Wednesday, March 30, 2011

E. M. Forster’s first novel introduces familiar themes.

It struck me that I hadn’t read Forster’s first novel in a while, and when I started it I wondered if I had ever read it before. It’s quite a wild story, but it’s one that surely inspired Forster's later novels.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (128 pages, Dover, $3.50) lays out many of the themes that obsess him in later novels. At the opening of the novel, Philip Herriton’s sister-in-law, the widow of his brother, is on her way to Italy, where she will be the companion of a local girl who is traveling there.

Lilia was disappointed in her first husband, in part because his family tried to control her so extensively. Mrs. Herriton is the kind of dominating mother who assumes it is her duty to control everything around her. Her daughter Harriett is an even more gauche agent of control, and she uses the church to give her position some authority. Philip, the surviving son, is a bit ironic about it all and tries to remain detached, but he is as much a product of middle-class upbringing as any of them.

When it turns out that Lilia has fallen in love with a young Italian man, the son of a dentist, Philip is dispatched to bring her home. He has had a love affair with Italy, but the trip to retrieve Lilia is so sordid that the romance is driven out of Italy for him. What is sordid for Philip is the fact that these two people seem to be in love and that they have taken upon themselves to marry without a thought of the family in England. Philip goes so far as to offer Gino some money to let him take Lilia home, but when he realizes that they are already married, he flees.

The younger woman, Caroline Abbot, flees with him, and Lilia is left to make her way among the Italians. She fails at this marriage miserably, or the marriage fails, but that is in part because she really doesn’t understand the man she has married. He doesn’t understand her, either. And when he starts to stray, in what Forster presents as the inevitable Italian way, she becomes withdrawn and terribly unhappy. She does bear Gino a son, but she dies in giving birth.

The child causes quite a stir back in England. Caroline, who has been in the background up to this time, comes forward with the idea that the child must be saved from the wicked man who destroyed her friend. The Herritons agree, and Philip is dispatched once again. He does with a sense of foreboding, but it seems that Caroline has gotten there first. She rushes to the home of Gino and the baby, and there she finds herself swept away by the image of the young man and his child. Immediately she switches sides, as it were, and decides that the child must stay.
Philip sees her point and tries to work things out with Gino in an honorable way.

Harriet, who has come along to hector Philip into doing what’s right, takes matters into her own hands when she is dissatisfied with what the men have decided.
A tragedy ensues, and all the characters emerge brutally shaken. Caroline and Philip sees things in a similar way, and it seems for a while that they might bond over what is coming to be seen as their mutual loss. Whether they can or not is the problem the novelist sets himself.

The English misapprehension of Italy is the topic here, and the English need to control others. This need brings them into conflict with themselves, and Philip Herriton’s inability to escape the dictates of his mother is a measure of his inability to function in the world. The novel is tragic, but it is also exciting to see these ideas emerging: ideas that Forster will return to again and again.

E. M. Forster

Pick up a copy of Where Angels Fear to Tread at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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