E. M. Forster does more than mock English society. His comic novels perform the serious task of questioning the assumptions upon which identity is based. At the same time readers laugh at Forster’s pompous or pathetic characters, they are being taught to recognize how much damage can result from human beings passing judgment on one another. Where Angels Fear to Tread, Forster’s first novel, established his reputation as both artist and humanist.
More often than not, Forster’s novels are set outside England. The irony of this strategy is that, while abroad, his characters satirize English social custom as acutely as do the homebound characters created by Forster’s predecessor, Jane Austen. Forster incorporates many of her satiric impulses into his style. Social snobbery, religious hypocrisy, flighty liberalism, and ill-conceived romanticism are just a few of the aspects of the English character that Forster, like Austen, makes the target for his comic abuse.
In Where Angels Fear to Tread, Mrs. Herriton is the emblem of British arrogance. She fiercely guards a code of conduct that she would describe as “decency” but that really represents only a preference for English as opposed to continental customs. The cruelly immoral consequences of Mrs. Herriton’s brand of decency become gradually apparent as the plot unfolds. Mrs. Herriton’s ferocity works as a baseline in the novel. Even though she is unlikable, the strength of her character is a foil against which the feebleness of the others is revealed.
Lilia, whose low breeding and high spirits make her the kind of ingenue who can be an agent of chaos in both Austen and Forster, threatens Mrs. Herriton’s jealously guarded sense of order. Philip and Harriet, Mrs. Herriton’s own children, help fill out the satiric register: Harriet, who is warped by an embittered and ineffectual religiosity, and Philip, who is a snobbish worshiper of beauty. Through Philip, Forster carries out his trademark spoof of aesthetics, a school of literary criticism initiated by Walter Pater that dominated English letters in the period of transition between 1870 and 1930.
Perhaps Forster drops these stereotypical English characters into the provincial Italian setting of Monteriano (a fictional town modeled after San Gimignano near Florence) to draw attention to the fact that the novel is, at...
(The entire section is 978 words.)