Nicole's Reviews > Where Angels Fear to Tread

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
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Jan 05, 12

bookshelves: pure-win, hard-to-beat-the-classics
Read from December 26, 2011 to January 04, 2012

I'm all a-flutter with big angst-fluff hearts for this book. There is some bizarre charm for me in the unrelenting pretentiousness of these characters, the horrible overriding need to keep up some very specific set of appearances for the sake of...society? themselves? some guy in Italy they can't stand and hope never to see again? I end up, surprisingly, feeling quite a bit for Philip, and somewhat for Caroline, and some for Lilia (although not as much as I thought I would when she was being all shocking and vulgar in her excited goodbyes in that opening train scene). Oh, and Gino! He's maybe who I end up feeling for the most. Tough call.

As a general rule, these characters are self-centered, misguided, busybody assholes who occasionally have genuinely good intentions or real feelings despite themselves. And they're predominantly English, which in this case adds a level of self-assuredness to their words and actions that borders on the farcical at times. They spend (and by "they" I really mean "Philip and Caroline") most of the book walking around in a fog of "should" and "ought" and "reputation" and either jockeying against or being manipulated by the dread matriach Mrs. Herriton, and when they finally get a little of that fog blasted away...well, the result is lovely, unexpected, and somewhat tragic for both of them because, ultimately, the magic of Italy is temporary in their lives. The drip and drudge of Sawston is ultimately what they have to look forward to when we leave them at the end of the book. From the sounds of it, the place would make most of us a little self-centered and asshole-y.

On the flip side, and I'm really just now realizing what perfect juxtaposition these were placed in, we have Monteriano. It's a magical place, bright and sunny with cheerful people and none of the forced stuffiness our travelers are accustomed to. Its siren song is hard to resist, a truth lost only on Harriet. We even get a sense for this otherworldliness when we first see the town:

"The hazy green of the olives rose up to its walls, and it seemed to float in isolation between trees and sky, like some fantastic ship city of a dream. Its color was brown, and it revealed not a single house—nothing but the narrow circle of the walls, and behind them seventeen towers—all that was left of the fifty-two that had filled the city in her prime. Some were only stumps, some were inclining stiffly to their fall, some were still erect, piercing like masts into the blue. It was impossible to praise it as beautiful, but it was also impossible to damn it as quaint."

Even the carriage ride from the nearest train station to Monteriano is idyllic:

"The trees of the wood were small and leafless, but noticeable for this—that their stems stood in violets as rocks stand in the summer sea. There are such violets in England, but not so many. Nor are there so many in art, for no painter has the courage. The cart-ruts were channels, the hollows lagoons; even the dry white margin of the road was splashed, like a causeway soon to be submerged under the advancing tide of spring. Philip paid no attention at the time; he was thinking what to say next. But his eyes had registered the beauty, and next March he did not forget that the road to Monteriano must traverse innumerable flowers."

Sounds dreamy, right? Lush and mysterious and beautiful and ancient and maybe a little creepily virile with all the erect, piercing tower talk, but this over-the-top virility is a part of its charm as well. It is, as Mrs. Herriton would say with a lot more disdain than I can muster, vulgar. It has no place in the awfully refined lives of these English travelers (which maybe speaks to why Lilia didn't transplant well long-term), and they respond to the culture shock in a variety of ways. Mix these varied responses with some local personalities and the conflicts and personal revelations that ensue make the book hard to put down.

This wasn't even remotely what I was going to talk about when I sat down to write this review. I think I was going to say something about the series of tragedies twined up in it, all of which may be rooted in unrealistic expectations. I was definitely going to talk about the prose. What can I say? I got distracted. Here's some lovely prose to leave you with anyway. Fortunately, it can speak for itself.

"Mrs. Herriton did not believe in romance, nor in transfiguration, nor in parallels from history, nor in anything else that may disturb domestic life."

"Philip gave a cry of personal disgust and pain. He shuddered all over, and edged away from his companion. A dentist! A dentist at Monteriano! A dentist in fairyland! False teeth and laughing-gas and the tilting chair at a place which knew the Etruscan League, and the Pax Romana, and Alaric himself, and the Countess Matilda, and the Middle Ages, all fighting and holiness, and the Renaissance, all fighting and beauty! He thought of Lilia no longer. He was anxious for himself: he feared that Romance might die."

"So the two men parted with a good deal of genuine affection. For the barrier of language is sometimes a blessed barrier, which only lets pass what is good. Or—to put the thing less cynically—we may be better in new clean words, which have never been tainted by our pettiness or vice. Philip, at all events, lived more graciously in Italian, the very phrases of which entice one to be happy and kind."
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