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Beautifully nuanced, humorous, and compassionate, Where Angels Fear to Tread is a masterpiece that anticipates and explores all the themes that characterize E. M. Forster’s later work. Published in 1905 when Forster was only twenty-six years old, the novel is a surprisingly complex story about the need to break free from the confines of respectable middle-class English life and to connect passionately and sincerely with others. The novel reveals Forster’s distinctive mixture of social comedy and poetic symbolism—that is, his keen eye for domestic comedy and quirks of character and his trenchant understanding of the unseen and the transcendent. The plot centers around the contrast between Sawston, a respectable English suburb where people spend their lives performing acts of “petty unselfishness . . . making little sacrifices for objects they don’t care for, to please people they don’t love,” and Monteriano, an Italian village that pulsates with instinct and passion, beauty and naturalness, charm and complexity. Forster raises questions about individual happiness and desire and explores how they are circumscribed and defined by the social and cultural realities of one’s life. As the respectable Herritons disastrously attempt to “rescue” the baby born of a hasty marriage between Lilia, the feckless widow of the eldest Herriton, and Gino Carella, an Italian of uncertain social status, the disparity between the passionate life of Monteriano and the claustrophobic one of Sawston becomes painfully evident. But Forster is far too subtle a writer to create a work based solely on such obvious and uncomplicated dualities. Monteriano possesses its own petty conventions and narrowprovincialism, and each character is more than merely a product of his or her social world. However, in Forster’s novel, Italy allows for wholeness and a range of human emotion and experience that Sawston does not; human experience is complex and messy, but it is “the kind of mess that comes of life, not of desolation.” With Italy as the catalyst, events unfold unexpectedly, and Philip Herriton, the novel’s protagonist, begins to understand that really living life requires more than intellectual observation and aesthetic appreciation; it requires passionate human connection and engagement. Against this background of social and cultural contrasts and limitations, Forster explores the emotional development of his characters as they struggle to connect both the dueling aspects of their characters to each other.
Forster was born in London on January 1, 1879, and was meant to be called Henry Morgan Forster, but was christened Edward by mistake; as a result he was called Morgan throughout his life. His father, Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster, was a promising architect, and his mother, Alice Clara Whichelo Forster, always known as “Lily,” was the daughter of a drawing master and the young protégée of Edward Forster’s imposing aunt, Marianne Thornton. Edward Forster died of consumption the year after Morgan’s birth, and a “duel” of sorts ensued over the young Morgan between his great aunt and his mother. The Whichelos were artistic, carefree, and impoverished, and the Thorntons were public-spirited, serious-minded, and rich. Prominent bankers, the Thorntons were also leading members of the Clapham Sect, “a group of evangelical Christians devoted to good works.” The Whichelos were spontaneous and witty, and as Forster himself wrote, “They had no enthusiasm for work, they were devoid of public spirit, and they were averse to piety and quick to detect the falsity which sometimes accompanies it…. But there were good looks about them and good taste and good spirits.” There couldn’t have been much of a contest between these two approaches to life, for throughout his life Forster was extremely close to his mother, living with her on and off until her death in 1945. Though he was conflicted about his Clapham Sect heritage, Forster always credited the Thorntons with an intellectual seriousness and a sense of commitment, and he also felt an abiding affection for his great aunt, whose legacy allowed him to attend Cambridge and to travel.
Forster attended Cambridge from 1897 to 1901, studying classics and history at King’s College. As an undergraduate, he fell in love with a fellow student, H. O. Meredith, who led him to the two great discoveries of his life, his agnosticism and his homosexuality. Both are “crucial aspects of his personality and his art,” and both “gave him that feeling of standing ‘at a slight angle to the universe.’” However, it is his homosexuality, as Claude Summers states, that is so important to understanding his work; “it fueled his anger at social and political injustice, making him contemptuous of the conventions that separate individuals and impede instinct,” feelings which are evident, though nascent, in Where Angels Fear to Tread. At Cambridge, he was elected to the Apostles, an intellectual society whose members included G. E. Moore, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell, and Leonard Woolf. Through this group Forster later was drawn into closer contact with Bloomsbury, which was a kind of London extension of the Apostles that also included Clive and Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.
