Lucy Honeychurch is a well-to-do young woman who has been brought up in a well-mannered, conservative social bubble in the country. A trip to Italy opens her eyes to the wider world, and she begins to question her ideas about class and equality. She must choose between upholding the social status quo and living a life that is true to her own nature and passions. In the end, she finds the courage to tell the truth about what she really wants in life, and to act on that truth.
George Emerson is a modern, philosophical young man who has been raised by his free-thinking father. He believes in equality for men and women, and cares more about a person's nature than their social status. Throughout the novel, he questions the meaning of life, and finds a renewed will to live as he falls in love with Lucy. George is passionate, and not afraid to act on those passions. He is willing to risk rejection rather than miss his chance at happiness. George is also insightful and forthright; he speaks his mind openly when needed, and without holding any of the truth back. George's faith in love is rewarded when he stays true to himself and never gives up fighting for Lucy.
Cecil Vyse, a handsome, upper-crust young man, has a greater understanding of books and art than of people. He believes himself above the people of Lucy's social circle, whom he views as country bumpkins. Cecil is rude to them, makes fun of them, and plays mean tricks on them. He also sees men and women differently, viewing women as pretty objects to be admired and protected. Due to his conservative upbringing, Cecil believes women should fulfill their "proper" role in society—quietly, dutifully, unquestioningly. Through his engagement to Lucy, he comes to understand that women have their own thoughts and ideas, and begins to view them more as individuals.
Charlotte Bartlett, genteel but poor, serves as chaperone to her cousin Lucy in Italy. She is rigid and proper when it comes to behavior, following the dictates of society strictly. She does not care for the Emersons, who defy social conventions, and she actively seeks to keep Lucy and George apart. Still, there is more to her than the simple facade of an uptight spinster. She is drawn to Miss Lavish's vivid imagination and brash ways, and the author hints that Charlotte once had her own chance at love, 30 years in the past. Ultimately, she may have repented of her strictness in favor of love, helping Lucy and George come together in the final chapters, but this remains unclear.
Mrs. Marian Honeychurch has lived a fortunate life, indeed. She married a lawyer who built a lovely rural estate, where his family was gradually adopted by higher society as wealthy Londoners who've moved to the country. Her personality is appropriately jolly and contented for a woman who has lived such a life. Mrs. Honeychurch can be plain-spoken, and has a lot of down-home country wisdom, though one would not call her sophisticated. She is at first delighted with Lucy's engagement to Cecil, who represents moving up in the world for Lucy. Over time, though, she grows to dislike his rude behavior and is happy to see him go. She disapproves of Lucy's marrying George, but the reader can imagine that, in time, she will get over her social prejudices and accept George as a good man.
Mr. Emerson is a smart, free-thinker from a working-class background. He raises George to think independently and take risks, rather than mindlessly obey the dictates of society. Mr. Emerson often crosses the line socially through speaking his mind. Even though he lacks social polish, he is kind-hearted and wants the best for others. Mr. Emerson believes in love and the goodness of humanity, and he encourages both Lucy and George to follow their hearts.