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Lucy Honeychurch, a young Englishwoman, and her cousin/traveling companion Charlotte Bartlett, a not-so-young Englishwoman, are in Florence, Italy. They are disappointed in their lodgings at a hotel called The Bertolini, which, despite its promising name, is run by a Cockney (a working-class Londoner) landlady. Of particular disturbance is the fact that their rooms have no view of the Arno River, something they had specifically requested when booking accommodations.
Charlotte is bothered by the rooms-without-views situation, while Lucy is dismayed to find the hotel entirely populated by genteel English tourists much like themselves, with not a single real live Italian in sight. They’re also at dinner eating what sounds like a very unpleasant meal, which can’t possibly improve anyone’s mood.
Lucy and Charlotte clearly have something of a polite but occasionally difficult relationship. Charlotte is a poor relation, and Lucy’s mother gave her some financial assistance for the trip – a fact she can’t let Lucy forget. Charlotte has a special way of making Lucy feel guilty.
The two cousins argue a little louder than ladies should (hey, they’re tired and cranky). Their neighbors at the dinner table notice; an “ill-bred” man offers to trade his and his son’s rooms (with views) so that the ladies will be able to see the river.
Charlotte is not amused.
The offer to exchange rooms with strangers (especially male strangers!) is positively unheard of. Everyone at the table is shocked, especially Charlotte. Lucy tries to be nice about it, but Charlotte “represses” her.
The ill-bred older man and his son, George, keep insisting upon the exchange. Charlotte is upset, while Lucy is “perplexed;” she has the feeling that the argument isn’t just about rooms, but hints at something else. Keep thinking about that “something else” as the book goes on – it’ll come into focus eventually.
Charlotte is in such a tizzy that she attempts to leave with dramatic haughtiness. As she announces that they will leave the hotel the next day, the two ladies see a familiar face: Rev. Mr. Beebe, a clergyman on holiday that they know from England. Now there’s no question of leaving the hotel; the women decide to stay.
We learn that Mr. Beebe, who the two ladies met at Charlotte’s church in Tunbridge Wells (a somewhat dreary small city in the south of England), will be taking over the parish in Lucy’s neighborhood, Summer Street.
The trio makes small talk; Mr. Beebe thinks to himself that he prefers talking to Lucy, and gives her some advice for her first visit to Florence.
The rest of the table, headed by a talkative “clever lady,” takes up this conversation, and everyone puts in their two cents about where Lucy ought to go (kindly and politely, of course).
George and his father aren’t part of this conversation; it’s obvious that the rest of the guests don’t approve of them. Lucy briefly wishes they did, and offers them a little bow as she leaves the table. George sees it and smiles mysteriously in return.
Lucy follows Charlotte out of the dining room, and encounters her disturbingly Cockney landlady again. She wonders if they’re really in Italy at all.
In the drawing room, Charlotte is “talking to” (rather, pestering) Mr. Beebe again. She asks him about the man who offered his rooms to them.
Mr. Beebe confirms that he knows the man, Mr. Emerson, and is friendly with him. Charlotte, attempting to be coy, says she won’t say anything else about him. She obviously wants the clergyman’s opinion, though, and when pressed, she explains her logic on not taking the rooms – she’s worried about being “under an obligation” to Mr. Emerson and his son.
Mr. Beebe suggests that Mr. Emerson wasn’t trying to take advantage of the two ladies, and that he was actually trying to be polite, not improper. Unlike the rest of society, Mr. Emerson apparently only says exactly what he means (imagine that!).
This makes Lucy happy – she’s glad to hear that Mr. Emerson is as nice as she’d hoped he’d be.
Mr. Beebe, despite Mr. Emerson’s lack of tact and manners, likes the old man, even if he disagrees with him on just about every topic.
Charlotte (very seriously) comes to the conclusion that Mr. Emerson and his son are Socialists; Mr. Beebe, containing his laughter, agrees. This seems to explain everything to Charlotte.
With the mystery of the Emersons solved, Charlotte worries that perhaps she should have taken up their offer. She assumes that Mr. Beebe has been judging her for not accepting. She hopes she hasn’t been “narrow-minded and suspicious” (which, of course, she has been).
Mr. Beebe assures Charlotte that she has not; with that, he leaves. Charlotte hopes she hasn’t bored Mr. Beebe, which of course she has.
Lucy and Charlotte discuss Mr. Beebe’s many qualities. Lucy praises him, saying that he’s not at all like a clergyman (rather a funny comment – what she means is that he doesn’t have any of the pretenses of a regular reverend).
Charlotte makes a passive aggressive comment about how Lucy, her mother, and her brother Freddy live in the “fashionable world,” while she lives in dull Tunbridge Wells, which is “hopelessly behind the times.”
Lucy feels like Charlotte disapproves of something, but she can’t put her finger on what it is.
Again, Charlotte makes Lucy feel guilty through her intense passive aggression. Lucy feels bad about Charlotte’s relative poverty.
One of the other guests (one of several little old ladies) interrupts this uncomfortable exchange. They discuss how sad it is that Mr. Emerson didn’t make his offer more delicately, since Lucy and Charlotte’s rooms are so unsatisfactory. The trio has an awkward philosophical discussion about beauty versus delicacy. Charlotte thinks the two are the same thing, but Lucy has the nagging feeling that they’re not.
Mr. Beebe returns, all excited. He’s talked with Mr. Emerson, and has resolved the room dilemma delicately, by anyone’s standards. Lucy’s overjoyed that everything is working out, but Charlotte, predictably, makes herself a martyr, and succeeds in making everyone feel bad. She unwillingly (and obnoxiously) consents to the Emersons’ offer. She stuffily directs Mr. Beebe to bring Mr. Emerson to her so she can “thank” him herself. We’re already getting sick of Charlotte and her attitude by this point.
George comes to accept the cousins’ thanks, saying that his father is in the bath. This bluntness shocks even Charlotte, and her “barbed civilities” don’t get anywhere. Mr. Beebe and Lucy are secretly pleased. George 1, Charlotte 0. We’re pleased, too.
Eventually everyone is ready for the big room swap. Charlotte, of course, says she will take care of everything. Her perseverance and so-called unselfishness amazes us… but not in a good way. Lucy attempts to feel amazed positively, but can’t quite muster it up. She wonders if perhaps Charlotte’s actions could be a little less delicate and more beautiful.
Charlotte has taken the bigger room, but for a strictly moral reason, of course. She’s certain that since George previously inhabited the room, Lucy shouldn’t. She decorously insists that Lucy’s mother wouldn’t be happy if she knew that Lucy was staying in a room that a boy had been in… if you haven’t noticed, some things have changed since Forster’s time.
Lucy’s pretty sure that her mother wouldn’t mind, but she still has a lingering feeling that something’s vaguely wrong.
Charlotte envelops Lucy in a “protecting” hug – to Lucy, it feels more suffocating than protective. After Charlotte leaves, her young cousin opens the window and breathes in the clean night air, thinking about Mr. Emerson’s kindness.
Charlotte, in her own spacious room, discovers an unsettling object: George has left a mysterious decoration. On the wall, she sees a sheet of paper with a giant question mark on it. The symbol quickly goes from meaningless to horrifying in her mind, so she immediately takes it down and puts it away to give it back to George. What could it possibly mean?