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E. M. Forster: Where Angels Fear to Tread

Forster’s first novel is one of those English comic novels (think Huxley a few years later) which have two basic premises. The first is to mock the complicated English class system though, all along, accepting it as virtually immutable reality. The second is to mock foreigners – Americans, the French and Italians are frequent targets – showing conclusively that they are far inferior to the English though, on their own turf, they might sometimes outsmart the English.

In this novel, the class system is represented by the Herrington family, a well-to-do family consisting of the formidable matriarch and widow, Mrs. Herrington and her three children Charles, Harriet and Philip. They live in Sawston, near enough and far enough away from London. Charles has courted Lilia, whom the family considers totally unsuitable and tries to prevent a marriage. When the marriage does take place, they try to mould her to become a Herrington and when she has a daughter, Irma, they try to mould her, too. When Charles dies, she stays with her mother-in-law. When there is a hint of an engagement to a man she met while staying with her mother in Yorkshire, they try to stop it and when it looks that they might not have succeeded, they agree to let her accompany Caroline Abbott, daughter of the local curate, on her year long trip to Italy. This is where the novel starts.

Initially all seems well, as she sends back letters and postcards. Then disaster strikes. Mrs. Herrington receives a letter from Mrs. Theobald, Lilia’s mother, that Lilia is engaged to an Italian nobleman in Monteriano. When this is confirmed in a telegram from Caroline Abbott, Philip is immediately dispatched to Italy to break up the engagement. He is too late. Lilia has already married Gino Carrella who, far from being an Italia nobleman, is the son of the local dentist and himself unemployed, having recently finished his military service. The Herringtons effectively cut Lilia off, with Irma staying in England and Lilia’s letters to her daughter being destroyed before Irma can see them. Lilia’s death in childbirth changes little. However, it is Caroline Abbott who feels that she has some responsibility for Lilia’s son, as she let the marriage happen. Mrs. Herrington is initially not interested as the boy is no relation of theirs but then suddenly decides he must live in England and Philip is again dispatched to Italy, this time with his sister, Harriet. It all goes tragically wrong but Forster keeps up the levity and ends with a somewhat witty twist.

There is no doubt that this novel is very witty if you accept both the English class system and that it should be mocked, though only lightly. There is, for example, a running joke about the relative status of dentists in the system as a result of Lilia’s father-in-law. Similarly, the Italians are definitely mocked. They are dirty, slovenly, corrupt and not too bright though, on the plus side, they have some wonderful art and architecture, are romantic, honourable and committed to their families. It’s all done with tongue in cheek but it is done well.

Publishing history

First published 1905 by W. Blackwood