E.M.Forster is one of my favourite authors and Where Angels Fear to Tread was his first novel, written when he was only twenty – six.
The title is intriguing: Where Angels Fear to Tread; as one reads the book, one begins to realize that ‘Angels’ refer to the English and how they are skeptical against swimming in uncharted waters: here Italy and its social customs represent the uncharted waters.
The opening sentence, “They were all at Charing Cross to see Lilia off – Philip, Harriet, Irma, Mrs Herriton herself.” These lines are significant because they show how desperate Lilia is to escape the rigidity and snobbery of Sawston society; her companion Caroline Abbot too wants to get away from “the idleness, the stupidity, the respectability, the petty unselfishness” of Sawston society, but expresses her feelings cautiously.
The cultural clash between the cold North ( England) and the warm South (Italy) is at the heart of this novel. Forster’s style is simple and concise and each of the characters emotions are handled beautifully. We have Mrs. Herriton, who stands for what is right and handles herself in Sawston society accordingly. After the death of her son Charles, she takes Lilia under her wing and tries to instill in her the manners and propriety required by an English widow living during the Edwardian times. She represents all the hypocrisy prevalent in English society.
To rebel against her Lilia, who is fickle and idle, marries the young boy Gino in Monteriano. When Philip is sent by his mother to Italy to prevent the match, Lilia says to him,
” For once in my life I’ll thank you to leave me alone. I’ll thank your mother too. For twelve years you’ve trained me and tortured me, and I’ll stand it no more…”
Lilia’s desperate bid for freedom ends in tragedy. Slowly it dawns on her that her marriage to Gino is a mistake and she cannot not do anything about it. After discovering her husband’s infidelity, the enormity of her decision strikes her and she realizes she has lost Irma in the bargain. Soon the will to live ebbs away from her and she dies exhausted while giving birth to her son.
So Mrs. Herriton has the last laugh, when Forster writes,
“…No one realized that more than personalities were engaged; that the struggle was national; that generations of ancestors, good, bad or indifferent, forbade the Latin man to be chivalrous to the northern woman, the northern lady to forgive the Latin man. All this might have been foreseen; Mrs Herriton foresaw it from the first.”
Philip and Caroline also want to break free off their English personalities and manners, but find it hard to do. Philip is his mother’s puppet – she holds the strings while he dances to her tunes. First he is sent to Monteriano to stop Lilia marrying Gino, then he is sent once again with Harriet to take the baby back to England. Both these times his association with Italy affects him deeply. During his first visit it disappoints him, then during the second, he falls in love with it again. His deep love for beauty was not enough to help him shake off his English roots. One feels sorry for him when Caroline tells him,
“You are so splendid, Mr Herriton, that I can’t bear to see you wasted. I can’t bear – she has not been good to you – your mother.”
In the end, he does not go back to Sawston and is disheartened when he learns that Caroline, whom he is in love with, loves Gino.
The emotional upheaval faced by Caroline in some ways reflected the emotional turmoil faced by Forster himself. He knew he was a homosexual and his novel Maurice is a testament to that. He knew that his sexuality would not be accepted by English society, so Maurice was published posthumously. He could not risk defaming himself in society and this may have sub – consciously led him to write novels based on cultural and personality clashes.
Caroline is described by Forster as ‘good, quiet, dull and amiable’ . When Lilia asks her if by marrying Gino she is doing the right thing, Caroline sees nothing wrong in it. She does this partly because she gives in to her romantic notions concerning love and marriage. Yet she flees with Philip back to England, leaving Lilia alone and friendless, terrified that her English practicality has deserted her.
Upon hearing Lilia’s death she is racked by guilt and once she is aware that Lilia has left behind a baby, she is determined to bring it back to England and take care of it. This enrages Mrs Herriton who wants the baby at all costs and so Philip and Harriet are sent to Italy.
There Harriet and Caroline have a row and Caroline decides to go herself and get the baby, ahead of the Herritons. She goes to Gino’s house and gets an opportunity to see Gino interact with his son. Although appalled by the way Gino treats the baby, she is happy that Gino’s love for his son is genuine. This is when she realizes she loves him.
“…I love him, and I’m not ashamed of it. I love him and I’m going to Sawston, and if I mayn’t speak about him to you sometimes, I shall die.”
So, unlike Lilia, Caroline does not give in to her desires; she returns to Sawston and will probably continue her charitable works while suppressing her true feelings all her life.
Gino the twenty – one year old Italian is shown as immature, has uncouth manners yet is genuine in his feelings. He is shown as the stereotypical Italian who only thinks with his heart and not with his head. And then there are the cultural clashes – he cannot understand why Lilia likes to take solitary walks. According to him, wives are supposed to stay at home, cook and make babies. Gino is the only character who feels real and tangible in the whole novel…it is as if his capacity to emote has brought him to life.
Harriet, the villain of the novel, has been portrayed as a repressed and unhappy woman. When Philip does not want to take the baby away from Gino, Harriet takes matters into her own hand. With the help of the town idiot, she kidnaps the child and takes it to the railway station. Due to the bad weather, the legno carrying Philip and her meets with an accident. The baby slips from Harriet’s arms, rolls away and dies.
The scene where Philip finds the baby is one of the most poignant; it brings about a change in both Caroline and him. Gino’s grief over his son’s loss, the anger he feels towards Philip, are beautifully described.
Harriet and Mrs. Herriton remain unchanged. There is no remorse on Harriet’s side because she feels she has done her duty by rescuing the child from the uncouth Italian. At this stage it may seem that she is becoming mentally unstable.
Despite all their transformations after the baby’s death, Philip and Caroline will never be able to shake off their English roots. The closing sentence says it all:
“They hurried back to the carriage to close the windows lest the smuts should get into Harriet’s eyes.”
The fact that Harriet causes the death of a child seems of little importance compared to a smut getting into her eyes and causing her discomfort.
Forster’s novel is only 135 pages long; however it is a brilliant account of the nature of prejudice and of the double standards prevalent in Edwardian England.