Review: Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster

I've been procrastinating on this review for two weeks now. This is the third Forster novel I've read and I have mixed feelings about it. I'm not quite sure how to go about as not to present it too harshly. So I'll try to lay down what I thought this novel was about and then, separately, my own reaction to it and whether I think it achieved its goal.

The Central Theme

[only minor spoilerage in this section, but skim to the next if you want] 

Where Angels Fear to Tread opens with Lilia, a young unsophisticated widow, being driven to the train station by her in-laws, the despotic Mrs. Herriton and her children, Philip and Harriet. They are sending her on a trip to Italy in the company of the young but trustworthy Caroline Abbott, to prevent her from making a bad match in England. Lilia's trip and its results introduce a clash between two worlds in the novel, and a clash between beauty and morality.

On one side, we have the stifling world of Sawston, England, your typical small town full of dust, virtue and narrow-minded matrons. Life in Sawston is not beautiful. Life in Sawston is not particularly moral either. Life in Sawston is conventional. Mrs. Herriton, the velvet-gloved tyrant, is its prototype; Harriet, the humorless zealot, its most exaggerated form. They tried to mold Lilia and failed, and are now trying to mold her young daughter in the same style. You can't blame the other characters - Philip, Miss Abbott, even Lilia - for striking out against this life and trying to escape.
All that winter I seemed to be waking up to beauty and splendour and I don’t know what; and when the spring came, I wanted to fight against the things I hated—mediocrity and dulness and spitefulness and society. I actually hated society for a day or two at Monteriano. I didn’t see that all these things are invincible, and that if we go against them they will break us to pieces. --Miss Abbott to Philip

On the other side, we have Monteriano, a quaint, primitive Italian town "where one really does feel in the heart of things, and off the beaten track." The problem with Monteriano is that, while it is beautiful, seductive even for people who escaped the straightlacedness of England, it's hard to say whether it is also good in a moral sense. When Lilia is seduced by a handsome, unreliable Italian and marries him, Miss Abbott and Phillip (quickly summoned from England) feel let down by Italy, by what they believed was beauty and freedom in it. They react to this disappointment in different ways. Philip feels Romance itself has died and it makes him slightly more cynical and detached from the world. Miss Abbott feels the failure had been hers, and she tries to find her own moral compass beyond the conventional values of Sawston.
He concluded that nothing could happen, not knowing that human love and love of truth sometimes conquer where love of beauty fails.

It is this moral compass that makes her insist that the Herritons should raise the baby Lilia died giving birth to. It is this moral compass that makes her go to Italy herself to make sure Philip and Harriet actually get the baby. And it is this moral compass that makes her change her mind. Because the Monteriano she finds on returning is natural and almost amoral, sometimes cruel (like it was to Lilia), but sometimes primal and impressive (like in the father-son moments Miss Abbott witnesses). I won't give away the ending, but Miss Abbott's decision not to interfere seems to be the right one. Siding with culture in the conflict culture vs. nature is generally the wrong thing to do in Forster's world.

My Thoughts

Well, to see what I liked about this novel, let's just count all the ways in which this could have been a Henry James novel:

  • two worlds in conflict: one puritanical and hypocritical (be it New England or Sawston), the other old and fascinating (Europe in general, Italy)
  • naive young ladies in unhappy marriages with cruel, handsome Italians (Isabel Archer, Lilia Herriton is here to tell you that it could have been worse!)
  • the detached character that looks at life from the outside: in James, the adorable Strether; here, Philip (sample statement: "I seem fated to pass through the world without colliding with it or moving it.")
  • troubled relation between beauty and morality, with Italy as a case study

I liked all of these elements. I didn't entirely dislike that they were very transparent and clearly laid out, although I usually like my moral conundrums wrapped in thousands of fancy words and impossibly-long sentences (see: my love for Henry James). What I didn't like were the moments when this crossed the line into farce - and it did on a handful of occasions, especially towards the end. Perhaps they weren't framed properly, perhaps it was just me, but I didn't feel that these farcical moments hit their mark.

A Taste of this Book

There were quite a few quotes that I liked, ranging from witty:

For it is impossible, as well as sacrilegious, to be as quick as Baedeker.

to descriptive:
At that moment the carriage entered a little wood, which lay brown and sombre across the cultivated hill. 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 hollow 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.
to insightful/ironic:
He thought of Lilia no longer. He was anxious for himself: he feared that Romance might die. Romance only dies with life. No pair of pincers will ever pull it out of us. But there is a spurious sentiment which cannot resist the unexpected and the incongruous and the grotesque. A touch will loosen it, and the sooner it goes from us the better. It was going from Philip now, and therefore he gave the cry of pain.

The Bottom Line

This was a decent book, except that there are better Forster books and there are better books in its genre. Miss Abbott and Philip were redeeming presences in the novel, and I would have liked to read more about them. I am:
  1. giving this 3 out of 5 stars
  2. happy that I've crossed out my first Classics Club book 
  3. wondering what other people thought about this book 

Where to go from here

While I didn't like this book that much, I'd read more Forster. Maurice and Howards End are on my Classics Club list, so they're the obvious choices. And if I'm not too busy in the next months, I'd really love to revisit some Henry James (and this, my friends, is an example of a sentence that's always true).


  1. I now really want to read Henry James again! Always a good feeling so thanks for this review :) I've only read Howards End by Forster - would definitely recommend it.

    1. Yay for Henry James and thanks for your comment. I think I'll check out Howards End next :)

  2. I never thought about it but you're right, it's so much like a Henry James novel!

    1. Hi, Arie Stotle. We're bigger fans of your buddy P.L. Ato around here, but glad to have you around :)

  3. This was my first Forster book and I wasn't disappointed probably because I haven't read Portrait of a Lady yet. I liked that this book was easy to read and I liked how no one side was entirely right or entirely wrong.