As I anticipate travel to Italy this summer, I decided to watch the 1991 film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), which is set in a fictional hill town of Tuscany fashioned after the medieval town of San Gimignano near Florence. The title of this book originates from a line in Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Poetic Criticism” (1711): “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Having previously read Forster’s other novel set in Italy, A Room with a View (1908), I was eager to know the story of Where Angels Fear to Tread, as summarized by Penguin Classics:
A wonderful story of questioning, disillusionment, and conversion, Where Angels Fear to Tread tells the story of a prim English family’s encounter with the foreign land of Italy. When attractive, impulsive English widow Lilia marries Gino, a dashing and highly unsuitable Italian twelve years her junior, her snobbish former in-laws make no attempts to hide their disapproval. But their expedition to face the uncouth foreigner takes an unexpected turn when they return to Italy under tragic circumstances intending to rescue Lilia and Gino’s baby.
Here are my favorite passages from the novel.
“So one would have supposed. But she never cared for her mother, and little girls of nine don’t reason clearly. She looks on it as a long visit. And it is important, most important, that she should not receive a shock. All a child’s life depends on the ideal it has of its parents. Destroy that and everything goes—morals, behaviour, everything. Absolute trust in some one else is the essence of education. That is why I have been so careful about talking of poor Lilia before her.”
It was too late to go. She could not tell why, but it was too late. She turned away her head when Gino lifted his son to his lips. This was something too remote from the prettiness of the nursery. The man was majestic; he was a part of Nature; in no ordinary love scene could he ever be so great. For a wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and—by some sad, strange irony—it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy. Gino passionately embracing, Miss Abbott reverently averting her eyes—both of them had parents whom they did not love so very much.
“Why, yes,” he stammered. “Since we talk openly, that is all I am after just now. What else is there? If I can persuade Signor Carella to give in, so much the better. If he won’t, I must report the failure to my mother and then go home. Why, Miss Abbott, you can’t expect me to follow you through all these turns—”
“I don’t! But I do expect you to settle what is right and to follow that. Do you want the child to stop with his father, who loves him and will bring him up badly, or do you want him to come to Sawston, where no one loves him, but where he will be brought up well? There is the question put dispassionately enough even for you. Settle it. Settle which side you’ll fight on. But don’t go talking about an ‘honourable failure,’ which means simply not thinking and not acting at all.”
“Because I understand the position of Signor Carella and of you, it’s no reason that—”
“None at all. Fight as if you think us wrong. Oh, what’s the use of your fair-mindedness if you never decide for yourself? Any one gets hold of you and makes you do what they want. And you see through them and laugh at them—and do it. It’s not enough to see clearly; I’m muddle-headed and stupid, and not worth a quarter of you, but I have tried to do what seemed right at the time. And you—your brain and your insight are splendid. But when you see what’s right you’re too idle to do it. You told me once that we shall be judged by our intentions, not by our accomplishments. I thought it a grand remark. But we must intend to accomplish—not sit intending on a chair.”
“You are wonderful!” he said gravely.
“Oh, you appreciate me!” she burst out again. “I wish you didn’t. You appreciate us all—see good in all of us. And all the time you are dead—dead—dead. Look, why aren’t you angry?” She came up to him, and then her mood suddenly changed, and she took hold of both his hands. “You are so splendid, Mr. Herriton, that I can’t bear to see you wasted. I can’t bear—she has not been good to you—your mother.”
“Miss Abbott, don’t worry over me. Some people are born not to do things. I’m one of them; I never did anything at school or at the Bar. I came out to stop Lilia’s marriage, and it was too late. I came out intending to get the baby, and I shall return an ‘honourable failure.’ I never expect anything to happen now, and so I am never disappointed. You would be surprised to know what my great events are. Going to the theatre yesterday, talking to you now—I don’t suppose I shall ever meet anything greater. I seem fated to pass through the world without colliding with it or moving it—and I’m sure I can’t tell you whether the fate’s good or evil. I don’t die—I don’t fall in love. And if other people die or fall in love they always do it when I’m just not there. You are quite right; life to me is just a spectacle, which—thank God, and thank Italy, and thank you—is now more beautiful and heartening than it has ever been before.”
