The legno trundles through the turns in a wood that leads, ascending, to the small, picaresque, dirty Italian town of Monteriano and, within its walls, to Lilia and to Gino, devil’s temptation.
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
– Dante Alighieri, Inferno, canto I, 1-3
These first lines of Dante’s Inferno needle their way into Philip Herriton’s head as he leaves behind the straight-laced ways of his Sawston home and comes out on the side of a village whose character is one that throbs with impulsivity and slumbers in its laziness.
E.M. Forster’s novel (his first, written in 1905 when he was 26) takes its title from Alexander Pope’s poem “An Essay on Criticism”: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread; this line is the culminating force of his novel. Its first hesitant breaths begin when Philip hears from Caroline Abbott, Lilia’s Sawston neighbor and companion in Italy, that Lilia is to remarry and to a lowlife man she’s known for all of one week.
Where Angels Fear to Tread poses the difficult question of family responsibility when family, as it had been, no longer is – are we left to sweep the ashes of the other half when death sunders a marriage never cherished by the deceased’s family?
It was the sight of him, his manly stature and dark, smooth Mediterranean features, lounging against a fence in the bright slanting sun, every inch of him the romantic Italian lover, and Lilia’s heart fluttering with the freshness of a guiltless widowhood that was better than the marriage which preceded it, why…she fell in love. She fell in love with the pretty face, and she didn’t see the fault lines that would later rupture this wanton happiness.
Forster’s novel begins with Lilia’s departure for a year-long tour of Italy, but as the train pulls away from the station, picks up speed, this center rapidly recedes, and Monteriano, Italy, asserts itself. When Lilia dies in the childbirth of her second marriage, Forster refocuses his novel on the newborn baby, on Gino and on Lilia’s acquired family, the in-laws of her first marriage. With Lilia’s death the baby becomes the co-opted responsibility of a scandalized Mrs. Herriton, and, through her, of Mrs. Herriton’s younger son, Philip, and daughter, Harriet, as well.
But the baby is hardly their family. It is Lilia and Gino’s baby. Lilia, whom Mrs. Herriton had disliked from the first and who, after Charles’ death, had remained in the Herriton family much as a visitor does whose trunks are in the car and yet is still awkwardly standing about your kitchen. Why do the Herritons make for themselves a burden of the baby? Why can’t they let it be?
The Herritons, indignant over Lilia’s hasty marriage, were even more inflamed when they heard she had a child, a son, by him. That a child with good English blood should be brought up in a poor Italian town by a penniless good-timer is more than Mrs. Herriton can bear.
And that penniless good-timer? Gino at first lives up to expectations: he’s lazy, inappropriately self-confident, brazen and immature. He burps at the table. He ruffles Philip’s feathers with his mischief (there’s a little shove that doesn’t hurt, Philip falls down, and it’s wounded pride more than anything that makes Philip hate him).
But when Philip returns to Monteriano with Harriet after Lilia’s death and with his mother’s charter for baby retrieval, he finds Gino in a new light, and Forster’s novel strides smoothly and confidently forward to illumine that tricky line between actual duty and overstepping one’s bounds.
His point parsed down to his characters, Caroline Abbot is Forster’s angel and Harriet is his fool. The actions of each lead to a Renaissance memory of Madonna and Child and to a fight with Gino that leaves Philip’s arm in a sling (yet with pride more intact than it was with that simple bump to the floor on his last visit to Monteriano).
Philip had before looked at life with a scholar’s, a connoisseur’s, eye. He found, understood and appreciated beauty. He laughed at silly conventions while still observing some of them unconcernedly. But life was never something he entered into; that business was for people less intellectual than he.
But this physical pain that knocks him cold as an iron rod would have knocked him cold – instantaneous, ringing hollowness that floods in the next moment with nauseating feeling and pulsating sharpness – also bloomed in his heart as something rueful and anxious, as something that might spur him on to make up for lost time.
Poor, weary Philip, for he must trudge back to Sawston living two convalescences, that of the body and that of the soul. It’s an end to Inferno and a beginning to Purgatorio.
Where Angels Fear to Tread is not so hopeful as his later A Room with a View, Forster’s other novel of Italy included in this book from Everyman’s Library. Where Angels Fear to Tread is much more realistic in its end view and much more sentimental. How many of us have traded what we wanted for the restraining forces of duty or, more likely, for workaday responsibility? How many of us have looked back and seen that the onus we carried was an unnecessary one that only made us tired and sad?
I reviewed Forster’s A Room with a View, the first novel in this book from Everyman’s Library, last month – be sure to take a look!
Where Angels Fear to Tread · E.M. Forster · 1905
Everyman’s Library, 2011 · 250 pages, hardcover