Saturday, April 30, 2016

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster

It's always instructive reading an early work by one of the great writers. To what extent are the themes and skills of the later work already present in the debut? Is there a moment when the writer moves from the conventions of the day (which may have helped the path to publication) and does something different? In the case of E.M. Forster its a particular interesting question. Undoubtedly one of the best and most loved British novelists of the 20th Century, his three key books, "A Room with a View", "Passage to India" and "Howard's End" are masterpieces, whilst the posthumously published "Maurice" was one of the earliest written "gay" novels. His story "The Machine Stops" is much anthologised and only this month inspired a new concept album by veteran space rockers Hawkwind.

"Where Angels Fear to Tread" was his debut novel, published in 1905. Initially submitted for magazine publication it was instead published as a book. It's a short novel, but fits quite a lot into its small frame. The structure of the book seems designed for serial publication with three "acts" that see the story and characters develop. Set in Italy and England it is a book of contrasting cultures. When the widowed Lilia Herriton visits Italy with her friend Miss (Caroline) Abbott she ends up marrying the feckless son of a village dentist, Gino. What had seemed like a self-improvement trip for the widow and (apparent) spinster, ends up becoming a nightmare for the family of the widow's husband, who send her brother-in-law Philip to Italy to stop the match going ahead. Philip is ostensibly the main character of the novel, but he's a passive figure, a dreamer rather than a do-er. It is he, after all, who recommended they visit Monteriano. On arriving in the Italy he loves and romanticises he's now faced with the reality of the place that goes beyond his trusty Baedeker and his knowledge of the language and music. Confronting both Lilia and Gino he finds that it is too late and that they are already married.

The novel's second act sees the mistake of Lilia's union, for in Italy women are not expected to walk about on their own, and being unable to translate the rigid class mores of English society to the more fluid Italy, she becomes increasingly isolated in their unsuitable house. When she becomes pregnant with his child, the tragedy continues, for she doesn't survive the birth. The boy becomes a matter of material interest to the Herritons, and Philip is once again despatched, this time to bring back the baby. He has been preceded by Miss Abbott, who is drawn inexplicably back to Italy, and his prim sister Harriet has also gone back to Monteriano. This time he has a "blank cheque" to get Gino to release the child.

The novel is one of contrasting cultures. A stifled middle class England where appearance is everything, and a poor, chaotic Italy that hums with life. This is the "Grand Tour" translated into something more vivid - when people's emotions become involved. Philip is like that other cold fish, Henry James' Strether in "The Ambassadors", despatched to a different culture to "do what is right" but slowly beginning to question what that might be. As he arrives in Monteriano, rather than immediately confront Gino, he goes to the local Opera house. Here in the book's most vivid scene, the poor but vibrant performance becomes a grand exemplar of Italian life at its most vibrant. Here is the Italy he had romanticised. In the aftermath he goes drinking with Gino and his friends and proclaims a good fellow and friend. We find out the next day, as Miss Abbott goes against Philip's plans and visits Gino, that he loves his son though hardly knowing how to look after him - and this has led Gino to get engaged to another woman to be a replacement mother. Both Miss Abbott and Philip are drawn to Italy, initally repelled by the emotions it stirs in their placid sensibilities. Finding Miss Abbott praying in a Catholic church he begins to fall in love with her, but despite a couple of moments of connection and near intimacy, he can't overcome his years of conditioning.

The novel has a tragic end - but the tragedy is multiple. As Harriet steals the child, Philip having failed (he articulates his dilemma as to be giving the child a better life but with people who don't love the child, or leaving to an awful life with a father who loves him, and he can't make that choice), tragedy piles on tragedy. An accident sees the child thrown from their carriage. Returning to tell Gino, the Italian lashes out and attacks Philip, a sign of passion that the latter finds himself responding to, too late. He realises he has made the wrong decisions all along - he has awakened in himself a passion for Miss Abbott, which can't be articulated once she lets him know that Gino has been her object of desire all along. The inhibited Harriet, having been uncharmed by Italy, goes mad and the whole sorry crew return to a lifetime of being unfulfilled back home in England.

In his most famous line, Forster talked about if we could "only connect the prose and the passion", and five years before he wrote the exemplary "Howard's End", here he is touching on the same subject. As in his later books, his lead characters are passive, decorous who become animated or changed by the circumstance that comes their way, whether the Italy, India, politics or music. Yet these themes, in this debut, are hinted at in a plot that is pure melodrama. The novel feels stilted at the start, a drawing room story, with little sense of the modern about it. His writing only occasionally rises above the demands of the story - though when it does its a blinding light - and the novel's mix of tragedy with comedy is an uneasy one. Perhaps its greatest problem, is that though it has a perfect structure in terms of telling the story, Philip's arc is such a curious one. Perhaps his initial readers would have been all too at home with the monied man of little ambition, with the importance of "appearances" above all else, but to a modern reader, the drawing of the curtains over this late Victorian melodrama seem a little stilted. Like Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth", published the same year, its a book that meddles with themes that would be fully worked out later on (in "Howard's End" and "A Room with a View" for him, in "Age of Innocence" for her) in books that would go far beyond the genre conventions of the day.

The edition I read has an introduction which says the book is the essayist's favourite of Forster's which seems to be protesting a little too much for its merits. Yet there is much pleasure to be had in reading this young man's novel. Forster has talked about its genesis. He went on a similar trip with his mother that turned out to be inconvenient, uncomfortable and beastly, yet something of Italy's "passion" managed to survive even the discomforts of the journey. He overheard a story of an English woman marrying an Italian man and it piqued his interest. His Italy is a second hand one, and he wondered about it's veracity, and if Gino and his housekeeper and friends seems grotesques in some ways, the genius of Forster's imagination makes even the scenes that he had to imagine come to life.
"Fool's rush in where angel's fear to tread" - like "Only Connect" its good to remember the rest of the phrase - and it seems an appropriate if overly literary title for this debut.

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