She said solemnly, “I wish something would happen to you, my dear friend; I wish something would happen to you.”
“But why?” he asked, smiling. “Prove to me why I don’t do as I am.”
She also smiled, very gravely. She could not prove it. No argument existed. Their discourse, splendid as it had been, resulted in nothing, and their respective opinions and policies were exactly the same when they left the church as when they had entered it.
“Silly nonsense!” he exploded, suddenly moved to have the whole thing out with her. “You’re too good—about a thousand times better than I am. You can’t live in that hole; you must go among people who can hope to understand you. I mind for myself. I want to see you often—again and again.”
“Of course we shall meet whenever you come down; and I hope that it will mean often.”
“It’s not enough; it’ll only be in the old horrible way, each with a dozen relatives round us. No, Miss Abbott; it’s not good enough.”
“We can write at all events.”
“You will write?” he cried, with a flush of pleasure. At times his hopes seemed so solid.
“I will indeed.”
“But I say it’s not enough—you can’t go back to the old life if you wanted to. Too much has happened.”
“I know that,” she said sadly.
“Not only pain and sorrow, but wonderful things: that tower in the sunlight—do you remember it, and all you said to me? The theatre, even. And the next day—in the church; and our times with Gino.”
“All the wonderful things are over,” she said. “That is just where it is.”
“I don’t believe it. At all events not for me. The most wonderful things may be to come—”
“The wonderful things are over,” she repeated, and looked at him so mournfully that he dare not contradict her. The train was crawling up the last ascent towards the Campanile of Airolo and the entrance of the tunnel.
“Miss Abbott,” he murmured, speaking quickly, as if their free intercourse might soon be ended, “what is the matter with you? I thought I understood you, and I don’t. All those two great first days at Monteriano I read you as clearly as you read me still. I saw why you had come, and why you changed sides, and afterwards I saw your wonderful courage and pity. And now you’re frank with me one moment, as you used to be, and the next moment you shut me up. You see I owe too much to you—my life, and I don’t know what besides. I won’t stand it. You’ve gone too far to turn mysterious. I’ll quote what you said to me: ‘Don’t be mysterious; there isn’t the time.’ I’ll quote something else: ‘I and my life must be where I live.’ You can’t live at Sawston.”
He had moved her at last. She whispered to herself hurriedly. “It is tempting—” And those three words threw him into a tumult of joy. What was tempting to her? After all was the greatest of things possible? Perhaps, after long estrangement, after much tragedy, the South had brought them together in the end. That laughter in the theatre, those silver stars in the purple sky, even the violets of a departed spring, all had helped, and sorrow had helped also, and so had tenderness to others.
“It is tempting,” she repeated, “not to be mysterious. I’ve wanted often to tell you, and then been afraid. I could never tell any one else, certainly no woman, and I think you’re the one man who might understand and not be disgusted.”
“Are you lonely?” he whispered. “Is it anything like that?”
“Yes.” The train seemed to shake him towards her. He was resolved that though a dozen people were looking, he would yet take her in his arms. “I’m terribly lonely, or I wouldn’t speak. I think you must know already.” Their faces were crimson, as if the same thought was surging through them both.
“Perhaps I do.” He came close to her. “Perhaps I could speak instead. But if you will say the word plainly you’ll never be sorry; I will thank you for it all my life.”
She said plainly, “That I love him.” Then she broke down. Her body was shaken with sobs, and lest there should be any doubt she cried between the sobs for Gino! Gino! Gino!
He heard himself remark “Rather! I love him too! When I can forget how he hurt me that evening. Though whenever we shake hands—” One of them must have moved a step or two, for when she spoke again she was already a little way apart.
“You’ve upset me.” She stifled something that was perilously near hysterics. “I thought I was past all this. You’re taking it wrongly. I’m in love with Gino—don’t pass it off—I mean it crudely—you know what I mean. So laugh at me.”
“Laugh at love?” asked Philip.
