Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Book Review - E.M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
Published by: Book-of-the-Month Club
Publication Date: 1905
Format: Hardcover, 208 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Lilia has spent the last few years since her husband died being under the thumb of his family. They don't want to be separated from Lilia's daughter Irma, but something must be done about Lilia. She is scandalous; riding bicycles through the quiet suburban streets of Sawston, forming inappropriate relationships with men, and worst of all, encouraging them! Her mother-in-law, Mrs. Herriton, thinks it's a wonderful idea that Lilia go off to Italy for a year, supposedly as the companion of their homely neighbor Charlotte Abbot, when in fact Charlotte will be watching over Lilia. Lilia's brother-in-law Philip has always painted a magical image of Italy, and they hopes that this will be the case. Philip also urges them to stop at Monteriano. Little did they all know that this suggestion would be their downfall. The letters from Lilia indicate that the two women are spending a considerable amount of time in Monteriano. The family back in England take little notice of it till they learn that Lilia has formed an attachment with a man there and they intend to marry! This is unacceptable to the Herritons and Philip rushes off to stop the misalliance, but he is too late. They are already married and Charlotte feels despondent. But there is nothing to be done. Later in the year they hear that Lilia has died in childbirth. They think the matter is at an end. But soon Lilia's husband Gino starts reaching out to Irma, the sister of his son. In order to appease Irma the family decides on a misguided attempt to rescue the baby boy from his heathen father and bring him back to England. The tragedy of Lilia's death will not be avenged, it will be increased tenfold.

The problem with Forster is that there almost always comes a point where the book goes off the rails and you are left with this feeling of it being a close call. It was almost genius, but not quite. If it hadn't been for that last chapter, if the character didn't forget itself... it could have been a masterpiece. It's frustrating to read a book that could have been so much more. If only. I liken it to the first time you read Northanger Abbey, the beginning set up in Bath is perfection and then it devolves into Gothic parody. Of course as you develop your sensibilities you realize that what you thought was a misstep for Austen was in fact perfectly calculated and the book rises in your estimations to be your favorite of her works. Despite being an Edwardian Austen, I don't think Forster's missteps were cunningly crafted. I think the story, for the most part, got away from him. But Forster was a man who also learned from his mistakes and each book improved by the lessons previously learned. The problem therefore with Where Angels Fear to Tread is that this was his first book published when he was only twenty-six years old. There was no previous to learn from and so it is rough. Very rough. It's not quite there yet and is more than a bit schitzo, but you can see how his writing will develop and how the tragic accident at the denouement will focus the narrative in future books. Also, now knowing how the narrative flows, on future readings I won't be lulled into believing the book is something that it's not. So like Northanger Abbey, I hope my opinion of this work will only improve.

What I find interesting is that all the characters are living these proscribed little lives, trapped by convention and circumstance. While they don't all immediately rail against their situations, their reactions speak for themselves. With their first taste of freedom they almost quite literally go crazy. Lilia marries almost the first man she sees who she has no common language with. Caroline goes along with this crazy scheme and even falls for the same man. Lilia's sister-in-law Harriet takes the law into her own hands and loses her mind. As for Philip, he just loses all sense and logic and loves everything. All these people just throw off the chains of the life they had been living and do something they never would have expected themselves capable of. What I wonder is would the tragedy of the book, with Lilia's marriage and subsequent death, even have happened if she hadn't been so smothered by her life? If she hadn't been kept in this cage of conventionality that is suburban Sawston? I think that that is the key of the book. It shines a light on the strictures of society and the cages we are put in or put ourselves in and shows us that there is another way. Of course the result her is in the dramatic extreme, but it shows that by crushing someone for long enough their reaction might be equally strong in the other direction. Therefore a balance has to be reached somehow. But I don't necessarily think that Forster is advocating this balance. I think he is advocating the need to feel something, anything, in a society that is repressive.

