Given the old phrase ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread,’ I can only imagine that Forster’s use of the title Where Angels Fear to Tread is to refer to Earth as the “Where.” After all, I’d have a hard time classifying anyone in this book as anything other than a fool. Not that we aren’t all fools, of course. Still, despite whether they act out of propriety without love, love without propriety, or cannot decide between the two, they all act pretty foolish.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Elizabeth Spencer.)
In Where Angels Fear to Tread we have The Herriton family. The family never approved of one of their sons marrying a girl named Lilia, but they dealt with it. After he died, they primarily tried to keep Lilia from embarrassing their family. To be honest, there’s not a lot of love in the Herriton’s.
Worse, much of how they try to keep Lilia from embarrassing their family is by convincing Lilia not to remarry and thus embarrass the memory of their son, or themselves by the low status of her choices. They even sent her to Italy with a Miss Abbott (who is supposed to keep her out of trouble) to get her out of the way. Unfortunately, she ends up marrying a somewhat nobly born yet low class Italian man who is passionate but cares little for propriety. To their horror, he is the son of a dentist.
Interestingly to anyone who thinks that Where Angels Fear to Tread is just a critique of propriety, the marriage actually does go bad. Her husband isolates her, spends her money, cheats on her, and all that. She ends up dying, after giving birth to a son. That’s when the real fun starts.
Honestly, the Herriton’s don’t care about the son, but they do care about their image. As such, they decide they must get the baby and raise it themselves. However, though the Italian is crude and is grasping after money, he doesn’t want to give up the child. An exchange between the surviving Herriton son and Miss Abbot sums it up, and pretty much the book for me, best:
“So what are you going to do?” said Miss Abbott.
Philip started, not so much at the words as at the sudden change in the voice. “Do?” he echoed, rather dismayed. “This afternoon I have another interview.”
“It will come to nothing. Well?”
“Then another. If that fails I shall wire home for instructions. I dare say we may fail altogether, but we shall fail honourably.”
She had often been decided. But now behind her decision there was a note of passion. She struck him not as different, but as more important, and he minded it very much when she said–
“That’s not doing anything! You would be doing something if you kidnapped the baby, or if you went straight away. But that! To fail honourably! To come out of the thing as well as you can! Is that all you are after?”
“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.
See what I mean? The Herritons follow propriety without love, the Italian follows love without propriety, and Miss Abbott and Philip oscillate between the two without ever really finding a good mix. Bottom line, they’re all fools…as are we all.
As for Where Angels Fear to Tread as a whole, I enjoyed it. It isn’t exactly an uplifting book, but I don’t equate that with ‘good’ and Where Angels Fear to Tread certainly has some beautiful elements anyway. Where Angels Fear to Tread isn’t exactly going on my all time favorite list, but it is definitely a fine piece of fiction.