“Yes. Pull it to pieces. Tell me I’m a fool or worse—that he’s a cad. Say all you said when Lilia fell in love with him. That’s the help I want. I dare tell you this because I like you—and because you’re without passion; you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful. So I can trust you to cure me. Mr. Herriton, isn’t it funny?” She tried to laugh herself, but became frightened and had to stop. “He’s not a gentleman, nor a Christian, nor good in any way. He’s never flattered me nor honoured me. But because he’s handsome, that’s been enough. The son of an Italian dentist, with a pretty face.” She repeated the phrase as if it was a charm against passion. “Oh, Mr. Herriton, isn’t it funny!” Then, to his relief, she began to cry. “I love him, and I’m not ashamed of it. I love him, and I’m going to Sawston, and if I mayn’t speak about him to you sometimes, I shall die.”
In that terrible discovery Philip managed to think not of himself but of her. He did not lament. He did not even speak to her kindly, for he saw that she could not stand it. A flippant reply was what she asked and needed—something flippant and a little cynical. And indeed it was the only reply he could trust himself to make.
“Perhaps it is what the books call ‘a passing fancy’?”
She shook her head. Even this question was too pathetic. For as far as she knew anything about herself, she knew that her passions, once aroused, were sure. “If I saw him often,” she said, “I might remember what he is like. Or he might grow old. But I dare not risk it, so nothing can alter me now.”
“Well, if the fancy does pass, let me know.” After all, he could say what he wanted.
“Oh, you shall know quick enough—”
“But before you retire to Sawston—are you so mighty sure?”
“What of?” She had stopped crying. He was treating her exactly as she had hoped.
“That you and he—” He smiled bitterly at the thought of them together. Here was the cruel antique malice of the gods, such as they once sent forth against Pasiphae. Centuries of aspiration and culture—and the world could not escape it. “I was going to say—whatever have you got in common?”
“Nothing except the times we have seen each other.” Again her face was crimson. He turned his own face away.
“The time I thought you weak and heedless, and went instead of you to get the baby. That began it, as far as I know the beginning. Or it may have begun when you took us to the theatre, and I saw him mixed up with music and light. But didn’t understand till the morning. Then you opened the door—and I knew why I had been so happy. Afterwards, in the church, I prayed for us all; not for anything new, but that we might just be as we were—he with the child he loved, you and I and Harriet safe out of the place—and that I might never see him or speak to him again. I could have pulled through then—the thing was only coming near, like a wreath of smoke; it hadn’t wrapped me round.”
“But through my fault,” said Philip solemnly, “he is parted from the child he loves. And because my life was in danger you came and saw him and spoke to him again.” For the thing was even greater than she imagined. Nobody but himself would ever see round it now. And to see round it he was standing at an immense distance. He could even be glad that she had once held the beloved in her arms.
“Don’t talk of ‘faults.’ You’re my friend for ever, Mr. Herriton, I think. Only don’t be charitable and shift or take the blame. Get over supposing I’m refined. That’s what puzzles you. Get over that.”
As he spoke she seemed to be transfigured, and to have indeed no part with refinement or unrefinement any longer. Out of this wreck there was revealed to him something indestructible—something which she, who had given it, could never take away.
“I say again, don’t be charitable. If he had asked me, I might have given myself body and soul. That would have been the end of my rescue party. But all through he took me for a superior being—a goddess. I who was worshipping every inch of him, and every word he spoke. And that saved me.”
Philip’s eyes were fixed on the Campanile of Airolo. But he saw instead the fair myth of Endymion. This woman was a goddess to the end. For her no love could be degrading: she stood outside all degradation. This episode, which she thought so sordid, and which was so tragic for him, remained supremely beautiful. To such a height was he lifted, that without regret he could now have told her that he was her worshipper too. But what was the use of telling her? For all the wonderful things had happened.
“Thank you,” was all that he permitted himself. “Thank you for everything.”
She looked at him with great friendliness, for he had made her life endurable. At that moment the train entered the San Gothard tunnel. They hurried back to the carriage to close the windows lest the smuts should get into Harriet’s eyes.