After Cambridge, Forster and his mother went abroad for a year during 1901 and 1902, traveling throughout Italy and visiting Austria. Italy remained important to him, and he thought of it as “a place where people knew how to live.” Though he had tried his hand at novel-writing while at the university, his experiences in Italy fed his creative imagination. Italy gave him both subject matter and a way of framing the ideas he wanted to write about. While working on Where Angels Fear to Tread, Forster also was drafting another novel with an Italian setting, A Room with a View, though that novel did not appear until 1908, as well as The Longest Journey, which was published in 1907. The positive reviews he received for his first three novels earned Forster respected though minor literary fame, but the publication of Howards End in 1910 made him a major literary figure. With its famous epigraph “Only Connect,” the novel was unanimously praised for its subtle but trenchant exploration of personal relationships and conflicting values. Through the actions of two English families, one practical and business oriented and the other intellectual and artistic, Forster touched powerfully on questions about the future of England and the nature of English values and identity. After the success of Howards End, Forster published a collection of short works, The Celestial Omnibus, in 1911, after which he toured India for several months during 1912–1913, returning after the war as private secretary to the maharajah of Dewas. Though he began the masterwork A Passage to India before the war, he completed it in the early twenties, and it was published in 1924 to much acclaim. Forster was always haunted by feelings of sterility as a writer, and his fear that A Passage to India would be his last novel proved correct. Claude Summers suggests that he grew weary of writing the only plot available to him—the heterosexual relationship plot—and frustrated that he could not explore deeply personal themes that involved homosexual love and commitment. His privately circulated novel, Maurice, which did explore these themes, was written before World War I, but was not published until after his death. For the remainder of his life, he was devoted to other literary activities and wrote a number of brilliant essays, collected in such works as Aspects of the Novel (1927), Abinger Harvest (1936), Two Cheers for Democracy (1951), and The Hill of Devi (1953). He also wrote two biographies, one of which is the life of his great aunt, Marianne Thornton. King’s College offered him an honorary fellowship and a permanent home, where he lived until his death in 1970.
In his fiction and in his life, Forster’s sympathies were always with the individual and his suspicions were always of the group. Peter Burra notes that Forster was “passionately interested in human beings; not only the idea of them—which is presumably what most novelists mean when they lay claim to that passion—but in their actual living selves.” This passion is what gives Forster’s novels their unique combination of comedy and transcendence, qualities that characterize Where Angels Fear to Tread. Originally, Forster planned to call the novel either “Rescue” or “Monteriano.” Both titles made sense given his narrative interests: “Monteriano” because of his concern with the way place and circumstance limit and define people, and “Rescue” because of the irony with which that word is used throughout the novel. However, Blackwood’s, the original publisher, didn’t like either title and requested a new one. Forster was not entirely happy with the new title, but he noted that at least it “has the merit of describing the contents.” The reference in the title is to Pope’s famous line in “An Essay on Criticism”: “For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.” The title also captures the narrative’s attitude toward the characters and the action, so in the end it was a felicitous choice. The narrative recounts the actions and explores the inner lives of the characters from a position of superior knowledge and bemused distance, and this distance allows for the elegance of Forster’s tone and facilitates the novel’s multiple ironies. The narrator’s wry view of the characters gradually changes, though, as they journey toward self-understanding, and their inner lives are treated with an equally elegant seriousness, which reveals the penetrating sadness that lies beneath the comic surface.
Forster claimed that Where Angels Fear to Tread was inspired by gossip he overheard at a pensione about an Italian-Anglo misalliance, and one can see how this tidbit of overheard information would have captured his imagination. In Aspects of the Novel, Forster wrote that “a proper mix of characters” is one of the most important ingredients in a work of fiction, and his works invariably are concerned with the clash of opposites. In Where Angels Fear to Tread, the cultural oppositions between England and Italy, between North and South, heighten the clash between characters. He writes in the novel, “more than personalities were engaged … the struggle was national.” However, Forster never loses sight of his characters, balancing larger ideas with the personal struggles and inconsistencies of individuals. Like Jane Austen, a writer to whom he is often compared, Forster’s characterization is paradoxical; he never allows his reader to forget that people are not simple but complex, and, as Christopher Gillie has noted, in a crisis “they do not necessarily reveal themselves at their best because they are right, or at their worst because they are wrong.” This paradoxical characterization is also important because it is at this complicated site that most of Forster’s comedy occurs. As Gillie observes about Forster and Austen, “their strongest affinity is their common disposition to treat the surfaces of their material in the spirit of comedy, allowing somber experience to emerge by degrees.”
The controlled irony of Where Angels Fear to Tread perfectly balances comedy and pathos with its profound insight into character and social nuance and its constant awareness of the inner life of the characters. In the hands of a less skillful artist, the conventional, respectable Herritons could easily have been portrayed merely as symbols of English suburban middle-class values. Mrs. Herriton, the matriarch of the family, is motivated by desire to sustain the social position of her family in Sawston, and she allows no complicated moral or ethical considerations to obstruct her aims. However, within the confines of that society she is amusing, intelligent, and well-bred. Her breeding in many ways functions as her conscience, and she is shrewd and vital enough to apprehend the complexities of human relationships, she just won’t allow their consideration. Unlike her unimaginative daughter, Harriet, whom Forster tells us “had bolted all the cardinal virtues and couldn’t digest them,” Mrs. Herriton’s understanding is more supple and she uses her refinement to mask a “will of iron” and to get what she wants. Though the rigidity of both characters leads to violence and death, Mrs. Herriton seems crueler because, as Philip finally comes to understand, her aim in life is “the suppression of vigour” and her motivation is pride.
