Where Angels Fear To Tread &
A Room With A View
176 / 256 pages • Penguin English Library • May 31 / Sept. 27, 2012 [PB]
In writing about E.M. Forster’s work I always feel like it’s necessary to first rescue it from the tight period-drama corset of the film adaptations – or the “ruthless Good Taste of Merchant-Ivory”, as Gore Vidal once aptly characterised it. It’s Forster’s style, and how he works with the inner life of his characters, that makes the books spellbinding. The film of A Room With A View scratches the surface of Forster’s genius, whereas the adaptation of Howards End is so dull it doesn’t even do that. It’s the narrator’s insight into the inner workings of the characters, and how this weaves into the plot, that makes Philip Herriton in Where Angels Fear To Tread (1905), and Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With A View (1908), both real and interesting. In the films they are imprisoned in the two-dimensional world of costume and setting. In Forster’s books it’s the inner life that ensures they are three-dimensional, and as contemporary as they are Edwardian.
Forster started writing his first novel, Nottingham Lace, in the summer of 1901 at the age of twenty-two. He did not get very far before he abandoned it and prepared for a year-long tour of Italy with his formidable mother, Lily. From this tour sprang two novels, Where Angels Fear To Tread and A Room With A View.
Nottingham Lace was about the conflict between the upper middle-class world of the Manchett family and the more down-to-earth, lower middle-class Trents. (This is a conflict Forster would return to in his only novel not to been adapted into a film, The Longest Journey .) In his tour of Italy, the conflict he witnessed first-hand was between the world of buttoned-up English social mores and the raw emotion of the passionate Italians. In November 1902 he started writing A Room With A View, with Lucy as his surrogate, in order to explore this conflict.
Forster struggled with the book, and in November 1903 redrafted it, adding new characters. It was around this time that he started to dream about men, and he wrote in his diary that the intensity of the togetherness in the dreams stayed with him. His frustrated desires were then poured into his need to write. He put Lucy aside, and started a short story, ‘The Story of A Panic’, as well as private, homoerotic stories. In December 1904 he wrote Where Angels Fear To Tread in a little over a month.
“I overheard an English lady talking to another English lady about a third English lady who had married an Italian far beneath her socially and also much younger, and how most unfortunate it was,” Forster recalled many years later. “This sorry bit of twaddle stuck in my mind. I worked at it until it became alive and grew into a novel of contrasts.”
Where Angels Fear To Tread tells the story of the recently widowed Lilia Herriton, who travels to Italy with a chaperone, the stiff Caroline Abbott, after her husband’s death. Within no time at all, Lilia is engaged to an Italian, Gino. Her brother-in-law, Philip Herriton, is sent out to Italy to prevent the marriage. Philip is too late to do so, and what then unfolds is a conflict between the constricted English suburbs and the wild Italian countryside. When Lilia dies in childbirth the comic story edges toward a tragedy brought on by the attempt of the English contingent to seize control of the situation.
Where Angels Fear To Tread is a short book. 10 concentrated chapters, 153 pages in the Penguin English Library edition. It is a whirlwind that spins around the character of Philip Herriton, who is torn between what he believes is right, and what he has been taught to believe is right. His attraction to the swarthy Gino adds an unspoken layer of tension to that conflict. It’s a surprising book because it defies convention, and oscillates between comedy and tragedy.
Forster finished a second novel, The Longest Journey, before he returned to A Room With A View. The story begins in an Italian Pensione, which is run by a cockney landlady, much to the disappoint of Lucy and her spinster chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett. Lucy was promised a view, but her room looks onto an inner courtyard. The brash Mr Emerson, who is travelling with his son George, offers to exchange rooms, and a very English scene unfolds in which Miss Bartlett is simply unable to accept.
The continuing conflict between the easy-going Emersons and uptight Miss Bartlett has an undecided Lucy caught in the middle. When Lucy witnesses a murder she faints, and is caught in the arms of George Emerson. “The cries from the fountain – they had never ceased – rang emptily. The whole world seemed pale and void of its original meaning.” This is Lucy’s inner life at work, and it changes the direction of the plot irrevocably. She falls for George, and is thrown into conflict when he later kisses her. She flees back to England, and to her painfully dull, pompous fiancé, Cecil Vyse. The conflict that started in Italy follows Lucy, no matter how hard she runs from it, and the Emersons again enter her social circle as friends of Cecil.
A Room With A View is a romantic comedy, and a more conventional book than Where Angels Fear To Tread. Forster was apprehensive about it, and he fretted over the quality of the character’s inner lives. In May 1908, working on the manuscript, he went so far as to dismiss it as “bilge”. This is probably because of its conventionally happy ending – Forster was naturally rebellious and always questioning the usual order of things. Nevertheless, A Room With A View is the most beautiful, and the most readable, of his novels.
The Penguin English Library edition of A Room With A View is published this week. It’s one of three of the 100 great classics published in this attractive and beautifully readable edition. (For more about the edition, read the review of Great Expectations.) The other two Forsters are Where Angels Fear To Tread and Howards End, both published earlier this year. It’s puzzling that Forster’s grand achievement, A Passage to India, is not also on the list. And my one complaint about the Forster editions is that the essays at the end are painfully dull. It’s the pedestrian sort of lit crit that’s as bad as two-dimensional as the films, dreadfully dated and not exactly for the average reader. That said, it’s not the essays that matter, it’s the novels themselves, which still glitter and sparkle, and are a wonderful read in this charming edition.