Where Angels Fear to Tread

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by Sam Alexander


Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) is E.M. Forster’s first novel. With its action split between England and Italy, the novel raises questions about national character the possibility of personal connection across social differences that would occupy Forster throughout his career. Like Lucia di Lammermoor, the tragic opera that becomes raucously entertaining in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, Where Angels Fear to Tread climaxes in a “song of madness and death” but at points crosses into the territory of farce (20).


The action of the novel begins at a train station, as Lilia Herriton says her goodbyes before embarking on a trip to Italy. A markedly frivolous woman, Lilia is the widow of Charles Herriton, and since Charles’s death has been living with his family in the village of Sawston. Her mother-in-law, Mrs. Herriton, and her two children, Philip and Harriet, have supervised Lilia closely to assure that she does not do anything to disgrace the family, but have decided to allow her Italian journey in the hope that the experience will help to civilize her (Philip is an aesthete who has had his own life-changing experience of Italy). Lilia is to be supervised by Caroline Abbott, a twenty-three year old woman who is “good, quiet, dull, and amiable,” and more trustworthy than Lilia despite being ten years younger (21). At thirty-three, Lilia is midway on life’s journey, like Dante when he sets off on his own pilgrimage, and she echoes the opening lines of the Inferno (lines that will be quoted in the original Italian later in the novel) when she writes home that “one really does feel in the heart of things, and off the beaten track” (10).


Lilia steers too far off the beaten track in the town of Monteriano, where she is engaged to Gino Carella, the twenty-one year-old son of a dentist. Alarmed at the possible damage to her family's reputation, Mrs. Herriton sends Philip to Monteriano to stop the marriage from going forward. Once he has arrived, Philip bribes Gino to end the engagement, and in his plea sets up the fundamental opposition in the book (“she is English, you are Italian; you are accustomed to one thing, you to another”), only to find that he is too late: Gino has already married Lilia (36). In the confusion that ensues, Gino gives Philip an “aimless push,” and Philip leaves Monteriano with Caroline Abbott, who is now remorseful for her role in promoting Lilia’s engagement.


Left alone with Gino, Lilia finds married life in Italy—where male camaraderie, according to the narrator, depends on the seclusion of women—to be unbearable. Gino is adulterous and interested in Lilia only as a bearer of his child; he places severe restrictions on her independence, forbidding her to leave the house alone. When a pregnant Lilia defies his orders and wanders out at night, she ends up “lying in the road with dust in her eyes, and dust in her mouth, and dust down her ears” (63). This scene, which again recalls Dante (per una selva oscura / Che la diritta via era smarrita) foreshadows Lilia’s death in childbirth “in a darkened room” a few days later (67).


At Sawston, the Herritons receive word of Lilia’s death. They resolve to keep silent about her child by Gino, hiding the boy’s existence from Irma (Lilia’s daughter by Charles Herriton) and Sawston generally. This plan is foiled when Irma receives a postcard (written by Gino) from her “lital brother.” When word of the child reaches Miss Abbott, she has another pang of remorse and resolves to make amends by bringing the baby back to England herself. This forces Mrs. Herriton, who is always alert to public opinion, to make her own attempt to recover the child, so she sends Philip on a second rescue mission. He returns to Monteriano to offer a second bribe to Gino, this time with his moralistic sister as a supervisor sent to ensure that he does his "duty." A Mrs.-Grundy-like embodiment of English propriety, Harriet is “always unfortunate” and a primary target of the physical humor that is one element of farce in the second half of the novel (another is the plot's reliance on coincidence as it nears its end). On their voyage, she gets “smut in her eye” after she insists on keeping a train window open (because the foreigners aboard are “filthy”), and has her clothing spotted purple by an ammonia spill (94).


When they arrive at Monteriano, Philip and Harriet find that Miss Abbott has already come as a “spy” because she suspects (correctly) that Mrs. Herritton is insincere in her desire to recover the baby (106). Finding Gino away from home on a day-trip, Philip convinces his fellow travelers to pass the evening at the opera. They attend a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor that in some ways anticipates the Beethoven concert in Howards End, at which the Schlegels meet Leonard Bast. Philip and Lilia are enchanted by the charmingly Italian “bad taste” of the evening, but Harriet (after shushing the audience) is once again struck in the face when Lucia throws a bouquet into the audience. Philip picks up the bouquet and gives it to a young Italian who turns out to be Gino. Embracing Philip as a “long-lost brother," Gino agrees to meet him the next day; however, in the morning, Caroline Abbott secretly meets with Gino before Philip arrives (121). Touched by his manner with the baby, she changes her mind and decides that the baby should stay with Gino. Philip, who never really cared about recovering the child anyway, makes a half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to bribe Gino, parts with him courteously, and makes plans to return to England. But Harriet does not give up so easily. She kidnaps the baby and joins Philip, who assumes she has successfully bargained with Gino, in his coach on the way to the train station. They crash into Miss Abbott’s coach and tumble out into the road. The baby dies, recalling Lilia’s end, “lying in the mud in darkness” (160).


