A young British woman named Lucy is visiting Florence with her older cousin and chaperon, Charlotte. They are staying at the Pension Bertolini, and are disappointed to find that they have been given rooms without a view, contrary to what they have been promised. At dinner, two men—Mr. Emerson and his son George—overhear the ladies’ complaints and offer to switch rooms. Charlotte is flabbergasted by this bold suggestion from these lower-class men and politely declines, but later a British reverend named Mr. Beebe mediates between the Emersons and Charlotte and, vouching for the good intentions of Mr. Emerson, allows Charlotte to accept the offer, so that Lucy and Charlotte end up staying in rooms with a view. The next day, Lucy goes to see a church with another British woman staying at the Pension Bertolini, a novelist named Miss Lavish. Miss Lavish abandons Lucy in the middle of Florence, and she finds herself alone at the church, where she sees the Emersons. George tells Lucy that his father has good intentions but lacks manners and tact, and Mr. Emerson tells Lucy that George is suffering from a strange kind of depression and “world-sorrow.” Back at the Pension, Lucy plays piano and talks with some of the other guests, most of whom dislike the Emersons.
On another day, Lucy goes on a walk through Florence and sees two Italian men get into a fight in a piazza. One of the men is stabbed and bleeds profusely right next to Lucy. She faints, and George—who happens to be nearby—catches her. Lucy is embarrassed but grateful to George, who picks up some photographs of hers that she dropped. They take a boat along the river back to the Pension, and George suddenly throws Lucy’s photographs into the water, because they have blood on them. He tells her mysteriously, “I shall probably want to live,” and asks her not to tell any of the gossiping ladies at the Pension about what has happened. The next day, Lucy and Charlotte spend time with another British clergyman, Mr. Eager, who dislikes the Emersons and even claims that Mr. Emerson murdered his wife. Lucy and Charlotte join Mr. Eager, Miss Lavish, the Emersons, and Mr. Beebe for a day-trip into the hills outside of Florence. Once they arrive, everyone walks around and Lucy ends up on her own. She happens upon a terrace with flowers all around, and come upon George. George impulsively kisses Lucy, and Charlotte walks onto the terrace just as this happens. When everyone prepares to go back to Florence, George is nowhere to be found, and the carriage takes off without him, leaving him to walk home in a storm. Lucy is distraught and promises to Charlotte that she is not to blame for what happened. Charlotte consoles her, and then back at the Pension Bertolini she chides Lucy for her carelessness. She apologizes for not being a better chaperon, and persuades Lucy to promise not to tell anyone—including her mother—about the kiss. Charlotte decides that they will leave Florence immediately the next morning, and head for Rome, where Lucy’s family friends the Vyses are staying.
The novel then jumps forward in time, to when Lucy is back at her England home, Windy Corner, after her Italy trip. Mrs. Honeychurch, Lucy’s mother, and her brother Freddy are eagerly awaiting the result of Lucy being proposed to by Cecil Vyse. This is actually the third time he has proposed to her (he proposed twice in Italy, when she stayed with his family in Rome). Lucy accepts the proposal after having rejected the first two, and Mrs. Honeychurch is delighted. Freddy, though he doesn’t completely like Cecil, is excited for the engagement, as well. Soon after, Mrs. Honeychurch takes Lucy and Cecil to a garden party to show off her daughter’s fiancé. Cecil is snobbishly bored and fed up with the country society around Windy Corner. On the way back home, they ride by a villa whose owner—Sir Harry Otway—wants to rent out. Lucy suggests that the Miss Alans—two old spinster sisters who stayed at the Pension Bertolini—might want the place, and Sir Harry likes this idea. Cecil is annoyed with Sir Harry, seeing him as indicative of the pretentious but not truly upper-class society of the country. Lucy and Cecil walk home alone together through some woods, and Cecil says that he worries Lucy only imagines him in a room with no view. Lucy admits this is true, and Cecil says that he wants Lucy to think of him in the open air. They walk by a little pond that Lucy and Freddy bathed in as children and nicknamed The Sacred Lake. Cecil asks Lucy’s permission to kiss her (which she grants), and the two share an awkward embrace. Cecil feels embarrassed for not simply taking her and kissing her romantically without asking.
One day, Lucy learns from Freddy that Cecil has arranged for someone other than the Alans to move into Sir Harry’s villa, someone by the name of Emerson. Worried, Lucy goes to talk to Cecil, who says that he ran into two somewhat lower-class men in the National Gallery in London and encouraged them to move into the villa to spite the snobbish Sir Harry. The Emersons eventually do move in, and arrive just as Lucy happens to be staying with Cecil and his mother Mrs. Vyse in London. There, Lucy receives a letter from Charlotte in which she expresses her concerns about the Emersons living so close to Windy Corner. She suggests that Lucy tell her mother about her history with George. Annoyed and furious, Lucy pens a cold reply to Charlotte expressing her resolve to keep her history with George a secret. Lucy attends a dinner party with Cecil and his London friends, and Cecil admires how she seems to be adjusting to London society. Mrs. Vyse enthusiastically tells Cecil, “make Lucy one of us,” and comments that she is “purging off the Honeychurch taint.”
