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[413] Where the Angels Fear to Tread – E.M. Forster

” He was sure that [his mother-in-law] was not impulsive, but did not dare to say so. Her ability frightened him. All his life he had been her puppet. She let him worship Italy, and reform Sawston—just as she had let Harriet be Low Church. She had let him talk as much as he liked. But when she wanted a thing she always got it. ” (5, 85)

E.M. Forster’s 1905 debut lays down the theme of English middle class’s sterility that he would more fully develop in his later works. Where Angels Fear to Tread opens with a scene at Charing Cross Station where the Herriton family sends off Lilia to Italy. The young widow has been pushed through life by her mother-in-law, who ensures her to not bring disgrace on the family, for ten years since she fell in love with her late husband. Quick-witted and calculated Mrs. Herriton is exasperated by the news of a possible courtship on Lilia by Mr. Kingcroft. She advises Lilia to travel abroad to a quaint Italian town called Monteriano, in the company of her friend Caroline Abbott in order to avoid further scandal.

Italy, the land of beauty, was ruined for [Philip]. She had no power to change men and things who dwelt in her. She, too, could produce avarice, brutality, stupidity—and, what was worse, vulgarity. It was on her soil and through her influence that a silly woman had married a cad. (5, 70)

The trip is a welcoming change to Lilia’s being subject to the refining influences of the (condescending) Herritons. But she falls in love with a young hustler named Gino Carella and plans to marry him shortly after her arrival. The news mortifies her former in-laws: how could she disgrace them and marry a man beneath her class, the idle son of a dentist, a Catholic? Philip Herriton, Lilia’s pedantic ex-brother-in-law, is immediately dispatched to stop the fiasco. Not only does he fail his mission, the whole story also takes an unexpected nose-dive that forces the Herritons into mourning. Eager to adjust her life to the poor but picturesque town, Lilia relinquishes her English way. Upon discovery of Gino’s adultery, she is eager to save her marriage by having a baby—but she dies in childbirth delivering a son to Gino.

Lilia is dead and her husband gone to the bad—all through me. You see, Mr. Herriton, it makes me specially unhappy; it’s the only time I’ve ever gone into what my father calls ‘real life’—and look what I’ve made of it! All that winter I seemed to be waking up to beauty and splendour and I don’t know what; and when the spring came, I wanted to fight against the things I hated—mediocrity and dulness and spitefulness and society. (5, 77)

The story does not finish with Lilia’s death. In fact, the Herritons feel threatened by a possible scandal when a postcard, signed “little brother”, arrives from Italy addressing to Lilia’s little daughter Irma, who has no clue of her mother’s marriage. Recoiled in fear, and are convinced that the good-intentioned Miss Abbott would divulge the secret of the child, even though they don’t love the child, they decide to fight for the child’s custody, and to raise him as English blood. The obvious satire of cavalier Edwardian English attitudes toward Catholic Europe is only a backdrop to the more specific issue of whether the Herritons should assume custody of a baby with whom they have no legal familiar relation and whom they don’t care for. Caroline Abbott appeals to Philip that the well-being of the baby should supersede his principles. That he has seen what is right but pause at action is more than insincerity. In the eyes of Dante and on the account of Inferno Philip is not evil in his life but would never take a stand. Although he is not subject to the torture of running forever after a banner, he is unhappy, incapable of love. The principles and appearances that he keep up neither inspire him with reverence nor sensibility. The novel, after all, is a slap on England’s face for its diplomacy, insincerity, self-righteousness, and continual repression that amount to nothing but unhappiness. I do not recommend this book as the initial sampling of Forster’s works, solely because of his rather hasty attempt to rectify the plot into a happy ending. But his critique of his country and its self-absorbed values is always above par.

181 pp. Vintage paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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6 Responses

  1. Thanks for the review. I purchased this awhile but still haven’t read it. I didn’t realise it was a debut. Will look forward to reading it.

    • I vaguely remember Atonement, which I knew I enjoyed. After a bit of disappointment with Comfort with Strangers and The Cement Garden, and the so-so Saturday, I’m thrilled that Amsterdam is a great read.

  2. I will put this one on my list but plan to read one of his other works first. It is sad to admit but I have yet to read any of his work. I consider this a hole in my reading that I definitely need to rectify.

    • I have always loved McEwan’s writing style, how he is such a wordsmith. But I don’t always enjoy his stories (or story-telling). The Cement Garden totally weirded me out. Amsterdam is both a great story and a critique of the social hypocrisy, with his usual lyrical prose.

  3. Thanks very much for the review and your many insights. This is the one Forster novel I haven’t read. Though it’s an earlier work, your review does indicate it would be a good read for a seasoned reader of this author’s works.

  4. I’m so glad that you are talking about this book! I’ve heard the title on several occasions, but I never gave it much thought. Now that I see it here, you wet my appetite to want to dig in & find out what this novel is all about. Thanks for bringing such great books to my attention. 😉 I’m sure I will fall in love with this book & author.

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