Where Angels Fear to Tread
E. M. Forster
Rating: Very Good
E. M. Forster’s first novel was published in 1905; he was twenty-six years old. The mystery of how a man my age could write such a mature, worldly, and wise novel is one that remained at the forefront of my mind as I read Where Angels Fear to Tread. (Also, Keats wrote “Ode to a Grecian Urn” when he was 24 — think upon that, ye mighty, and weep.)
At the start, Where Angels Fear to Tread is a criticism of proper Edwardian English society and morals (represented by the matriarch Mrs. Herriton), and the thin, constrained life it offers, especially as compared to the ancient nobility and beauty of Italy, where most of the book’s action takes place. Caught in between the two worlds are Lilia Herriton (who has married into the family, and is now a widow) and Philip Herriton, the family’s youngest, a “champion of beauty.” As the novel begins, Lilia embarks on a tour of Italy, accompanied by a friend of the family, Miss Caroline Abbott. Lilia’s trip was suggested by Philip, who has spent quite a bit of time in Italy, and has returned from his travels with a mild rebellious streak. He has great hopes for Lilia, trusting that she will return from her visit to Italy changed by its beauty, just as he was.
Lilia does fall in love with Italy. Indeed, she falls in love with an Italian, Gino, the son of a back-country dentist, and secretly marries him. When this news reaches the Herriton’s in England, Philip is dispatched by his mother, who hopes to protect the family name by bribing Gino and forcing an end to the romance — but when Philip arrives, he is helpless: Lilia and Gino have already wed. The marriage is a most unfortunate one from the perspective of all parties; Lilia is soon miserable, and dies giving birth to a son. When this news reaches Mrs. Herriton, she attempts to intervene and “save” the child, again sending Philip to Italy, this time accompanied by his sister, the stubborn-beyond-proper Harriett, and Miss Caroline Abbott, who, having failed to prevent the first disaster of Lilia’s marriage, hopes to atone in some way by helping with the mission to obtain the baby.
The novel’s plot is small, well-executed, and fully engaging, but the heart of Where Angels Fear to Tread beats in its main character, Philip Herriton. Philip is opposed to what he considers the limiting, old-fashioned customs of “proper” English morality and society — preferring to think of himself as possessing a level of detachment and lofty ideals unknown to his mother and sister. He loves beauty, and life’s beautiful things, but he appreciates from a distance. His composure is deeply rattled by his third trip to Italy, as he finds himself taking sides with his mother and sister, in opposition to the charm and beauty of Italy. Also troubling are his conversations with Caroline Abbott, who is more impulsive, and less proper, than Philip had expected, both in that Miss Abbott challenges his detached, humorous stance towards life, and because he begins to find an intoxicating hint of romance in the relationship. As Miss Abbott criticizes his idle speculating, asking him to actually make a firm choice — “to settle what’s right and follow it” — he is forced to face the shortcomings of his detachment.
Far more than mere social criticism, Where Angels Fear to Tread is ultimately a novel concerned with two opposing attitudes towards beauty. Philip appreciates beauty from a distance, but is never able to love actively: Miss Abbott tells him “you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful.” Lilia, on the opposite side, also loves the beauty of Italy — and her method of entry is very active. Neither method is championed by Forster: Philip’s detachment is rightly mocked, although the particular joys afforded by this stance are honestly portrayed (Philip is praised by Miss Abbott as having a “view of the muddle” unavailable to her). Lilia’s rashness results in a miserable marriage and a premature death, but we feel a particular sense of joy when reading of her lack of concern for what her in-laws may think (“thank goodness, I can stand up against the world for now, for I’ve found Gino, and this time I marry for love”).
Here we find the see that blossomed into the Forster’s great novels, particularly Howard’s End. In Where Angels Fear to Tread, we learn that it is not enough to merely appreciate beauty from a distance, but at the same time it is unwise to fly into it without forethought. The answer, as always, lies on neither side. But also, as we know from Howard’s End, it is not “halfway between” either: “It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm, and though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the outset is to insure sterility.”