Social class, if you haven’t already noticed, is kind of a REALLY BIG DEAL in this book. Characters are instantly stratified by their social status; we find out immediately that Lucy is well to do and Charlotte is her poor relation, that the Emersons are of questionable class and background, and that Cecil sees himself as part of the upper echelon. The two clergymen, Mr. Beebe and Mr. Eager, are somewhat separated from the rest of the characters by merit of their profession, but they deal with their special rank in different ways. Mr. Eager uses his holyman status to lord over all the other characters, while Mr. Beebe, bless his heart, takes a genuine interest in getting to know people of different class and category.
Forster allows us to take part in this system of classification by showing us how the different types of characters interact, but he always keeps an objective distance; the narrator helps us keep a humorous and observant attitude towards the subtle differentiations in status that seem so important to the novel’s characters.
Speech is quite a distinguishing factor here – and what goes unspoken is just as important as what our characters actually say. The people in the world of the novel go about their business weighted down by an incredible amount of etiquette and self-regulation, so the few characters that speak their minds stand out instantly as odd individuals. Mr. Emerson and Miss Lavish both refuse to be restrained by the rules of political correctness or “delicate” social interaction, and they instantly mark themselves as different because of this habit. Likewise, Freddy has yet to master the art of polite conversation, and his slangy, boyish manner of speaking lets us know that he’s not quite like everyone else we’ve met.
On the flip side of this, certain characters are incredibly smooth talkers. Mr. Beebe is the best example of this – clearly, one of the reasons he gets along so swimmingly in this world is his infallible ability to converse correctly, interestingly, and clearly with everyone he encounters.
Forster throws in all kinds of little references to his characters’ personalities through their names. Some are really, almost painfully obvious; Cecil’s last name, Vyse, is just one letter away from “vise,” a gripping device. And what does he want to do to Lucy? You got it – hold on to her. Miss Lavish also has a very telling surname, since her character is ridiculously over the top in every way (and so is her book). Most of the names are not quite that overt, though. “Emerson,” for example, alludes to Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American transcendental thinker of the nineteenth century. Some of Mr. Emerson’s unconventional views are similar to Emerson the philosopher’s, and we know that Mr. E. is a fan of R.W.’s buddy, Henry David Thoreau. As for the Honeychurches, their name states their nature – all three are sweet and good-natured to the core, despite their individual oddities and quirks.