Chapter 1 opens at the Pension Bertolini, a small, English-owned hotel in Florence, Italy. Lucy Honeychurch, a young English girl, and her older, unmarried cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett, have just arrived at the hotel and are disappointed to find that their rooms do not have a view of the Arno River as promised. Another guest, Mr. Emerson, overhears them complaining of the situation at dinner. He insists that they exchange with him and his son George, as their rooms do have a view. Thinking Mr. Emerson very rude and ill-bred, Charlotte refuses the offer and determines that they will leave this hotel.
At that moment, another guest enters the dining room. This is Mr. Beebe, a clergyman whom the two women know from England and who, coincidentally, is about to move to Lucy’s parish. Mr. Beebe sets them at ease and they decide to stay in the hotel. The other guests of the pension, all English, enfold Lucy and Charlotte into their society, giving them helpful advice as to where they should stay and what they should do in Florence. The Emersons are left out of the conversation, but as Lucy and Charlotte leave the table, Lucy bows at George and he smiles at her.
After dinner, Charlotte asks Mr. Beebe what they should do about the Emersons’ offer to switch rooms. Mr. Beebe advises them to accept. He explains that Mr. Emerson has no tact and no manners, but that he would never think of holding the women under any obligation; he is simply a man who means exactly what he says. Charlotte concludes disapprovingly that Mr. Emerson is a Socialist. Miss Alan, a little old lady who has overheard everything, agrees that Mr. Emerson has no tact, but wisely observes that sometimes people do things which are “most indelicate, and yet at the same time—beautiful.”
Lucy and Charlotte switch rooms with the men, Charlotte making a point of taking the room that had belonged to George. Later that night, she is puzzled to find, pinned above the washstand, a piece of paper on which is written a large question mark.
Chapter 2 opens the following day. Lucy awakens to a beautiful view of Florence, but Charlotte enters her room and scolds her for leaning out of the window while not yet fully dressed. At breakfast, they are given advice by a clever older lady named Miss Eleanor Lavish. Miss Lavish offers to take Lucy to see the Santa Croce church, taking her by a “dirty back way” so that they can have an adventure. She tells Lucy to ignore her Baedeker Guidebook and to discover Italy for herself.
Miss Lavish and Lucy get lost on the way to Santa Croce, but Miss Lavish considers this to be an adventure, exclaiming with delight about the “Florentine smell” and quaint local color. “One doesn’t come to italy for niceness,” she explains, “one comes for life.” Greeting the locals, Miss Lavish confesses that she is a “real Radical” and that she believes in “civility to . . . inferiors.”
Arriving at the church, Miss Lavish spies the Emersons and waits until they are in the church so that she will not have to speak to them. She laughs at the men, comparing them to “a pair of cows.” Lucy defends them. Just then, Miss Lavish spies someone she knows, and abandons Lucy. Lucy is left to explore the church alone and without her Baedeker. She knows she is supposed to find the church beautiful, but really, she finds it ugly, cold, and barnlike. She wanders about, unable to appreciate any of the art without a guide to tell her which pieces are supposed to be the best.
Suddenly, Lucy sees a little Italian boy trip on a tombstone and fall down. She hurries to help the crying child. Mr. Emerson also helps the boy, exclaiming loudly that a little child should be out in the sunshine, and not in a church, where he is bound to be “hurt, cold, and frightened.” Once the child is restored to his mother, the Emersons, seeing Lucy alone, invite her to join them on a tour of the church. The Emersons, seeing Lucy alone, invite her to tour the church with them. Out of propriety, she refuses, but Mr. Emerson sees through her, and tells her to stop pretending to be touchy. Lucy is shocked by his directness, but agrees to tour the church with them.
While looking at the famous frescoes painted by Giotto, they overhear a clergyman, Reverend Cuthbert Eager, who is giving a tour, speak about how “beautiful and true” the paintings are. Mr. Emerson loudly disagrees. Referring to a painting of the “Ascension of St. John,” he exclaims, “Look at that fat man in blue! He must weigh as much as I do, and he is shooting into the sky like an air balloon.” The Reverend Eager abruptly takes his group out of the chapel, and Mr. Emerson, who had not meant any offense, is mortified at having spoiled the group’s tour. He runs off to apologize, leaving Lucy alone with George, who explains that the incident is typical for his father, who speaks out in an effort to help people and is misunderstood.
George makes Lucy uncomfortable. He looks healthy and strong, but gives Lucy the feeling of greyness and tragedy. Later, Mr. Emerson informs Lucy that his son is unhappy. He asks if she will help George, help pull him out of his sorrow and realize that “by the side of the everlasting Why there is Yes.” Lucy responds somewhat pedantically that George should find a hobby. Mr. Emerson looks saddened by her lack of deeper understanding. Just then, Miss Bartlett appears in the church and Lucy rushes away to join her cousin.
Chapter 3 opens on a rainy afternoon at the Bertolini. Mr. Beebe watches Lucy play the piano and is impressed. He recalls having seen her play once before, back in England. As Lucy finishes, he remarks, “If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting—both for us and for her.”
Mr. Beebe and Lucy discuss Miss Lavish, who is gone on an outing with Charlotte. Mr. Beebe thinks Charlotte and Miss Lavish an unlikely pair, as Miss Bartlett appears so stodgy and Miss Lavish so unrestrained. He wonders whether Italy is having an effect on Miss Bartlett, loosening up the prim chaperone.
