When Lilia Herriton leaves Sawston for Italy with her lady’s companion Miss Caroline Abbott, her in-laws breathe a sigh of relief. The young widow had been making eyes at a local farmer, much to their dismay. Going off to Italy gets her out of their hair, with the side effect that she will better herself. Hopefully.
Mrs Herriton had been disappointed in her son’s choice of wife. Lilia not only was beneath the family socially, she also had the audacity to not conform to the family standards. She found matters worsened after the death of her son. “Lilia would not settle down in her place among Sawston matrons.” Lilia moved herself and daughter Irma back home with her mother where Mrs Herriton’s firm hand did not reach. The suggestion of Italy to Lilia is the solution to all their problems. Surely Lilia couldn’t get up to much trouble with the sober Miss Abbott there.
Reports from Italy were fine in the beginning, until Lilia and Caroline stopped in the village of Monteriano, where Lilia meets and marries an Italian, leaving Irma behind in England. At that point, the Herritons had enough and cut ties with Lilia forever. But then there is a baby…
At first the Herritons try to ignore the situation, but when word gets out in Sawston, Mrs Herriton worries that people will think them cruel to leave an English child in Italy. Italy! With all those Catholics and…art. She sends her children, Harriet and Philip, to Italy to set things right, as she sees things anyway, with Caroline Abbott hot on their heels.
Where Angels Fear to Tread seemed like a delightful little novel in the beginning. A flighty woman runs off with a younger man in a foreign country. Get it, girl! I was rooting for Lilia at first, especially when she tells her brother-in-law:
“For once in my life I’ll thank you to leave me alone. I’ll thank your mother too. For twelve years you’ve trained and tortured me, and I’ll stand it no more. Do you think I’m a fool? Do you think I never felt? Ah! when I came to your house a poor young bride , how you all looked me over- never a kind word- and discussed me, and thought I might just do; and your mother corrected me, and your sister snubbed me, and you said funny things about me to show how clever you were!”It soon becomes clear that Lilia has made a huge mistake. She could have done whatever she liked but she married a man-child and chose to live in a country where she doesn’t have any friends. The cultural gap between them is too large. For example, she wants to go out and meet people, and he believes wives stay hidden away in the house. Understandably, she becomes depressed.
It stopped being delightful at that point.
Later, the three English knuckleheads, Philip, Harriet, and the guilt-ridden Caroline Abbott, arrive in Monteriano. Philip isn’t much older than the husband Gino, and no wiser. He fell in love with Italy on a previous visit. He fetishizes Italy and the Italian people, but deep down he’s a prude. Harriet thinks Italy is the home of Satan. Caroline has mixed feelings. She’s tired of her life in Sawston, the hypocrisy and “petty unselfishness.” Still, she’s driven to do the moral thing, as she was taught, but has doubts as to whether it is the right thing.
Individually, they make a mess of things. It was entertaining to see these three self-righteous people come to disappointment time and again. That was until the end…
I’m not going to say anything about the end; I’m still trying to come to terms with it.
Written in 1905, Where Angels Fear to Tread is Forster’s first novel and a quick read at just over 200 pages. It’s an interesting commentary on how English society perceived itself in the world at this time: morally superior. This self-righteousness comes across as cold heartlessness. A theme Forster explores in A Passage to India, as well (but with more racism). The most intriguing character is Caroline Abbott, possibly the only character capable of change. I hope she became a Lady Adventurer after this episode.