There’s a moment in A Room With A View where the novel/film’s Edwardian romance is interrupted by horrific, fatal violence. Lucy Honeychurch, the story’s temperate heroine, is wandering the Piazza della Signoria — the square outside Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio that now houses the reproduction of Michelangelo’s David and a host of other, priceless Renaissance sculptures — when two Italian men get into an argument. One of the men is stabbed in the ensuing brawl and dies.

Lucy has spent her days in Florence wandering churches, evading lectures from the prudish Reverend Eager,  and barely listening to equally magnanimous sermons from her aunt and chaperone, Charlotte. Lucy has also caught the eye of a strange suitor, George Emerson. George is the son of an equally puzzling journalist, atheist, and political radical, and the Emersons have brushed against the coarse strictures of turn of the century English mores in ways that Lucy finds both offsetting and exciting.

After Lucy witnesses the murder in the Piazza della Signoria, George comes to her rescue, and they have a moment on the Arno where both try to process what has just happened. Lucy wants to move on. She tries to brush aside the horrific burst of violent life she just witnessed as a pathology of Italians. George is more shaken — even if Lucy was the one that fainted in the streets immediately after the stabbing. George feels his whole way of looking at the world has changed. The stolid order of British nicety and gentility has always felt hollow to him. There are implications his father is a socialist and a man of the world more broadly. And the stabbing in broad daylight, in front of some of the most important artwork in all of Europe, throws his privilege into sharp alignment as well as the capricious, senseless violence that so many other men must bear.

Lucy is A Room With a View‘s official protagonist. The focus of the story is squarely on her, and, ultimately, her choice between the boring but reliable Cecil Vyse versus the more enrapturing if less stable George. However, George is the clear stand-in for the novel’s author, E.M. Forster. Forster was a leading figure in the early/mid-20th century Humanist movement. George’s arc (and, by proxy, his infection of Lucy with his worldviews) is about denying the shackles of class, material desire, and the alienation of industrial England. George wants connection… with others, with his environment, with anything he can.

I didn’t witness any murders in Florence the summer I lived there, but I walked away from that summer changed in ways that I’m still grappling with to this day, and that summer was eight and a half years ago. I was 20 and had just finished my sophomore year of college. There was a girl that I liked. I get crushes very easily and used to make a lot of bad impulse decisions because of them. That girl and I decided to study abroad that summer, and by the time she realized she couldn’t go on the trip, I had already signed up and paid a deposit. I wound up in Europe, with a study abroad program where I didn’t know a single other person. It was the most transformative summer of my life.

There were two defining traits of the program I went on: one that, at the time, should have felt othering but didn’t (and I wouldn’t realize why until I accepted I was trans) and another that was as alienating as anything I’d ever experienced in my life.

There were exactly 50 people in the study abroad program. 46 of them were women. Three of them were men. And then there was me, who didn’t realize they were nonbinary trans at the time. I have severe social anxiety, but for one of the only extended periods of my life, it came close to disappearing. That summer, I couldn’t figure out why. I wrote a sprawling mini-essay on FB (back when FB Notes were still a thing and I hadn’t made my first blog yet) about how happy I was. What I meant to say but didn’t understand was that I felt well for the first time in my life. And the reason I felt well was because there were almost no men around me.

There were those three guys in our program, but I didn’t live with any of them, and I didn’t have any classes with them, and after the first week, I barely saw them in social situations unless it was one of our weekend trips. And when they were around, I began to withdraw a little bit again. But, mostly, it was me and women. And for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to fear constant patriarchal violence. I didn’t have to fear an omnipresent atmosphere of misogyny. I felt comfortable and welcome and capable of vulnerability and genuine attachment and affection with folks I only got to know over a short period. We looked out for each other. We cared about each other. There was actual kindness and warmth without any of the defensive posturing or aggression that is an unavoidable fact of dealing with men.

I couldn’t have articulated any of this that summer. I just felt good and was riding a wave of security and comfort without really reckoning with where it was coming from… until my own shifting identity began to make me uncomfortable and I had my first brush with the substance abuse problems that would come to define my 20s. The reason that I fit in so well with the women on that trip is that I am ultimately femme. I didn’t present femme at the time, and I was still guilty of far too many masculine shortcomings, but, even then, my core was femme. And even if you don’t peg me as nonbinary trans or a woman, it’s a thing women in my life intuited long before I ever could.

