A young English woman named Lucy is vacationing in Italy with her significantly older cousin Charlotte. They are staying together at the Bertolini Pension in Florence, and the novel opens with the two at dinner, complaining that they had been promised rooms with a view, but have been put in rooms looking into a courtyard. Lucy adds disappointedly that the Signora in charge of the Pension is English, and remarks, “It might be London.”
As a young woman, Lucy cannot travel by herself. Even in another country, Lucy and Charlotte cannot get away from the British society they know so well at home: even the Signora of their Pension is English. Lucy’s room without a view could represent her constrained life, without much independence or passion.
Lucy and Charlotte talk back and forth about which of them will take the first room to open up with a view, and are interrupted by a man at another dinner table. The man, named Mr. Emerson, says that he and his son George are willing to exchange their rooms (which have a view) with Lucy’s and Charlotte’s. Lucy and Charlotte are taken aback at the evidently lower-class man’s boldness in interrupting their conversation, and politely decline the offer.
Even though they want rooms with a view, Lucy and Charlotte decline the Emersons’ offer because Charlotte finds it to be a presumptuous offer that could perhaps make them indebted to lower-class strangers. The lower-class Emersons evidently don’t care about the social manners and norms that Charlotte values so much.
Charlotte tells Lucy that they will find another place to stay, but just then a young clergyman named Mr. Beebe enters. He has worked in Lucy’s parish, and Lucy recognizes him excitedly and tells Charlotte that they must stay. The two cousins talk with Mr. Beebe, who advises Lucy on what to see in Florence, and then a number of other guests at dinner offer their own advice on the subject.
Lucy and Charlotte trust Mr. Beebe because he is familiar and of a closer social class than the Emersons. At this early point in the novel, Lucy is taking advice from all her elders, including both Mr. Beebe and Charlotte.
Charlotte and Lucy leave dinner and talk with Mr. Beebe in another room. Charlotte asks about the Emersons, and says that she could not put Lucy and herself under any obligation to them by accepting their offer of the rooms, and adds that she is acting as Lucy’s chaperon. Mr. Beebe agrees with Charlotte’s decision to decline the offer, but says that Mr. Emerson likely had no ulterior motive and was simply being polite. He says that the Emersons are nice, but socialists, and says that he differs from Mr. Emerson “on almost every point of any importance.”
Charlotte is wary of putting Lucy under any obligation to a man. Of a very traditional mindset, she regards a young woman like Lucy as very vulnerable and in need of supervision. As (according to Mr. Beebe) socialists, the Emersons have strongly progressive views that contradict the social stratification of traditional British society.
Charlotte worries that she was rude in rejecting the Emersons’ offer and asked Mr. Beebe if she should apologize, but he says she doesn’t need to, and then leaves. Lucy tells Charlotte that she thinks Mr. Beebe is nice and sees “good in everyone.” She says that he seems like “an ordinary man,” not a clergyman. An old lady comes and sits where Mr. Beebe was to “chatter gently about Italy.” The old lady says that Mr. Emerson ought to have been “more tactful” at dinner, and says she felt sorry for Lucy and Charlotte’s embarrassment.
The old lady shares Charlotte’s concern for manners and propriety, and agrees that Mr. Emerson’s offer lacked tact. In being so concerned with proper manners though, Charlotte is only making it more difficult for Lucy and her to get what they want (new rooms), and overlooking the honest generosity of the Emerson’s offer.
Slightly defending Mr. Emerson’s kind offer, Lucy agrees that he is not tactful but asks, “yet, have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time—beautiful?” Mr. Beebe enters the room and informs Charlotte that he has spoken to Mr. Emerson and has encouraged him to make the offer about the rooms again, so that Lucy and Charlotte can accept. Charlotte tells Mr. Beebe to tell Mr. Emerson that she will accept the offer, and Mr. Beebe goes and brings back George Emerson, who says that his father is bathing, but promises to relay the information.
While still under Charlotte’s influence, Lucy shows a hint of a desire to break out of societal norms, finding beauty in some things that contradict proper manners. This also suggests that Lucy is able to appreciate a kind of beauty that cannot be boxed in by social customs. Charlotte has to some degree wanted to be able to accept the offer all along, and now takes the opportunity to accept it in what she deems a proper way.
Lucy and Charlotte move into the Emersons’ rooms, and Charlotte explains to Lucy that she has taken the room George was in, so that if Lucy is under any obligation it is to Mr. Emerson, and not to his young son. Lucy does not entirely grasp the significance of this, and goes to her room, where she admires her new view. Charlotte looks around her new room and finds a sheet of paper with a huge question mark written on it. She wonders what it could mean, and it gradually seems to become “menacing, obnoxious, portentous with evil.” She almost throws it away, but realizes that it belongs to George Emerson, and goes to bed.
Again seeing Lucy as a vulnerable young woman, Charlotte takes care not to put her under an obligation to a young man. George’s question mark represents the abstract questioning and thinking that consumes much of his time, marking him as a very modern character—one that the traditional Charlotte doesn’t understand.