Miss Catherine Alan, the old lady who is on holiday with her sister Teresa, enters the room, complaining about the impoliteness of the Italians. Mr. Beebe teases her gently, showing that he finds as much to criticize about the English as the Italians. From Miss Alan, Lucy learns that Miss Lavish is writing a new novel about modern Italy. Miss Alan comments that Miss Lavish acted very strangely when the Emersons arrived. When Mr. Emerson committed a faux pas by mentioning the word “stomach” at dinner (a taboo word that Miss Alan refers to as “S.”), Miss Lavish was immediately intrigued by him, saying she enjoyed his plain speaking. However, shortly afterward she had become offended by something he said or did—nobody knew what—and refused to talk to him ever since. Hearing this story, Lucy begs to know whether Mr. Emerson is “nice or not nice.” Miss Alan concludes that he is not nice; Mr. Beebe asks Lucy to decide for herself. She decides that they are nice. Mr. Beebe feels sorry for the Emersons and decides to plan an outing that includes them.
Although evening is approaching, Lucy decides to venture out in Florence alone. Mr. Beebe and Miss Alan express their disapproval, but Lucy promises she will just go out for a little walk in the area frequented by tourists. Mr. Beebe blames Lucy’s rebellious spirit on “too much Beethoven.”
Chapter 4 begins as Lucy wanders outside of the pension alone. She longs for adventure, not gossip with Miss Alan or witty exchanges with Mr. Beebe. What she really wants is to take a ride on the electric tram, but knowing that it would be considered unladylike, Lucy decides to buy some photographs instead. Still feeling rebellious, she purposely chooses, among others, a nude of Venus by Botticelli, knowing her cousin won’t approve.
Entering the Piazza Signoria, Lucy still feels restless, thinking “Nothing ever happens to me.” Suddenly, something does happen. Two Italians bickering over a debt begin sparring, and one stabs the other. The stabbed man looks directly at Lucy, seeming to want to speak to her, but then blood trickles from his lips and he falls. Lucy faints, and is caught and carried away by George Emerson, who also witnessed the scene.
Once Lucy revives herself, she is embarrassed and tries to return to the pension by herself, but George won’t allow it. He fetches her photographs, which she dropped in the square, and the two walk back together, talking about the murder. As they reach the Arno River, George suddenly throws the photographs in the water, admitting that they were covered with blood, and that he hadn’t known what to do with them. Lucy’s heart warms toward George, as she sees his vulnerability for the first time, and feels something between them. She asks George not to say anything to the others at the pension about the way she fainted. He agrees. Lucy adds that it is strange, how something like this happens and then people return to the old life, but George says he can’t return to his old life now. Deeply affected by the incident, the melancholy George has regained his desire to live.
Analysis of Chapters 1-4
The novel is set in the early 1900s, a time referred to as the Edwardian era in England (spanning the reign of King Edward VII, 1901-1910). The Victorian era had ended, and societal rules were becoming more liberal during this period. However, the British class system was still rigid during the Edwardian era, and the society relatively repressed. As Lucy’s chaperone in Italy, Charlotte Bartlett represents the stiff and conventional Edwardian society that is holding Lucy back with its rules of propriety, even as she is on holiday in Italy, a country that symbolizes romance and freedom, wildness and adventure, the very opposite of England. In fact, the whole society at the Bertolini, an English-owned pension (a pension is a boarding house or small hotel in Europe), is a microcosm of well-ordered English society in the midst of the exciting disorder of the wider world to which Lucy longs to escape.
Mr. Emerson (named for the transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson) and his son George represent free thinkers—people with a more open-minded “view.” The picturesque view of Italy they share with Lucy and Charlotte by trading rooms with them is symbolic of the exciting new worldview they will offer young Lucy. According to Charlotte and Mr. Beebe, Mr. Emerson is a “Socialist”—that is, someone who fails to respect class distinctions, viewing everyone of every station as equal. This view is threatening to the polite society of their small English-owned pension.
George’s question mark is mysterious and seems evil and portentous to Charlotte. While probably meant to express an interest in Lucy, the question mark also indicates George’s questioning nature. He is a young man who seeks answers from the universe, rather than accepting the conventional answers provided to him by English society. Mr. Emerson asks Lucy to help his son to see that “by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes.” After George and Lucy witness the murder together, it appears that the sudden glimpse of mortality, combined with a new closeness to Lucy, have helped give George a new resolve to live.
The character of Miss Lavish serves as a foil to Mr. Emerson. Miss Lavish presents herself as a Radical with democratic ideals, but she appears petty and conventional by contrast to the truly freethinking Mr. Emerson. Miss Lavish preaches “civility to one’s inferiors,” while Mr. Emerson does not even recognize that he has inferiors; to him all are equal. Her idea of getting to know the “real Italy” is intriguing, but in reality, she has a patronizing view of the Italians as simple, quaint, and colorful. Along with the supercilious Mr. Eager and the uptight Charlotte Bartlett, Miss Lavish is a comically ridiculous character, a figure of satire through whom Forster criticizes the upper class of Edwardian society.
Miss Alan’s comment that people do things that are “most indelicate, and yet at the same time—beautiful” states the most important theme of the novel. Lucy is learning to think for herself, to find her own way without using her Baedeker’s guide, to say what she thinks rather than what is tactful, and to feel her true feelings rather than what it is “proper” to feel. She must also decide for herself what is beautiful and true, and it may not be what convention dictates. When that happens, Mr. Beebe’s prediction about Lucy may come true, she may live her life the way she plays the piano, and it will be exciting for her and for everyone around her.