Did I miss something ? (Or The angel and the dentist)

I remember reading E.M. Forster’s “Where the angels fear to tread” more than 10 years ago, and later completely forgot about it, except for the title which I found charming and intriguing. Recently I watched the movie made from the book and I was astonished. I followed the action and the characters, but somehow failed to make any sense of it all. I then procured the book, read it, and once again I am dumfounded. What is this about? I have no idea.

A silly English widow, both charming, vulgar and superficial, is sent to Italy so as not to embarrass her in-laws’ family, the despicable, scheming Mrs. Herriton, her shallow son Philip and her insensitive daughter Harriet. She’s chaperoned by Caroline Abbott, a stern spinster, but she soon falls for a shallow Italian and marries. Of course, the marriage is a failure and she soon dies in childbirth. The second half of the book tells how Philip, Harriet and Miss Abbott go to Italy to fetch the child away from his Italian father, so that he can be brought up in a “respectable” manner, and so that the Herriton family won’t lose face for giving up on him.

I liked the moment where Philip and Miss Abbott realize that Italy, the place they have romanticized and idolized, isn’t a heavenly place, but a land with real people like dentists:

“Is my sister-in-law to marry an angel?”

“Mr. Herriton, don’t–please, Mr. Herriton–a dentist. His father’s a dentist.”

Philip gave a cry of personal disgust and pain. He shuddered all over, and edged away from his companion. A dentist! A dentist at Monteriano. A dentist in fairyland! False teeth and laughing gas and the tilting chair at a place which knew the Etruscan League, and the Pax Romana, and Alaric himself, and the Countess Matilda, and the Middle Ages, all fighting and holiness, and the Renaissance, all fighting and beauty! He thought of Lilia no longer. He was anxious for himself: he feared that Romance might die. Romance only dies with life. No pair of pincers will ever pull it out of us. But there is a spurious sentiment which cannot resist the unexpected and the incongruous and the grotesque. A touch will loosen it, and the sooner it goes from us the better. It was going from Philip now, and therefore he gave the cry of pain.

This is something I experienced firsthand in China. A lot of people (included myself) travel there already full of their own dreams, preconceptions and expectations. They crash into reality, and sometimes it’s not pleasant, because it’s far more complex than one-sided stereotypes. If they stay for a brief vacation, they may stay blind, continue to live in their own fantasy bubble and go home without any disappointment, but if they stay longer (or in that novel, marry a local), they are faced with a clash. Sometimes I felt annoyed and wanted to tell my friends that China was not only the land of the Great wall, Forbidden city and rice paddies, but also just another place where you have to deal with chores, taxes, and traffic jams. 

E.M. Forster’s Room with a view was charming and funny, but this time no character escapes his sharp criticism. The British are hypocritical, stuck in conventions and inhibitions, but the Italians are just as bad for being backwards, shallow and greedy. The whole satire climaxes into a tragedy, but a rather grotesque one, so I end up wondering what was Forster’s point. I can’t help thinking that I missed something. Can any keen reader help me?


One thought on “Did I miss something ? (Or The angel and the dentist)

  1. I haven’t read this Forster – maybe his point was to point out the futility of living like this.

    I will look for this book – now I’m curious. Thank you.

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