Where Angels Fear to Tread was E.M. Forster’s second novel. The book is set in England, late in the Victorian period. The plot revolves around the story of Lilia Herriton, a young English widow and mother. Critics say Where Angels Fear to Tread is not one of Forster’s best works, which is a good example of why you should not trust critics. It’s a great book.
The Herritons, led by Lilia’s mother-in-law are watchful, repressive people, who deeply dislike the unrefined young woman the oldest son married. Mrs. Herriton embodies malice as few women do. “For six months [Mrs. Herriton] schemed to prevent the match, and when it had taken place she turned to another task—the supervision of her daughter-in-law. Lilia must be pushed through life without bringing discredit on the family into which she had married.”
After Lilia’s husband’s death, “a house was finally taken for her at Sawston, and there for three years she lived with Irma, continually subject to the refining influences of her late husband’s family.”
The Herritons are outraged when they learn Lilia has a boyfriend, despite the fact that she’s been a widow for many years. They are as determined as ever to control her — and through her, their young granddaughter, Irma. The Herritons convince Lilia to go abroad with a local do-gooder named Caroline, while they care for her daughter. It’s an effective means of ending her romance at home in England, and increasing their influence over Irma.
The story opens with Lilia and Caroline embarking on their journey to Italy. After seeing her off, Philip Herriton criticizes Lilia’s conduct as undistinguished. “Mrs. Herriton shuddered. “I mind nothing, so long as she has gone—and gone with Miss Abbott. It is mortifying to think that a widow of thirty-three requires a girl ten years younger to look after her.”
Lilia, away from her controlling in-laws, falls in love with a young Italian named Gino Carella. Upon learning Lilia is engaged, the Herriton matriarch states: “If Lilia marries him she insults the memory of Charles, she insults Irma, she insults us. Therefore I forbid her, and if she disobeys we have done with her for ever.” She dispatches her son Philip to Italy with instructions to derail the wedding.
Lilia greets Philip kindly but she turns on him when he explains his mission: “For once in my life I’ll thank you to leave me alone. I’ll thank your mother too. For twelve years you’ve trained me and tortured me, and I’ll stand it no more. Do you think I’m a fool? … when I came to your house a poor young bride, how you all looked me over—never a kind word—and discussed me, and thought I might just do; and your mother corrected me, and your sister snubbed me, and you said funny things about me to show how clever you were! And when Charles died… I was to be cooped up at Sawston and learn to keep house, and all my chances spoilt of marrying again. No, thank you! … I’ve found Gino, and this time I marry for love!” The coarseness and truth of her attack alike overwhelmed him.”
Philip is undaunted, and attempts to bribe Gino to break off the engagement. Only then does he learn the marriage has already taken place. Gino, correctly predicting that the Herritons would try to stop the wedding, married Lilia while Philip was en route to Italy. Philip departs angrily, and letters soon follow requesting Lilia to direct all future communication to the Herritons’ attorneys. Philip’s terrible sister Harriet (Harriet Herriton) asks Lilia to return a jewelry box that had been “lent – not given” to her.
As Lilia and Gino begin to settle in to married life, cultural differences emerge and the fairytale darkens. If you’re looking for something to read, I highly recommend this book.