This need to feel something, even an extreme, is where I think the book goes from social commentary to unintentional satire. Yes, you would expect that losing the chains that had forever trapped you might make you overzealous to embrace this new freedom, but the way in which all the characters react seems so far out of character that it is almost unbelievable. People are by nature contradictory creatures, but are they really this contradictory? If a book loses it's grounding in reality, it loses something of the point it is trying to make. While Lilia getting re-married is a believable catalyst, the way it is handled lends itself more to French Farce. The book takes it's title from the famous Alexander Pope quote "fools rush in where angels fear to thread." But I don't think that the rushing in should be like the Keystone Cops, bumbling and falling over each other. Everyone gets to Italy and they act like they are on drugs, ecstasies of experience and throwing off the shackles of their bourgeois life. While if Forster had toned this down, he could have had an amazing social commentary on the respectability and "superiority" of suburban life, instead it feels like a fever dream where one minute our enemy is our enemy, the next they are our savior or our bosom companion. Nothing that happens in Monteriano actually makes the least bit of sense and yet we are to believe it is some kind of transformative experience? Again, cue the Keystone Cops.

But there is something that can't be denied and that is the English obsession with Italy. And I want to know why? Writers from Waugh to Forster, they had this near religious ecstasy about Italy. To me, Italy is just a country that I hope to one day visit. The English obsession for specific generations though is beyond "The Grand Tour" it's like Italy is the only place where one can be and feel and see, where there is actually culture. Firstly, I think this is a disservice to their own country, but more then that, being someone not raised in this culture to revere Italy it's off putting. It creates a chasm between the writer and the reader. Someone mentioning Italy doesn't transport me like Philip into a haze of reminiscences that are the only worthwhile memories of my life. I just want some explanation as to why this is the case. Is it because of the public school system and the ingraining of Latin so that Italy is the cradle of civilization? With Waugh I get the religious connotations, but seeing as England is mainly not Catholic, it couldn't be this religious aspect. Yes, the art is something to be admired, but... just what is it? Why was Italy the be all end all. Having spent so much of this past July reading about the generation of the Bright Young People, they all had this feeling about Italy. Never once was it explained, it was just accepted. I'm sorry, but reading this book over a hundred years after it was written, I would request some explanation of the English Italy alliance please.

Because this love of the country spills out into the most problematic part of the book. Gino. Lilia's husband is Italian and, not too put too fine a point on it, a brute. Yet he is almost quite literally forgiven everything because he is representative of this country that they love and he has all these people in his thrall. His exuberance, his lust for life, they are able to cover up his darker sins of adultery and abuse. While you could say he's a modern day version of the rough and unlikable man as hero, a la Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, I still don't think that that excuses anything. Being able to have emotions doesn't mean that all the emotions are acceptable. Because you love doesn't mean you should cheat on your wife! This isn't an either or situation. Life needs compromise, but it also needs some restraint. It's not all or nothing. If Forster had actually bothered to create a true character, a complex man with faults then perhaps I could have liked the book more, but to have a man be totem for his country, to have all the good and the bad of an entire people? It just doesn't work. Gino as Avatar is laughable. Could a man really forgive the death of his son in such a manner? Could he shrug off basically all the cares of life? I don't think so. Maybe the English love Italy because they believe it is this magical land where everything works out and nothing much matters, never realizing that it's this imaginary dream that doesn't exist. If it's unbelievable in fiction, well then, there's no chance it's real life now is it?


A lot of the English fascinating with Italy that crops up in Forster's novels probably comes with the fascination Italian history--especially Renaissance Venice and classical Rome--held among upper and middle class educated gay Englishmen of his time. I can't recall if it's something Wendy Moffat touches upon in her biography of Forster, but Graham Robb's Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century and Yvonne Ivory's The Homosexual Revival of Renaissance Style, 1850-1930 both analyze it to some extent. The Grand Tour plays a role, as you say, but it's also the idea of sexual and social license associated with Carnival and the idealization of the Italian Renaissance in English and German art historical writings.

Venice was also the site of a lot of sexual tourism. If I'm remembering correctly, John Addington Symonds's memoirs talk a bit about prostitution among the gondoliers. So I'd say it's probably the combination of the reverence for culture and reputation for sexual freedom.

The angle of the idealization of the Italian Renaissance is an interesting angle to it. Especially because being a student of art history, though in the US, there really wasn't any idealization of it, other than their perfection of certain art forms and principles.

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