Despite being a name which is clearly famous in the literary world, I had never actually read anything by E. M. Forster before. Since I own the stunning Penguin Library Edition of his first novel, Where Angels Fear To Tread, I decided this was as good a place as any to start my introduction into his works.
Coming in at under 160 pages, this first novel, or novella, is extremely short. It follows the actions of Lilia Herriton, a widowed woman who is somewhat of a nuisance to her deceased husband’s family. Traveling to the small Italian town of Monteriano, Lilia begins a relationship with a much younger Italian man, a man who is far outside her and her family’s social circles. Following on from these actions, the novel looks at society and relationships, described as an attack on the ‘decorous Edwardian Values’.
I quite liked how the book started. Whilst it does focus upon Lilia and her travel to Italy, as the blurb would suggest, this is actually done through the gaze of other people (her in law’s), as opposed to directly following her. I enjoyed this as it meant that the first view we get of her character is extremely biased. Rather than learn about her through her own merits and actions, we get this second place judgement which is highly coloured by the family’s social position and values. I think Forster was clever to use this technique, as it highlights in quite a profound way the judgmental positions people can take, without being over the top.
Perhaps it was the very small size of this book, but I struggled in many ways to connect with the characters. I felt many of the plot points were quite rushed, and the characters which did interest me were not always at the forefront of the novel, which was quite frustrating. One of the main people who we follow is actual Lilia’s brother in law, Philip, and whilst he had some interesting traits, I felt that his character did not feel wholly fleshed out for me, and I did not feel very invested in their affairs. This was Forster’s first novel, so perhaps this could explain the disconnect I felt, as he himself would most likely have been fine tuning his art.
Something which took me by surprise was the fact that the book did not necessarily take the steps I thought it was going to take based on what I had read from the blurb. Despite its tiny size, there were one or two little moments within the plot which I had not expected, and made me wonder where the story could be heading. I think if it was not for these things, the book may well have lost some of my attention.
It is clear that Forster is a clever and skilled writer, and he has a clear grasp on the realities of society and life in general. Having read this book, I don’t think that I have yet seen him at the best of his abilities. There was just something lacking within this book, a disconnect from the characters and plot which failed to adapt or grow into a real interest. Whilst there were a few moments where Forster made very astute findings on humanity, it just did not capture my attention as I wanted it to.
Has anyone read any other of his work? Is he worth continuing on with?