And I was so ingrained in toxic masculinity and hatred for the femininity that existed within me that as I began to embrace that it was womanhood that I needed (and not men) in my life, I began to drink heavily. I had alcohol for the first time in my life on that trip. My paternal grandfather was an alcoholic. My maternal grandmother was an alcoholic. My dad would have been alcoholic if he hadn’t married my mother. Addiction runs deep on both ends of my family. And I just didn’t want to take the risk. In addition, the men I had grown up with (which is to say, the boys I knew at the time) became the worst versions of themselves when they were drunk. But, then, I saw the women on the trip. And they drank and they didn’t become fools. They didn’t hurt anyone. They didn’t take advantage of each other. They relaxed and became closer, and I wanted that.

And I started too drink too much. The only thing I spent as much money on in Italy that summer as I did on screwdrivers was the leather jacket I bought from a Romanian woman in the San Lorenzo market that had been a lawyer in her home country. I was going out at least four nights a week if not more. There was a karaoke bar I loved near the Santa Croce cathedral. There was a disco I liked almost as much a couple blocks away, and there was a more intimate pub that I’d go to sometimes that was closer to Il Duomo. And although I felt comfortable when I was just around the women in my group, going out met being around other people, and I discovered there was a cure for my crippling social anxiety: intoxication.

By the time I left Italy, I had maybe ten euro left. I had spent almost all of the money I had brought on the trip (which was all of the money I had period), and I didn’t have any way to get more. And most of that was spent on booze and the rare night when there was a cover for the clubs where we’d go dancing. I didn’t start drinking until that summer, and somehow, I managed to avoid the hangovers that would finally ruin alcohol for me permanently years later. But when I came back to the states, I couldn’t be in a public social gathering sober. And, for almost a decade, that meant booze. Eventually, I traded alcohol in for pot once I started spending the entire next day throwing up if I had more than two drinks in a single day, but, before then, I got to the point where I couldn’t get a comfortable buzz to be in public and enjoy myself. I had to be shitfaced drunk (and, eventually, just toasted off my ass high). And I became friends with too many people that enabled me to indulge in that horribly unhealthy habit far too often.

[I want to be clear; I am 100% pro-weed and, mostly, fairly anti-booze, but I had a serious substance abuse problem with both drugs even though I was mostly the definition of a high-functioning addict when it came to both. Weed just didn’t make me feel like I was actually dying the way heavy alcohol usage eventually did.]

I couldn’t square how good I felt around the women in that group against how all of my other insecurities and fears and general all-around all-consuming terror at life came flooding back any time I was pushed back into a world where men existed. And, eventually, before I accepted I was trans, I convinced myself that was how I felt around everyone — women included and I couldn’t function in any sort of social situation anymore.

The intense, platonic intimacy I have always been able to cultivate with the women in my life before I became too broken to function in even the barest sense of that word was one of the big reasons I finally realized I was nonbinary trans. And that summer in Florence should have been the big eye-opening moment, and maybe it would have been if I was as versed in critical gender theory and transgender identity politics as I am now. Back then, I didn’t know what it meant to be “cis.” I had never heard the word non-binary. Not to beat a dead horse but representation matters, and the only reason I’m on any sort of path to recovery and a healthy transition for my gender is because of all of the brave trans and nb folks who paved the way for folks like me who had to suffer in confusion and anger and shame for almost their entire lives.

The number of women on that trip was the first defining element of my summer in Florence. The second was how rich every other person on the trip was. I grew up at the mouth of a holler in rural West Virginia. My dad was unemployed the summer of that trip. He is now a bartender. My mother has been a secretary essentially her entire adult life. I took out a $7000+ loan to finance that trip, and I’m still paying it off. I’m going to be paying it off for the next thirty years.

I was the token poor person on that trip — even if, by West Virginia standards, my family is somewhere in the upper tier of the lower class. The kids on that trip had parents who were doctors and lawyers and who worked in the entertainment industry (I would say 80% if not more of the kids on the trip were from California) and wealthy business people. Their parents paid for their trip. Their parents paid for their meals on the trip. Their parents paid for the extended European furloughs many of them had before/after/both the program we were on was over. I put myself in incredible debt just to be there and I left with my meager savings completely depleted.

