take him up on the offer and move in, much to Lucy's initial horror.
George plays tennis with the Honeychurches on a Sunday when Cecil is at his most intolerable. After the game, Cecil reads from a book by Miss Lavish, a woman who also stayed with Lucy and Charlotte at the pension in Florence. The novel records a kiss among violets, and Lucy realizes that Charlotte let the secret out. In a moment alone, George kisses her again. Lucy tells him to leave, but George insists that Cecil is not the right man for her, characterizing Cecil as controlling and appreciative of things rather than people. Lucy sees Cecil in a new light, and breaks off her engagement that night.
However, Lucy will not believe that she loves George; she wants to stay unmarried and travel to Greece with some elderly women she met in Italy, the Miss Alans. She meets old Mr. Emerson by chance, who insists that she loves George and should marry him, because it is what her soul truly wants. Lucy realizes he is right, and though she must fly against convention, she marries George, and the book ends with the happy couple staying together in the Florence pension again, in a room with a view.
The book depicts Lucy's struggles as she emerges as her own woman, growing from indecision to fulfillment. She struggles between strict, old-fashioned Victorian values and newer, more liberal mores. In this struggle Lucy's own idea of what is true evolves and matures. Her trip to Italy opens her sheltered eyes to ideas and people unlike those she has known growing up in the English countryside. She also notices how freely Italian classes seem to mix, and realizes that the social boundaries she has always regarded as fixed are actually arbitrary. Her experience with the Emersons shows her that there can be beauty in the things that are considered improper, and Charlotte's betrayal shows her that propriety is not always the best judge of what is true.
Having more clearly found herself in Italy, Lucy's real test lies at home, where she must confront her old familiar surroundings. She is still uncertain, however, and confused about what to think about her new experiences. That she missteps and becomes engaged to the pretentious and domineering Cecil shows her susceptibility to the pressures of society. As her bold piano playing suggests, she is cut out for a more daring life, if only she could cut herself away from the restricting social boundaries that engulf her. The Emersons, as free-thinking, modern, truth-loving people, are her deliverers from the grips of society. It is this freedom that allows her to see beyond the dictates of propriety that forbid her marriage to the lower-class George and, therefore, to follow her heart.
George is troubled by existential worries in Italy. He doesn't understand how life can be truly joyful and worthwhile when it is always shadowed by enigma, symbolized by the question mark that he hangs on the wall of his hotel. Lucy, though cautious, is loving by nature and enjoys life even when it challenges her understanding. The two are united by a shared appreciation for beauty, which might be captured in their love of views: Lucy adores the view of the Arno through the pension window, while George's first memory is of himself and his parents gazing at a view. Each possesses what the other needs: George finds simple joys staying with the Honeychurch family, while Lucy finds the courage to recognize her own individuality through her contact with the Emersons.
A Room with a View is one of Forster's early works, and is not as complex as the more mature Howard's End and Passage to India. However, its strength lies in its vivid cast of characters, humorous dialogue, and comedic play upon the manners of the day, and in Forster's engaging, sympathetic exploration of Lucy's character.