Where Angels Fear to Tread

Emilybooks’ days in Lucca are coming to an end, alas. On Thursday we will depart and head northeast to Ravenna, Vicenza, perhaps Venice, and then retreat rapidly through France, arriving back in London next Tuesday night.

The pain of leaving has been lessened somewhat by having some friends to stay for the past few days, accompanying us on jaunts up into the mountains, and to Viareggio, a rather haunting seaside resort of strange faded glamour. We also made another little excursion, pre-visitors, to Florence, namely to go on a tour of the ‘secret passages’ of the Palazzo Vecchio, as recommended by a friend, but key to the trip was also the desire to revisit a particular gelateria where we discovered the unparalleled joy of peanut ice cream. (It’s on Via Tornabouni, by all the designer shops, should you happen to find yourself there and in need of some refreshment.)

Dante by BotticelliThe Palazzo Vechhio tour was very interesting. We were shown various secret rooms, hidden inside the breadth of the enormous walls, and taken to the space above the ceiling of the hall of five hundred, where we could see all the clever workings of the beams and rafters. But it was most compelling for two reasons. Firstly, the lady began by asking the group if anyone had read the Inferno. I felt a little sheepish, for much as I would like to have read Dante’s Divine Comedy, perhaps even with facing page translation so that I, like Mrs Fisher in The Enchanted April could excuse myself by saying ‘I speak only the Italian of Dante’, that was a book that didn’t make it on to the Emilybooks travelling bookcase. My sheepishness deepened into extreme AppleMarkshame when about half of the tour group nodded and said they had indeed read it. Who were all these scholarly folk, so convincingly disguised in the t-shirts, shorts, functional sandals and backpacks of the quotidian tourist? But then all became clear when the guide elucidated – by Dan Brown, yes, not Dante? It transpired that Mr Brown’s book was all set in the Palazzo Vecchio, hence why they all wanted to see its secret passages.

Cosimo de Medici's tortoiseBut the tour’s MOST compelling discovery was the symbol of Cosimo de Medici, which cropped up in various paintings throughout the richly adorned apartments: a tortoise!!!!!! But not just any tortoise, a tortoise with a sail on its back, signifying, apparently, his belief that when doing anything one must first be slow and thoughtful – like a tortoise – and then go full steam ahead, as it were (or, back then, full sail ahead). I thoroughly approve, and have been considering the logistics of rigging up a little sail on Daphne’s thoughtful shell.

So the books now being read take on the added weight of being THE LAST BOOKS to be read in Lucca. It is almost as hellish as deciding what to have for our last supper here, or which flavour combination in our last gelato. I knew, however, that I had to re-read EM Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. I last read this (and wrote about it) a few years ago, and knowing it to be slim but potent, and of course set in Italy, I thought it a perfect choice.

It is, however, almost impossible to write about, mostly because it is too slim to be able to tell much of the plot without ruining it. So I shall try to evade any massive spoilers, but do look away now if you really don’t want a whiff of any of it.

Where Angels Fear to TreadEven though this was my second time around, Forster still managed to wrongfoot me. Where Angels Fear to Tread seems, to begin with, to be about Lilia Heriton – a widow, who breaks off the stuffy bonds of provincial life and her snotty in-laws by travelling to Italy (with a companion, of course), and then falling in love. (So far, so similar to A Room with a View.) Her brother-in-law, Philip, is speedily dispatched to rescue her, for she has fallen for an Italian and not even a member of the Italian nobility, but Gino, the handsome son of a provincial dentist. There is a wonderful moment when he is eating spaghetti:

When those delicious slippery worms were flying down his throat his face relaxed and became for a moment unconscious and calm. And 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.

It’s brilliant! I love this idea of the spaghetti transforming him, that there is something quintessentially Italian about it. Indeed, Forster stresses the link between Gino and the Italian land elsewhere too, using the same adjectives ‘mysterious and terrible’ both for him and for the Tuscan landscape, as seen by the English. Here, Philip can see the charm and beauty of this Italianness, while snobbishly seeing that it is not of a gentleman.

Philip tries to buy him off, but discovers it is too late, for Gino and Lilia are already married. Then:

At no one moment did Lilia realize that her marriage was a failure; yet during the summer and autumn she became as unhappy as it was possible for her nature to be.