One of the reasons that I drank so much was because the girls on the trip went out constantly. When you have a ton of money, you can afford to go out as much as you’d like. And I wanted to be a part of that. I spent all of that money to be in Florence for the summer. I didn’t want to spend my nights by myself, just watching the True Blood Season 1 DVDs that I’d brought with me on repeat. But I just couldn’t afford to keep up with them. But I pushed myself to try because Americans have a sickness to pretend that class doesn’t exist and that we don’t have to respect the boundaries of class and I was as much a victim of that delusion to pretend I wasn’t poor as anybody else.

I want to make it clear that I don’t have any issues with the fact that those girls were wealthy. They had money. It was just a simple fact of their lives, and they were cool, smart, sincere, and kind women. However, the only times I ever felt othered when it was just me and the women in the group was when I tried and failed to navigate the complex class distinctions that existed even among this subset of the already well-to-do. I felt so awkward and aware of my roots and another reason that I drank so heavily was that I didn’t want to feel ashamed of the fact that I was poor and they weren’t and I would never have the money that they did. I would never be able to indulge and experience true leisure the way they did.

And what else is A Room With A View about if not the agency stripping collision of gender and class. Cecil Vyse is the least interesting man in the history of British literature. He’s a foppish, pretentious, lifeless dandy. Lucy shows more passion and intensity when she plays a single bar of Beethoven than Cecil has likely displayed in his entire life. When Cecil gracefully accepts Lucy’s decision to end their engagement, it’s less a matter of Cecil’s basic decency (although, in his defense, he has some) and the fact that Cecil didn’t really love Lucy. Cecil wasn’t really capable of romantic love. Because romantic love requires a vulnerability and understanding Cecil didn’t have in him. Lucy wasn’t going to marry Cecil because she loved him although his lack of cruelty did set him apart from the vast majority of men. There’s another essay to be written about whether or not Cecil is a homosexual (I think Daniel Day Lewis plays him that way and does so very intentionally). Lucy was going to marry Cecil because Lucy was a woman in Edwardian England and being a woman in Edwardian England often meant having to rely on a man for your ability to survive and Cecil meant Lucy would never have to worry again. He was obscenely wealthy.

It’s not a mistake that despite the fact that George is clearly the stand-in for E.M. Forster that the story is told from Lucy’s point of view. It is a story about women who want more than Edwardian life offers them but find themselves either controlled by the oppressiveness of patriarchy or are actively othered because they refuse to live by those norms. The most complex character in the story is Lucy’s chaperone, Charlotte. Charlotte is like a living encyclopedia of what is and isn’t appropriate for an Edwardian woman. She knows how to navigate the minefield of expectations. She is also a mess of neuroses and anxiety, and the only time she is comfortable is when she’s around the scandalous lady novelist, Eleanor Lavish, who Charlotte clings to immediately once they meet in Florence. And when Charlotte chides Lucy for acting in ways that would be dishonorable for her family and for Lucy as a woman, Charlotte isn’t doing it because she is a dogmatic evangelist of patriarchal values but because she knows how much Lucy could be hurt if she rebels.

When I was younger, I admired George Emerson’s rebellion. I wanted to care as little as he did about what was right or proper. I wanted to be weird and indulge in hedonism and pleasure without guilt. The older I get the more I feel like Lucy. I feel trapped by my gender (both as a nonbinary trans person but also any time I have to present as a man — which is to say any time I’m in public in West Virginia — or any time I see other men and see them suffering so needlessly because they can’t emancipate themselves from the prison that is toxic masculinity). I feel trapped by my economic station in life. I work an entry level information service job after having been the Managing Editor of a website in New York City because, if you’re poor, any decision you make about your work can immediately rob you of every last ounce of your economic security. I want passion and excitement and truth, but I can’t have that because my truth marks me for physical violence, for economic violence, and for rejection by a society that has no place for women or trans people (or Communists).

I think about my summer in Florence constantly. My life fell apart after that summer. I came back and nearly failed out of school before I finally dropped out because I was too depressed to attend class. I hadn’t realized that I was also catastrophically afraid of men and couldn’t pretend I wasn’t anymore after I’d had a taste of a community that wasn’t inherently violent and cruel. I thought about my social class in real ways for the first time in my life. It wasn’t long afterwards that I became a socialist (and eventually the Bolshie that I am now). And I just wish I had known then all the things that could be true about myself and about the world that I do now. And I wish Lucy Honeychurch could have had that as well.

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