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Monday, May 12, 2014

Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) by E.M. Forster

Helena Bonham Carter HAS starred in a movie version of E.M Forester's Where Angels Fear to Tread

Book Review
Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905)
by E.M. Forster

  If you were to judge only from late 19th/early 20th century Novels that have been adapted by Merchant-Ivory into feature films in the late 20th century, you might think that EVERY such novel takes place largely Italy.  In fact,  Italy as a setting for the novel is a relatively recent/rare development as of 1905, and most of the practitioners were Americans (Nathaniel Hawthorne did it first or close to it, and Henry James set Portrait of a Lady there in the 1880s.)  I think you can chock the English reluctance to place novels in Italy to a general chauvinism about England and Englishness that lasted well into the 20th century.  American novelists, on the other hand, were looking for someplace cooler than American that wasn't England, and Italy seems to have been a decent fit.

   Thus, the Italian landscape of Where Angels Fear to Tread, published in 1905, might seem deceptively unoriginal to a modern reader, but the truth is that for the time/place it was, in fact, original and far from cliche. The plot of Where Angels Fear to Tread concerns the young widow Lillia Herriton, who escapes the claustrophobic embrace of her dead husbands upper class family by decamping to a small town in Italy (sounds like Tuscany?) where she falls in love and marries a wholly unsuitable Italian- Gino, a "son of a dentist" who is young and charming and of course, handsome.

  The marriage is (of course) not a happy one, and when Lillia dies giving birth to a child, her dead husbands family sets into motion a series of machinations with the goal of liberating the infant child from the clutches of Gino.  It's a plot that sounds absurd to us in a world of single mothers and non-nuclear families, but makes sense in the context of the late Victorians and their ridiculous obsessions with class and family descent.  The question of "Why the FUCK are these crazy English people doing this crazy shit?" looms large over the plot of Where Angels Fear to Tread, but a reader with a fondness/sympathy for the Victorians won't be too offended.

 Forster, known for his use of irony and wit, is a fun read, something like an Edith Wharton in terms of his use of humor, so the book is not a dull affair.

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