on 31 July 2001
It was not so much the plot of the book that I enoyed, though there is an interesting twist at the end, but the way I became involved with the characters. They were fully rounded in their prudish, snobbish, selfimportant English ways and I enjoyed disliking them. It was interesting to see the development of the main male character, Philip, while he still desperately tried to hold onto his old self. Forster captures perfectly the pomposity of the upper classes at that time and makes you read on to enjoy the ridiculousness of their behaviour until tragedy strikes. Despite being written at the turn of the last century its still extremely readable today and an excellent insight into the thought processes and personalities of the characters in the book, so much so that you become very involved in their actions. I think this book would appeal to all and was suprised how much I enjoyed it.
on 30 April 1999
Enjoyed this book much more than the better-known A Room with a View. It's wiser, wryer, wittier and more thoughtful. A rebellious but very wealthy and young English lady travelling in Italy falls in love at first sight with an Italian of lesser social standing - much to the chagrin of her family at home. They marry and she dies during childbirth. Members of her family come to Italy to claim the baby - with comic, tragic, ironic and romantic results. Lots of lovely lines. Forster is a brilliant satirist of suburban English xenophobic society. But as in many British novels of the time the characters don't really become warm and breathing. Interesting quote: "It is mortifying to think that a widow of thirty-three requires a girl ten years younger to look after her."
I always seem to struggle with Forster's work and I don't really know why. His style is eminently readable and well crafted, his characters are generally well rounded and develop well over the course of a novel, his subject matter is of the sort which usually appeals to me. And yet I found with this novel, as well as with Howards End, that something undefinable was missing for me.
Saying that, there were aspects of Where Angels Fear to Tread which I did enjoy. The plot is good and the subject matter it deals with interesting. Lilia is a young widow, who lives with her in-laws in London. She has a daughter to whom she is not exactly a doting mother, and is struggling to find a position for herself in the world since her husband has died. The family recommends that she undertake some foreign travel, most notably in Italy, a favourite of her brother-in-law, Philip. She is accompanied by Caroline Abbott, a single lady and friend of the family, who is to act as a sort of chaperone. Having arrived in Italy, it is not long before Lilia informs her familt she has married one of the local "nobles." The in-laws are furious at this development and send Philip to Italy. He discovers that Lilia's new husband, Gino, is actually the son of the town dentist and hence of low rank. Philip wants to have the marriage annuled but it is too late - Lilia is pregnant. She later dies after giving birth to a son. The family in Englans are now faced with another problem - the boy will be raised as an Italian. They cannot tolerate this and so Philip is sent off again to persuade Gino to allow him to bring up the child in England. I wont give away the ending, but suffice to say it is heart renching.
The story was a little slow in starting for me, but once Philip arrived in Italy for the first time it really picked up. The themes of cultural collision and prejudice are explored with great effect, as are the mores of British society in the early 20th century. Forster cleverly depicts the effect on people whose previously narrow life experience is suddenly expanded by foreign travel and exposure to people who live life passionately rather than within the restrictions of British societal values.
The real strength of the novel, though, is the characters. It has to be said, none of them are particularly likeable. They are largely selfish, narrow minded individuals motivated in their actions by the wrong reasons. However, they are developed well across the novel, most notably Philip and Caroline. Whilst they are not particularly likeable, they do feel very real and human, and you can understand through Forster's depiction why they act as they do. Philipat the start of the novel is disillusioned with false romance, bossed by his family and misled by his own prejudices. However, across the novel he developes a gradual understanding of love and humanity, and the scales of prejudice begin to fall from his eyes, and this is the real heart of the story.
Despite the good plot and character development, I think ultimately what left me feeling disappointed with this book was that it failed to move me. Despite all the tragedy and suffering the characters encounter, and the eventual partial redepmtion of the likes of Philip, the book just failed to touch me and I do not think will stick in my mind. The end of the story was tragic and yet felt a bit of a damp squib - like Forster just didn't know what to do next and so settled for "oh well, that was a shame". I can admire Forster's work as a lover of good writing, but I just haven't yet come to love it.
If you have ever felt frustrated by the petty vagaries of human behaviour, or the idiocy of certain societal taboos or customs, then you will warm to Forster's theme at once. In a mere 142 pages, he deftly exposes the class-ridden snobbery of the English society of his time, and the racism with which it appears to be inevitably coupled - a product, no doubt of the colonialism and imperialism from which we have yet, still, to recover. That this stains the beauty of quintessential Englishness is perhaps one reason for Forster's love-hate relationship for England and the fact that he spent so much of his time abroad (the taboo which he struggled with, and felt persecuted for, being his homosexuality).
