Eep. What a week.
I totally intended to write something for you to read in the middle of the week – I really did. But somehow, the days got away from me, and before I even realised what was happening, it was Sunday, and time for me to sit down and write this week’s book review…
Even with a tea-powered time machine, time still has a way of disappearing on me…
I’m not going to keep you waiting any longer. Here it is…
Where Angels Fear to Tread
by E. M. Forster
Published in 1905
The Herritons are a stuffy, middle-class English family with one problem: Lilia.
You’ll like Lilia. She’s impulsive, lively, kind…everything the Herritons aren’t. She married into the family years ago, but her husband passed away, leaving Lilia to the mercy of his family.
Mrs. Herriton is the matriarch of the family. She’s conniving, jaded, and just plain mean-spirited. Her offspring, Philip and Harriet, are snobbish and conceited, especially to Lilia.
So, how do the Herritons solve a problem like Lilia? They send her away, of course. The book opens with Lilia leaving on an extended holiday to Italy. The Herritons, relieved to have finally freed themselves of Lilia slap themselves on the back and return to their mansion. Jolly good show.
Then, months later, Lilia sends a letter home announcing her engagement to an Italian man. Not only is he twelve years younger than Lilia – he’s the son of a dentist.
The middle class sensibilities of the Herritons reeling, they decide that the marriage simply cannot take place. Infuriated, Mrs. Herriton sends Philip to Italy to break up the engagement, before it’s too late.
If you’re thinking that this story sounds incredibly familiar at this point – well, you’d be right. I was thinking the same thing.
Two weeks ago, I reviewed Henry James’ The Ambassadors, which features an incredibly similar plot – a middle class family is scandalised by a romance they deem inappropriate. It’s not an accident: E M Forster read (and greatly admired) The Ambassadors, and wrote Where Angels Fear to Tread as a response.
If you read my review of The Ambassadors, you’ll know I wasn’t exactly impressed by what James called his greatest work. Which doesn’t exactly bode well for Where Angels Fear to Tread.
However, I have to point out that I quite enjoyed Where Angels Fear to Tread. Forster’s writing, compared to James’ is so clear and straightforward. I sympathised more with Forster’s characters than those of Henry James. And, even though I have a couple of issues with Forster (which I’ll discuss later), Where Angels Fear to Tread, unlike The Ambassadors, impressed me.
Anyway. Back to the story.
Philip rushes over to Italy to drag silly old Lilia back to England so she can be pushed around by the Herritons again – but Lilia reveals that she’s already wed Gino, her young, handsome lover in secret. Philip rushes back to England, offended, and the story focuses on Lilia for a while.
Marriage to Gino isn’t quite what Lilia thought it’d be. She dreams of throwing tea parties, but the townspeople don’t want to know her. And, to make matters worse, Gino reveals himself to be violent and adulterous.
Unfortunately for Lilia, her flight to freedom from the Herritons has bought her more pain than she could have imagined. Dejected, crushed, Lilia dies in childbirth – much to my horror, because I really liked her.
We’re instantly zapped back to England, to the Herritons, who are relieved to hear of Lilia’s death…but concerned for the baby, their own flesh and blood, being raised in an uncivilised country by a brute – their words, not mine.
Meanwhile, Caroline Abbott, a friend of the family who accompanied Lilia to Italy on her original journey, takes off to Italy to “rescue” the baby. The Herritons, indignant that someone’s outdone them, launch their own rescue mission. Mrs. Herriton sends Philip and Harriet to Italy to bring back the baby.
The party of three are each influenced in their own ways by the spell of Italy. Caroline and Philip gain a new appreciation for Gino, who has changed his ways, worshipping Lilia’s memory, and acting as a devoted father to his son. They fall in love with the beauty and history of Tuscany. Harriet, however, is not impressed by Italy in the slightest.
But there’s one more unexpected tragedy waiting in the wings, and, in its wake, everything changes. Philip and Caroline begin to fall in love…
Err, just not with each other.
What surprised me about Where Angels Fear to Tread was its humour. I loved the moments of subtle social satire. Forster’s descriptions of the Tuscan landscape and architecture were simply lovely. Forster’s writing is clear and uncomplicated – but still searing with intelligence.
But, as I mentioned before, there’s something that bugged me slightly about Where Angels Fear to Tread…
It’s Gino. He’s not a nice guy. As I mentioned before, he threatens Lilia; he sees other women behind her back. He loves her more in death, as an ideal, than he ever did while she was alive. He seems to think of her more as the mother of his son than as his lover. Oh yeah – and he’s already engaged to another woman by the novel’s conclusion. Ouch.
But Philip and Caroline both befriend Gino, which, to me, seems to condone this behaviour.
The ultimate victor of the novel is Philip, who, at the end, is free from the controlling influence of women. The women of the novel don’t fare too well – Harriet loses her mind, Caroline makes a silly decision – and Lilia dies in sorrow.
Though I did enjoy Where Angels Fear to Tread, Forster’s portrayal of women raised a little question mark over the book for me.
But in spite of this little feministy annoyance of mine, Where Angels Fear to Tread made a definite impression on me. I adored the moments of social satire and irony that Forster wielded so skilfully. I’ve never read anything by Forster before, so I had no idea what to expect. I’m looking forward to reading more of his works for Book to the Future.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Elegant, dramatic – and surprisingly funny, fans of subtle humour will seriously dig Where Angels Fear to Tread. It’s a pity the book’s most memorable character dies halfway through the book, though…
In a word: Promising.