Philip Herriton, schooled in cynicism by his education and habituated to being “an honorable failure,” has a far more individual nature, and Caroline Abbot, Lilia’s ineffectual chaperone for the trip to Italy, is more complex and self-contradictory still. They both are products of Sawston’s morality and convention, but when they are dispatched to Italy (along with Harriet) to bring back the child that resulted from Lilia and Gino’s ill-fated marriage, they are both forced to confront the sterility of their lives in Sawston. The novel, which begins and ends with a train journey, is centered on their voyage into awareness of the complexity of life. Ironically, it is Caroline, the prim do-gooder, who is the first to see the real vitality of Italy—and therefore its potential for pain and danger—and it is she who tries to shock Philip out of aesthetic complacency and into emotional engagement when she admonishes him, “don’t go talking about being an ‘honourable failure,’ which means simply not thinking and not acting at all . . . Oh, what’s the use of your fair-mindedness if you never decide for yourself? Any one gets hold of you and makes you do what they want. And you see through them and laugh at them . . . your brain and your insight are splendid. But when you see what’s right you’re too idle to do it.” Not yet experienced enough to understand her, he reacts with a clichéd appreciation of her “unconventionality.”
Philip is the “the quintessential Forsterian hero: intellectual, over-civilized, self-conscious, and repressed.” His aesthetic view of life and its concomitant distance allows him to romanticize Italy, and he has the ability to pretend to emotions that he doesn’t actually feel. His capacity for self-deception and merely to perform feeling leaves him vulnerable to the disillusionment he feels when confronted with Gino, who is not a sentimentalized Italian contadino but the sometimes-crude son of a dentist. Upon meeting Gino, Philip “gives a cry of personal disgust and pain. . . . A dentist in fairyland!” His reaction exposes the insincerity of his pretended unconventionality and the inauthenticity of his sentiment: “Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred times—seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil. But he did not want to see it opposite him at dinner. It was not the face of a gentleman.”
The reader’s sympathies fluctuate throughout Where Angels Fear to Tread as Forster exposes the humor in self-deception and the pain and pleasure in personal growth. The set piece for this is the performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, which Philip, Caroline, and Harriet attend. Critics have noted that “this is Forster’s Italy at its best; music and laughter, high spirits bounding back and forth from stage to audience, art as living force, as something shared, and majestic bad taste which ‘attains to beauty’s confidence.’” This is life and art at their most complex and rich, and it is not surprising that Harriet is scandalized by the experience: “Call this classical? . . . It’s not even respectable!” Caroline, dragged away by Harriet, spends the rest of the evening with “her head full of music, and that night when she opened the window her room was filled with warm sweet air. She was bathed in beauty form within and without, she could not go to bed for happiness.” Her response is emotional and physical, and she is overcome with the power of life. Philip, who stays at the opera, also responds with his entire being as he is hoisted by the crowd into Gino’s box and warmly included in the fraternity of feeling, “enchanted by the kind, cheerful voices, the laughter that was never vapid, and the light caress of the arm across his back.”
The opera scene is a crucial one in the novel, and it represents the rare moment of connection between mind and body, spirit and soul, art and life, Italy and England. Harriet, limited and intolerant, misses it, but it marks Philip and Caroline’s move toward wholeness. However, life’s difficulties are such that there is no assurance this journey can be completed. Forster’s work both affirms the idea of wholeness and remains skeptical of its attainment, for he was too acutely aware of the social constraints and material conditions that impinge upon the individual to be so false as to ignore them in his fiction. As Malcolm Bradbury noted, “It is surely because he is not a novelist of solutions, because his fiction proposes incompleteness, that he seems to us modern.” Forster was determined to reveal the way societies can cheat individuals and the ways individuals can cheat themselves, and he remains for the contemporary reader a “connector” whose novels awaken us to an understanding of our relationships to others that prejudice or ignorance would have us ignore or forget. Where Angels Fear to Tread fully embodies all of the qualities of the mature Forster: profound intelligence, unswerving humanism, ironic understanding, and comedic seriousness. Forster confronts complicated issues that continue to confront us today, and he confronts them with depth, insight, and compassion.