Florence, Italy and Summer Street, England. The Edwardian Age.
These two settings may not be too far apart geographically (hey, Europe is tiny!), but they are worlds apart in terms of spirit. Forster’s Italy is a place where anything is possible. After all, in her first few days there, Lucy wanders the streets alone, witnesses a dramatic murder, and receives her first kiss. Florence is dramatically different from the humdrum, quiet English countryside lifestyle Lucy’s used to – as the narrator suggests, it’s “a magic city where people thought and did the most extraordinary things” that has “the power, perhaps, to evoke passions, good and bad, and bring them speedily to a fulfillment” (5.37).England, on the other hand, has no such power. Characters frequently refer to the change that Italy has wrought in Lucy, and to the qualities that she never developed in her life at home. The England that Forster reveals to us is pleasant and homey, but certainly not as thrilling as Italy. Even when Lucy visits London, the city is empty and dull; most people are away on holiday during the week she spends at the Vyse residence. After her travels, Lucy isn’t quite content to be back in England – the experiences she gained abroad make it impossible for her to simply return to her peaceful old life at home.
The historical period is definitely another important element of the setting. Forster wrote this novel in the early years of the Edwardian period (named after the reign of King Edward VII, 1901-1910; this historical era is sometimes extended to the start of World War I in 1914), which immediately followed the somewhat more famous Victorian period. This is important because we see English society just starting to emerge out of the conservative, settled structures of Victorian society – the “new woman” that Miss Lavish pretends to be disdains the unambitious, old-fashioned “early Victorian” ladies, the Miss Alans. The curse of the entrapped Victorian woman, or the “medieval lady,” as she’s called in Chapter Four, is what Lucy eventually escapes by eloping with George.