The world of the book is also divided in two. On the one hand there's passion, nature, and honest conversation: rare moments when people speak their mind or know themselves (or realize what they could be). On the other there are petty social conventions, which get in the way of truth and beauty. The book opens with two Englishwomen - Lucy Honeychurch and her older, poorer relation, Charlotte Bartlett - traveling in Italy. Instead of experiencing Italy with all of their heart and mind, they're wearing culturally approved blinkers. They're saddled with guidebooks that tell them what's beautiful and worth seeing and what isn't. They're burdened with the company of narrow-minded pedants and opinionated bores who need to make sure everyone thinks and talks and acts in the correct way. Charlotte herself seems to be one of those bores, but by the end of the book you'll get a long sad glimpse into her that shows you what she might have been.
In the course of the book Lucy will choose between two men that represent the division running through the book: George Emerson and Cecil Vyse (just by their names, guess which one is a prig). George is poetry and passion and troubled moods; Cecil has no concept of real intimacy but cuts a good-looking smart figure.
Lucy has grown up in a society where she's often had to deny or excuse her thoughts and feelings, to the point where her own voice is lost in her mind among others. Playing piano - not in the conventional accomplished way of women her age, but with real soul and understanding - is one consistent way she expresses herself where her words fail her. Conversations communicate very little that's genuine or clear.
On the whole I felt detached from the characters. I wasn't walking among them; they were on a stage, and I was watching them from different places in the audience (sometimes needing binoculars). Where the book really leapt out and grabbed me were in isolated passages, here and there, beautifully written and sharing some insight into human nature and society.
The contest lay not between love and duty. Perhaps there never is such a contest. It lay between the real and the pretended, and Lucy's first aim was to defeat herself... The armour of falsehood is subtly wrought out of darkness, and hides a man not only from others, but from his own soul.
(I'm adding this post to the list of Classics Club Challenge books.)