Back near Windy Corner, one Saturday afternoon, Mr. Beebe and Freddy pay a visit to the Emersons. In their conversation, Mr. Emerson insists on the equality of the sexes and says that “when we no longer despise our bodies,” mankind will discover a utopian existence like that of the Garden of Eden. George, Mr. Beebe, and Freddy decide to go for a swim in The Sacred Lake. On the way, they discuss the coincidence of the Emersons meeting Lucy in Florence and then ending up here. George says that it is all because of fate. They arrive at the pond and are taken with the natural beauty of the water and its surroundings. They disrobe and then swim, frolic, play, and run around wildly until they encounter Cecil, Mrs. Honeychurch, and Lucy coming through the wood and hide until they are presentable.
At dinner at Windy Corner, Mrs. Honeychurch asks Lucy about the letter she received from Charlotte. She suggests that they invite Charlotte to stay with them, which both Cecil and Lucy don’t want to do. But Mrs. Honeychurch insists, and so Cecil and Lucy at last relent and agree to invite her. Charlotte accepts the invitation, and in addition George accepts Freddy’s invitation to come to Windy Corner and play some tennis. George makes Lucy nervous, and the narrator comments that while it is easy for a reader, from an external point of view, to see that Lucy loves George and not Cecil, it is not so easy for Lucy herself to realize this. When Charlotte arrives, she asks Lucy if she has told her mother about George. Lucy is annoyed with Charlotte and says that she will not tell anyone about her history with George. The next Sunday, George visits Windy Corner after church to play tennis. Cecil refuses to play, so Lucy fills in for him. Afterwards, Cecil reads aloud from a comically bad novel he is reading. Lucy realizes it is written by Miss Lavish, under a pseudonym, and is amused. Lucy talks with George about the view from Windy Corner, and George says that his father has told him the only perfect view is “the view of the sky straight over heads.” Lucy is fascinated by this, but realizes she is paying more attention to George than to Cecil, so she asks Cecil to read more of his book. He reads a passage in which the novel’s heroine is sitting on a riverbank in spring and is suddenly kissed by a man. Lucy immediately realizes that the scene is modeled on her kiss with George. She stops Cecil, and they walk with George back toward Windy Corner. However, Cecil has to go back to get his book, which he left on the ground, leaving George and Lucy alone among some bushes for a moment. George seizes the opportunity to kiss her, shocking Lucy.
In her room, Lucy discusses this kiss with Charlotte, and also accuses Charlotte of telling Miss Lavish about the first kiss. Charlotte admits to this, and apologizes. Lucy decides to talk to George, and tells him that he must leave immediately. George insists that he loves Lucy, that Lucy does not really love Cecil, and that Cecil is controlling and patronizing toward her and all women. After George leaves, Lucy looks at Cecil and suddenly realizes that he is “absolutely intolerable.” Later that evening, she breaks off her engagement. Cecil is stunned, and Lucy explains that she wants to “choose for myself what is ladylike and right,” and doesn’t want to be controlled or stifled. Cecil comments that “a new voice” seems to be speaking through Lucy. Lucy insists to Cecil that she is not in love with someone else, and she resolves not to marry anyone. The narrator comments that Lucy has “sinned against passion and truth,” in denying her love for George. Soon after, Mr. Beebe pays a visit to Windy Corner and learns about what has happened. He is sympathetic to Lucy and tells her about a trip the Miss Alans are planning to Greece. Lucy desperately wants to join them on this trip, to escape from her problems at home. Mr. Beebe talks this over with Charlotte, and the two agree that the trip would be good for Lucy. They help convince Mrs. Honeychurch to let Lucy go to Greece.
Lucy and her mother visit the Miss Alans in London to make arrangements for the trip. The Alans talk as if Cecil and Lucy are still engaged, and Lucy doesn’t correct them. On the way home, Lucy and her mother stop at the church to pick up Charlotte. Charlotte says she wants to stay for a service, so Lucy waits in Mr. Beebe’s study. There, she finds Mr. Emerson, who apologizes on behalf of his son. Once he learns that Lucy is no longer engaged to Cecil, though, he realizes that Lucy really does love George, and he urges her to accept her feelings and act on her love. Lucy feels strengthened and emboldened by Mr. Emerson’s encouragement. The novel then jumps forward to find Lucy and George, married, staying together in Florence at the Pension Bertolini. They are in the same room that Lucy stayed in last time—with a view. They are happy together, but Lucy is somewhat sad that Mr. Beebe, her mother, and Freddy are all upset with her for eloping with George. Lucy comments on how fortunate it is that Charlotte wanted to stay at the church that day, so that Lucy ran into Mr. Emerson, and George wonders if Charlotte actually set up the meeting intentionally. He wonders if Charlotte had actually always wanted Lucy and him to end up together, from the very beginning. Lucy says that this is possible, and she and George rejoice in their love, while also “conscious of a love more mysterious than this.”