The novel is a wonderful evocation of the minutiae of family bickering and arguments which are still relevant and highly recognisable today. (The bullying mother and slightly too weak, compliant son, for example). Analysis of the way that society represses the individual and the conflict between what you want to do and what society expects of you was to become a recurring theme in his novels.
His title is taken from Pope's 'An Essay on criticism' (1711), where the full line is `For fools rush in where angels fear to tread'. Indeed, most of the characters who people this perceptive novel appear foolish in the extreme, especially to our early twenty-first century eyes. For example, one could consider the headstrong and impulsive Lilia, packed off to Italy for a year with a chaperone by her husband's family in the hope that she will return 'not quite so vulgar' one of these rushing fools. Certainly her meeting and marriage of the unemployed (and son of a dentist, shock horror!) Gino within the space of a mere three weeks, in complete disregard for her nine-year old daughter, or first husband's family may be counted foolish, particularly by the standards of the time. Expecially when the tragic outcome of that decision is made clear. Despite her flaws, though, one cannot help but admire her for her courage in rebelling against and challenging the status quo - the status quo which appears to imprison so many in Edwardian English society.
However, what about the rest of the cast of this insightful and oh-so-English novel? There is Mrs Herriton Senior, for a start. A woman so caught up with herself and the requirements of 'society' that she sends her son and daughter off on what may very well be thought of as a fool's errand to collect the child of Lilia's fateful second marriage by whatever means possible - paying Gino off, if necessary. Her evident hypocrisy and cruelty appears to be indicative of that of society as a whole. And they, Philip and Harriet, in their turn, may also be considered foolish, or at the very least weak, when they meekly comply with her requirements. (Although, as they have been under her thumb their whole lives, perhaps it is understandable).
This tragic novel (and Forster is a master tragedian) has some happy moments, however. The opera scene is a complete joy and very funny. Here, Caroline helps Philip to discover happiness, and he begins to fall in love with her. Also quite wonderful are Forster's beautiful descriptions of Italy, reflecting his deep love for the country. Indeed, as Oliver Stallybrass points out in his informative introduction, this book is, in part, based on his own trip to Milan. The line 'it was an irritable couple who took tickets to Monteriano' is almost an exact replica of one from Forster's journal, where the destination was, instead, Milan, and where it had been preceded by an equally unfortunate and tiresome catelogue of events. Perhaps, therefore, there is something of Edward Morgan Forster in the character of Philip, who, although weak and equally tainted by his family's snobbery, one cannot help but like. (Indeed, he lost his father when very young, and was likewise brought up in the world of women). Sadly, Harriet's impatience brings about the sorrowful end to this poignant novel - and all are left to think on its meaning.
All in all, this novel embodies the description of Forster's work made on the Forster questionnaire webpage 'concise, but rich'. Taste and see!
E.M. Forster's novel has the same theme as `Daisy Miller' by H. James (the cultural clash between the vitality of Italy and Western upper-class morals). But what a difference a book makes! James's book doesn't reach the ankles of Forster's one, which is a profound meditation on society and man.
`For a wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children. (But) it doesn't bind us children to our parents. For if we could answer their love with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor.'
The English family morals are based on `having' and `appearing', not on `being': `If Lilia was determined to disgrace us, she might have found a less repulsive way. A boy of medium height with a pretty face, the son of a dentist at Monteriano. May I surmise that he has not got a penny? May I surmise that his social position is nil?'
The Italian family morals are based on `this one desire to become the father of a man like himself ... his son should have sons like him, to people the earth. Falling in love was a mere physical triviality, like warm sun or cool water.'
The most attractive (`for all her goodness') English protagonist, Caroline, cannot even understand this desire, `though such a thing is more within the comprehension of women.'(!)
In this sense, the English upper-class is doomed.
A devastating portrait
This book is a devastating portrait of the English upper-class and, concomitantly of England's ruling elite.
The male protagonist, Philip, is the personification of the perfect dilettante: `No one save himself had been trivial.' In a murder attempt, stealing children and death by accident, he sees only `wonderful things that happened'.
The female protagonist, Harriet, is a staunch defender of English family `morals'. She steals and kills (the future) in an arrogant, defiant and unrepentant manner.