Then poor miserable Lilia is killed off, dying in childbirth. This all happens before we even get half-way through the book. So evidently it isn’t going to be another Room with a View – our subject isn’t the English middle-class lady exhilarated by the Italian landscape. It gradually becomes clear that Forster’s subject is Philip. Indeed, in a letter to his friend RC Trevelyan, which is printed in the back of this Penguin edition, he says:

The object of the book is the improvement of Philip, and I did really want the improvement to be a surprise.

Sorry for ruining the surprise, and I shall indeed stop with the plot synopsis now in order to avoid any greater spoilers.

So Where Angels Fear to Tread is about the improvement of Philip, but at the same time, I felt it to be about the futility of that improvement. So long as there are people about like Harriet – Philip’s awful, moral, pious, didactic sister – English snobs who are so convinced of their being right that they will force their view on others, rather than, like Philip, be improved by exposure to a new culture – then the English will only do harm. Any goodness that develops in Philip is rendered useless by Harriet’s actions (don’t press me on the plot details if you don’t want me to give it away!). Essentially, the goodness of a quiet observer is never going to have so much of an effect as the badness of a loud doer.

This is made all the more troubling by the many parallels between Philip and Forster himself. If Forster, in his first complete novel, was already gesturing towards the feebleness of the gentle, male, sexually ambiguous observer – however great his ‘improvement’ as the novel progresses – then it doesn’t show a great vote of confidence in his own role as writer-observer. This male observer figure was to reappear in many of his books, such as Mr Beebe in A Room with A View, and even Fielding in A Passage to India, who fails in his attempt at a friendship with Aziz.

Forster is one of my very favourite writers, so of course I would never dream of calling him a failure, but perhaps he felt this to be the case himself, and was too aware of the limits of his work. He wrote, after all, only six novels, stopping after A Passage to India, even though he lived for nearly another fifty years. It is a great shame, and all the more so for there being this portrait of the powerlessness of an observer even in his very first, and very brilliant, novel.

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7 Responses to “Where Angels Fear to Tread”

  1. The Northern Reader Says:

    That’s the long winter’s evenings back home sorted, then: Dante (you’ll love him) – and, if you haven’t, try Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (strong contender for the NorthernReader’s favourite book of a time)

    • emilybooks Says:

      Oh thank you for the tips! Yes Italo Calvino is another of those embarrassing gaps in my reading – I hope this might be the prompt to finally get around to it.

  2. airandangelsblog Says:

    Thank you for reminding me about this lovely book – I chose to write about it (along with A Passage to India) aeons ago for my A-level extended essay and think it’s high time I dusted off my copy and revisited it without the pressure of being graded for my efforts! I do remember being quite startled by the death of Lilia, as I wasn’t expecting it to be ‘that kind of novel’.

    Interested to hear any thoughts on Ravenna as we’re planning a trip there later this summer. Have also visited Viareggio as a day trip from Florence – ‘strangely faded glamour’ sums it up perfectly! I hope you enjoy what remains of your travels.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Yes do dust it off! It is a wonderful book and I’m sure you will enjoy re-reading it. Lucky you to have studied EM Forster for A-level – that must have been a real joy. I shall report back on Ravenna, though we’ll only be there for a day, so it might be a rather brief impression. And thanks – yes, I’m looking forward to the road trip back!

  3. Alice Says:

    It feels as if you only just went to Lucca, how quickly time passes us by.

    And how wonderful that you found a great-relative of Daphne’s while exploring history. On a side note, I was sent a picture of a tortoise in a dinosaur costume today and thought of Daphne.

    I’m not sure I could manage Where Angels Fear to Tread, it sounds both wonderful and heavy going.

    • emilybooks Says:

      I think I might have seen that tortoise dinosaur pic – is it a very sweet knitted number? Where Angels Fear to Tread isn’t heavy going really, perhaps a little more so than A Room with a View, but really it’s a brilliant book, worth the effort!

      • Alice Says:

        That’s the one, it looks rather cozy.

        Hmm, I’ll make a mental note to pick this up when I next go book shopping then, or see if I can find it in a charity shop.

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