Sunday, August 23, 2015

Where Angels Fear To Tread by E.M. Forster

“Don't be mysterious; there isn't the time.” 
E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread

Where Angels Fear To Tread was written by English novelist, short story writer, essayist and librettist, Edward Morgan Forster  - better known as E.M. Forster -  and published by William Blackwood and Sons in 1905. It was the first of Forster’s published novels. He intended the work to be called Monteriano after the fictitious town where the story is set, but in the end the title was pulled from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism…. “For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread….”

E.M. Forster’s name was originally registered as Henry Morgan Forster but a mistake at his baptism gave him Edward Morgan Forster after his father.  Born in Marylebone, Middlesex, England in January of 1879, the only child of  two middle class Anglo-Irish and Welsh parents, Forster spent most of his early years with his mother, his aunts and various governesses in the household of Rooksnest after his father died soon after his birth.  Rooksnest was said to be the inspiration for “Howard’s End”.

“For the dead, who seem to take away so much, really take with them nothing that is ours.” 
E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread

As an unhappy and precocious child, Forster dabbled in writing stories but it was not until he was able to attend King’s College, Cambridge that he discovered a voice for his thoughts and emotions and found friends with whom he enjoyed diverse intellectual conversations. He became a member of a discussion society - the Apostles (formerly the Cambridge Conversazione Society) - many of whose members went on to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. Forster was considered a peripheral member of this unique group English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists.

“The advance of regret can be so gradual that it is impossible to say "yesterday I was happy, today I am not.” 
E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread

Where Angels Fear To Tread was published in the Edwardian era - a period covering the reign of King Edward VII - 1901 to 1910 and the years leading up to World War I.  King Edward’s mother, Victoria, had shunned society, but her son became a leader of the stylish elite. He made fashion statements out of  such menswear as Homburg hats, tweed, Norfolk jackets and made black ties with dinner jackets the choice over white tie and tails.  Being a larger man, he may have additionally been responsible for the now-accepted practice of leaving the bottom button undone on a gentleman’s suit jacket.

“He had known so much about her once - what she thought, how she felt, the reasons for her actions. And now he only knew that he loved her, and all the other knowledge seemed passing from him just as he needed it most.” 
E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread

It was a time of peace tucked between the Boer War (1899 - 1902) and WWI (1914 - 1918), but it was also a time when there was still stark delineation between classes and between the wealthy and the poor. And it was nearly impossible to move from one level to the other.  With peacetime prosperity throughout the United Kingdom, however, the Sunday roast with yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and horseradish became an important fixture of the week as goods became more available - and to a wide group of people, travel became easier and more affordable.

Forster began his own deeply self-influential travels when he came into an inheritance from his paternal Great Aunt Marianne Thornton. He traveled extensively; continental Europe with his mother, journeys through Egypt, Germany and India with classicist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and as a volunteer for the International Red Cross in Egypt during WWI. He also spent additional time in India as private secretary to Tukojirao III, the Maharajah of Dewas during the 1920s. Forster’s travels contributed to his observations about English tourists abroad, Baedeker and the inherent fear mixed with fascination that the normal tourist had for anything unknown or foreign.

“Let her go to Italy!" he cried. "Let her meddle with what she doesn't understand!” 
E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread

But Forster had a particular love for the Mediterranean culture that would find its way into several of his books - a fascination with the earth and the passions linked to a simple existence.  Where Angels Fear To Tread was one of Forster’s two “Italian Novels”, the other being A Room With A View.  In these he more intensely explored the British tourist who is breaking free from the last ties of Victorian mores - who is finding their expression for for emotion & reaching a hard-fought place of self-expression. 

As in Forster’s other novels, Where Angels Fear To Tread has a prominent vein of quiet cynicism - a protest against many of society’s conventionalities that Forster found frustrating in his own life.  Forster plays with various themes and points of view in all of his novels, but the collision of passion and the conventional morality of his time is predominant.  How virtue and vice become blended or sometimes confused and how social position becomes a motivating prejudice.  

Devoted during his lifetime to numerous literary causes and nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature over 13 different years, Forster continues to be an influential writer - both of a time and a changing social platform throughout Britain and its colonies.  His books have been translated into films and plays and continue to entertain and enlighten.

Members of The Jane Austen Tea Society – pick up a copy of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear To Tread to discuss over an Autumn Book Lunch on Saturday, October 10th. How does it compare to A Room With A View or Howard’s End? It’s not one of the most widely read of Forster’s novels and that may give you a fresh look into E.M. Forster’s work.  See what you think and we will enjoy an exchange of views.