But the novel contains
A stiff warning
`The passion they (the dead) have aroused lives after them, well-nigh impossible to destroy.'
E.M. Forster wrote an unforgettable masterpiece.
The first novel written by E. M. Forster is a perfect introduction to his fiction. He is not yet a master so he will not frighten you off with his form and style but he will gently let you see the world the way he saw it. This relatively small and slight book can make a charming read if you are sensitive enough to detect delicate mood changes, notice off-hand remarks which reveal the true meaning of the story. The style and language alone make it worth your time.
And yet there is more to it. It is a book about "us" and "the other". Philosophers have pondered on the issue for years and brought hefty volumes of studies but Forster can make it without unnecessary ado. This history of an English widow who did not fit in affluent suburb and, when sent abroad, married an Italian youth only to become the victim of his macho ways will certainly make you think. The second part - the unfortunate family rescue operation sent to save a baby from being brought up in wrong faith and wrong part of the world will also be food for thought. Have we changed really? Are we ready to accept that other people's ways may be as good as ours? Forster leaves these questions unanswered and the ending open - you have to fill in the blanks of the novel and the way you see the world.
on 22 January 2010
It was years ago that I read 'A Passage to India'. So far as memory serves me I recall it including some interesting philosophy which, among other things, explained to Edwardians the underlying impossibility of Asian and European societies co-existing in an imperial context. I was hoping that 'Where Angels Fear to Tread' might have offered similar treatment of the British abroad. The book undoubtedly highlights the stuffiness of the upper middle-class English, and their belated recognition and appreciation of Mediterranean life.Nowhere is this more evident than at their visit to the opera. Where the English listen to music dutifully, the Italians join in the singing and the audience engages with the performance in a more intimate association of the two, than the English might have considered possible. But in this short novel Forster permits no in-depth illustrations and explanations of this cultural juxtaposition. He engages with the subject by having his characters raise straightforward questions such as whether it be better to leave a child where he will be loved but brought up badly (i.e among non-gentrified Italians) or moved to where he will be unloved, but brought up well (i.e. correctly, in middle-class England).Forster's central preoccupation remains, that of exposing the hypocrisy of the British Edwardian gentry toward foreigners. And he was writing generations before such attitudes became satirised in the British popular media.
on 26 November 2008
A delightful book superbly engineered and cunningly observed with plenty of drama. The whole is created with the lightest of touches. Brilliant.
This is a glorious book that gives great pleasure just reading the sentences and paragraphs as they form on the page. The prose is concise, inventive, knowing, sly and pulsing. The first three pages are probably the most brilliant introduction to a novel I have ever read, wherein the entire plot, structure and character are delivered without a single false note.
The story contrasts a middle class English family in early 20th Century London with the norms and values of a contemporary Italian village. It has a soap opera plot of births, marriages and deaths soldered to an upstairs downstairs English hierarchy trailing Commedia dell'Arte.
The writing is citrus sweet and to imagine a 26 year old Forster producing this is simply to fall in love with him. There are snipers and carpers who have (technically proper) criticisms of this work but anyone who simply wants to snuggle down for a really great read will be on cloud nine. Buy it.
on 19 August 2002
Forster's first novel is a tragicomedy that has parallels to 'A Room with a View', with the conventional, 'stuffy' English family and the rebellious nature of his main characters.
Whilst reading the book, I discovered that the 'events' or actions were not the main focus of Forster; there is an intricate subplot concerning Philip, whose character develops, just as Lucy Honeychurch's does in the 'A Room with a View'.
Not one of Forster's best novels, and in comparison with 'Howards End', where Forster's voice and opinion are strong throughout, he does not write with confidence of his narratorship.
However, 'Where Angels Fear to Tread' is an enjoyable read whilst it is captivating, and raises our anticipation for the development of the writing of one of the best novelists.
on 12 December 2010
Others have more than capably reviewed Forster's novel elsewhere. This is a review, not of the novel, but of Hodder and Stoughton's hideous edition. From the picture - and the price - you are probably expecting one of those lovely clothbound editions that Penguin seem to be producing for a number of their classics - or their beautifully presented new hardback editions of F Scott Fitzgerald. If you buy this, be prepared to be very disappointed. It's just not in the same league. The shoddy board cover is much the same as many of the school books I had in the 70s. It scuffs very quickly. The paper and binding inside is cheap and looks decidedly shoddy. This is a rip-off edition and Hodder and Stoughton should be ashamed of their avarice.