Wells' presentation 01


In the fifth chapter of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room with a View, the group of English characters abroad in Italy drive to Fiesole to see a view of Florence. Their initial impulse on reaching this destination however, is not so much to look at the view, as to look for a particular standpoint:


Presently Mr Eager gave a signal for the carriages to stop, and marshalled the party for their ramble on the hill. […] It was this promontory, uncultivated, wet, covered with bushes and occasional trees, which had caught the fancy of Alessio Baldovinetti nearly five hundred years before. He had ascended it, that diligent and rather obscure master, possibly with an eye to business, possibly for the joy of ascending. Standing there, he had seen that view of the Val d’Arno and distant Florence, which afterwards he had introduced not very effectively into his work. But where exactly had he stood? That was the question which Mr Eager hoped to solve now. And Miss Lavish, whose nature was attracted by anything problematical, had become equally enthusiastic. [1]


The characters are unsuccessful, for it was, Forster tells us, a hazy day. His novel, I suggest, gains much of its irony and insight through realising the distinction between – to use Whitney Davis’ terms – standpoint and viewpoint. The physical ‘being there’ of the standpoint, and its inclusion of the observer’s physical and sociological particularity, is addressed in terms of its relationship with the philosophical, sharable viewpoint, defined by Davis as the fictive or virtual. I don’t have time to make a detailed reading of Forster’s approach to this question in his novel, but I think the book demonstrates, as suggested by the previous quotation, Forster's gentle mocking of characters who fail to see the distinction and relation between the standpoint and viewpoint, and especially those who ignore one or the other. I have been looking at the Conway’s photographs of Florence from the period of Forster’s novel (of which this is one – a 19th-century photograph taken looking across the Ponte Vecchio bridge). I have been tracing the relationship these photographs emphasise between standpoint and viewpoint, especially in the sense of between the physical and the fictive.


Santa Maria Novella, in Florence


This photograph was taken outside the façade of the church of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence. It is one of a set of 250 photographs given to the Conway Library by Miss Rona Read of Hampstead. Many of the photographs were taken (possibly by Miss Read’s father) in Italy in the 1890s, although there are also photographs of Switzerland and Andorra. This photograph shows a well-dressed young lady engrossed, not in the dramatic black and white grandeur of the façade behind her, but rather in the large book she holds open before her veiled face. The woman has possibly just left the building, or perhaps has walked passed it entirely, too absorbed within the author’s created environment to notice that of Alberti. She appears lost in her book; we are perhaps supposed to imagine that the indomitable presence of the fifteenth century façade that looms next to her is immaterial to her as she is transported from her physical location into a different virtual realm. The photographer, like the woman, is absorbed in something other than a straightforward appreciation of the building. His composition suggests that the imposing drama of the façade has absorbed the figure – her diminutive form almost disappears, camouflaged, into the backdrop. Simultaneously though, her crouched position seems to reflect that of the shadowed archways, suggesting her own mysterious interior.


Wells' presentation image 03


Such mystery seems slightly less unique and individual however when compared with this photograph, also one of the set given by Miss Rona Reed, which was taken in Andorra. Again, we see the profile of a woman in front of a church façade, apparently deeply absorbed in a book. Here the scene is more overtly staged, as the woman is seated rather than apparently walking past. Again the relation between female reading subject and internal mystery of the building is suggested: the church’s closed doors and broken window panes intriguingly emphasise what we cannot see.


Indeed this mystery is at the heart of both images I think: while the photograph was considered at the time to be an almost factual document, this photographer, by creating his own fiction and staging pictures of women reading, demonstrates the dislocation of standpoint and point of view. We can see the physical presence of these women; we cannot see their thoughts. In this way these photographs can be seen as a comment on the limits of photography as both fiction and non-fiction.


Wells' presentation 04


Wells' presentation 05


When discussing this difference between fact and fiction in Aspects of the Novel, Forster claimed that what distinguishes homo sapiens from ‘homo fictus’, is the visibility of their secret lives.[2] Forster himself travelled to Florence in 1902, and was frustrated by the disconnection between inner world and physical location; writing to a friend while he was there, he exclaimed, ‘But oh what a viewpoint is the English hotel or Pension! Our life is where we sleep and eat, and the glimpses of Italy that I get are only accidents.’ [3] This clear awareness of the distinction between physical location and point of view is the basis for much of Forster’s mocking of the English tourist in his novel, and is perhaps why so much of his fictive work is located very specifically within actual locations. (These are two 19th-century photographs from the Conway Library of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, the scene of some important events in A Room With A View.) Forster wrote that ‘The Bertolini = the Pension Simi on the Lung’ Arno delle Grazie, where I stopped at the beginning of the century’ and that ‘Summer Street is Holmbury St Mary, Surrey’.[4] Indeed the importance of physical standpoints to Forster’s fiction is especially clear in a humorous 1904 letter written to a friend who was about to move into Holmbury St Mary:

I wish you would quickly inhabit your new house: I want it for some people of mine. They are living there at present in the greatest discomfort, not knowing which way the front door opens or what the view is like, and till I go there to tell them they will never get straight. If you could also provide one of them with something to do and something to die of I should also be grateful. In other ways, they are as well as can be expected.[5]

That Forster should consider, however humorously, ‘which way the front door opens’ for fictional characters suggests the impact and importance of standpoint to viewpoint; their contiguity if not continuity, to quote Davis.


Porta San Georgio


Porta San Georgio


These two photographs of the Porta San Georgio are also among those given by Miss Rona Read; they show not only the fresco and relief on either side of the gateway, but also the presumably less staged, and yet still intriguing profile of a figure reading.


Desiderio da Settignano


Here, again this photographer demonstrating his penchant for profiles, the viewpoint of statue (of Desiderio da Settignano), boy and even dog in the corner of the image, is emphasised by those photographed not staring back at either the photographer or us. Their gaze means that we look not so much at them but past them - looking across something, which is another motif throughout Forster’s novel. As they gaze at what we cannot see, we can see the invisibility of their secret lives. Maybe these profiles can be seen as a visual suggestion of the half-way point between fiction and non-fiction that the partial coincidence of standpoint and viewpoint in photography conveys.




For when the viewer also becomes the viewed, as dramatised in this 19th-century photograph of a Roman theatre in Fiesole, both the photographer and the photographed figures look across the stage, the location of the fictitious.



© Rachel Wells 2006


[1<] E.M. Forster, A Room With A View, ed. Oliver Stallybrass (London, 1978), p. 85.



[2] E.M. Forster, Aspectsof the Novel, ed. Oliver Stallybrass (London, 1976) p. 63.

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[3] E.M.Forster, quoted by Oliver Stallybrass, Introduction to A Room with a View, (London, 1978), p. 9.

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[4] Ibid., p.11.

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[5] Ibid., p. 12.

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