After the crash, Harriet (like the bride of Lammermoor) goes mad, and Philip goes alone to inform Gino of his child’s death. Gino is furious and again turns to violence, effectively torturing Philip by twisting the arm he broke in the crash until he passes out from the pain. When Philip awakens, Miss Abbott— the first of Forster’s regenerative women figures—reconciles the two men. A strangely ritualistic scene follows in which she has Gino bring Philip a bottle of milk that has been warmed for his dead child and, in a kind of symbolic breast-feeding, persuade him to drink it (170).


The undeniable homoeroticism in Philip’s relationship to Gino resurfaces on the train ride home, when Miss Abbott reveals that she loves Gino just as Philip is about to confess his feelings for her. Strikingly free from any disappointment, he replies, “Rather! I love him too!” (177). Miss Abbott tells Philip that she has sought his help in forgetting her love for Gino (who is engaged to be married to a rich but ugly Italian woman) because of his unique temperamental qualifications: “[Y]ou’re without passion; you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful” (178). Philip immediately proves her correct. He overcompensates for his original passionless reaction by treating his own failure in love as a tragedy and cursing in free indirect discourse “the cruel antique malice of the gods” (179).


This rhetoric ironically draws attention to the real tragedy of Philip’s life, which is the inevitable triviality that results from his inability to commit himself: “People had been wicked or wrong in the matter; no one save himself had been trivial” (162). This is a particularly Jamesian kind of tragedy, and Philip’s story clearly recalls the plot of The Ambassadors. Like Strether, Philip travels to the continent to rescue a compatriot (first Lilia, then her son) from disgrace, only to become enchanted with the foreign locale, to find himself in the unlikely position of advocating for it, and to have supplementary “ambassadors” (Harriet and Caroline Abbott) sent to salvage his mission.[1] In his distance from life and inability to act decisively, Philip also resembles John Marcher, the protagonist of James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” and in a sense the prototype for Strether.[2] Philip's tragedy is more difficult to take seriously, however, in part because of his conviction—which is, in fact, the opposite of Strether’s— that nothing will happen to him:

‘Miss Abbott, don’t worry over me. Some people are born not to do things. I’m one of them … I never expect anything to happen now, and so I am never disappointed … I seem fated to pass through the world without colliding with it or moving it’ […]
She said solemnly, ‘I wish something would happen to you, my dear friend; I wish something would happen to you.’ (148, 149)[3]

Perhaps the only thing Philip does do, as such passages make clear, is reflect on himself and his own character; free from Marcher’s unremitting anxiety, he engages in frank and uninhibited introspection throughout the novel. Philip’s self-reflection, in fact, becomes literal at two points. We are told that as a school boy “he would retire to his cubicle and examine his features in a looking-glass” with disappointing results, and that he returns to the mirror on the train ride back to Sawston at the novel’s close: “In the looking-glass at the end of the corridor he saw his face haggard, and his shoulders pulled forward by the weight of the sling” (68, 174). Philip’s determination to establish his own identity, of which such mirror-gazing is one rudimentary example, develops into an infatuation with Italy and a commitment to aesthetic refinement. In response to Miss Abott’s distaste for life at Sawston, Philip lectures her on a kind of selfhood that resists social influence:

‘Society is invincible—to a certain degree. But your real life is your own, and nothing can touch it. There is no power on earth that can prevent your criticizing and despising mediocrity—nothing that can stop you retreating into splendour and beauty—into the thoughts and beliefs that make the real life—the real you.’ (77)

Forster’s irony appears in the verbs of which Philip’s “real you” is the subject: criticizing, despising, retreating. Even if his own answer is unappealing, Philip raises a question that lies at the center of the novel, and that helps explain its antithetical exploration of English and Italian character, its fixation on birth and death, and its interest in language: to what degree is society and its influence invincible, and in what does “real” identity consist?


  1. Forster discusses The Ambassadors in Aspects of the Novel (London: Harcourt Brace Janovich, 1955), pp. 153-162.
  2. To my knowledge, Lionel Trilling was the first to point out Forster’s allusion to the James tale. See his E.M. Forster (New York: New Directions, 1965), p. 55.
  3. Compare Marcher’s secret, as summarized by May Bartram: “You said you had had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing with in you, the sense of being kept from something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you…” James, The Beast in the Jungle (New York: Dover, 1994), p. 39.
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