Tuesday, November 21, 2017

E. M. Forster's Where Angels Fear To Tread

Where Angels Fear To Tread was E. M. Forster's first published novel. It came out in 1905. I found the twists of the plot consistently surprising, and I'm reluctant to give much away. But the initial setup is this: Lilia Herriton, with Miss [Caroline] Abbott as her companion, set off for a year's journey to Italy. Lilia, aged 33, is the daughter-in-law of the formidable Mrs. Herriton. She had one child, a daughter, by her husband, Mrs. Herriton's elder son, before that son died. Lilia, not especially bright or wilful, is browbeaten into living according to Herriton family proprieties, and it is when she thinks of making a second marriage with a local curate that she is shipped off to Italy in the company of a companion. Problem solved.

Well, even worse happens there.

A letter arrives that Lilia is engaged to a member of the Italian nobility. Unsurprisingly, Gino's connection to any actual nobility is extremely tenuous; rather he's the son of a provincial dentist, much younger than Lilia, and he has just completed his mandatory military service. Panic ensues in the Herriton household.  Philip, the younger son, is dispatched to Italy to deal with the problem.

I found it a very funny novel, despite the fact that some tragic things happen. Also despite, though maybe also because, Mrs. Herriton and her daughter Harriet are so awful, so priggish in the manners, so self-righteous, and so clueless. Philip is occasionally, but only occasionally, better. As a reader, I wanted a very severe comeuppance for all of them; it's only partly granted, I'm afraid.

Two things struck me particularly about this. About halfway through--it's a short novel, 150 pages or so in my edition--I was finding everybody so objectionable, I was half-thinking about giving the novel up. But as I said, I was also finding it funny. Now I know that I'm not supposed to base my valuation of a novel on whether there are any likeable characters; I'm sure they taught me that in graduate school. But as an actual reader, I do. Books that have somebody that you like at least a little--a saint is not required--provide an entrance for the reader into the material; they are also, I think, more realistic: it's important to acknowledge that the world has at least the possibility of someone likeable or something good. A novel such as I remember Less Than Zero to be--it's been a while since I've read it--where everybody is a monster is both a bit tedious to read, but also, I think, ultimately false. Where Angels Fear To Tread flirted with that, but then there were the occasional, surprising, bits of good behaviour.

The other thing that interested me particularly was Forster's handling of an outsider. Nowadays, of course, the son of an Italian dentist would hardly qualify, but 1900 was a different time. Italians were seen as poor and grasping, barely civilized, even as they lived among the ruins of civilization. I recently read Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood and one of the important points in that novel is English society's view of two orphaned Eurasians. Eurasians were seen as treacherous and exotic and simply not like us in the Dickens novel, just as the Italians are in this one. Forster's handling of Gino is quite deft: we're given all the cliches about Italians, but in the person of Mrs. Herriton, so we discount them. But then maybe some of them are true: maybe Gino was interested in Lilia only for or primarily for her money. Forster's famed irony and ambiguity come into play here: when Philip and Gino sit down to discuss what Gino's price is, it's clear Gino understands what the topic of the discussion is from the start. No wounded innocence here. But what does he really think? Well, because Forster only looks at Gino from the outside, we don't entirely know, and that's fine, and an interesting way to go about it.

Anyway, an impressive novel and a funny one, even if with considerable darkness.

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