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Archive for the ‘E. M. Forster’ Category

Picture of book cover

Picture from Margaux’s Blog, at http://tiny.cc/fverhx

I only remembered I had already read this upon arriving at the penultimate and terrible scene, the coach accident. How I admire the writing and the scope—Forster has always been a favorite of mine. The confrontation of the severe and repressed English with the passionate and unbuttoned Italian seems somewhat dated now–or at least, it seems to me that the national characters of both countries have changed dramatically. It occurred to me that a modern version of this confrontation might be equivalent to that between today’s self righteous public arbiters of politically correct morality and those whom they presume to guide. It would be a different story, but it would have the same disastrous ending. Good intentions never excuse bad outcomes.
The story starts with Lilia, a foolish young widow who is sent off to Italy from her native England (with Augusta, a tactful spinster lady friend as duenna) to separate her from a suitor who is viewed as undesirable. She unexpectedly marries Gino, a young Italian, who is transparently a fortune hunter, but who is not a bad man. Her brother-in-law, Philip, is sent to rescue her from the ghastly entanglement, but too late. Philip has spent time in Italy previously, and is entranced with it. Even on the way to the useless and humiliating interview with the Italian husband, he notices how very beautiful the country is: “The trees of the wood were small and leafless, but noticeable for this–that their stems stood in violets as rocks stand in the summer sea. There are such violets in England, but not so many.”
Lilia subsequently dies in giving birth to a son. The family–mortified and determined to rescue the child from moral and physical degradation, demand that the baby be given up to them, but the father refuses. The British family matriarch–a grim and selfish old woman, the child’s grandmother– sends Philip with Harriet, his disagreeable, selfish sister, to rescue the child. Forster gives a mordant little description of her search in the atlas for the town: “Monteriano. The name was in the smallest print, in the midst of a wooly-brown tangle of hills which were called the ‘Sub-Apennines.’It was not so very far from Sienna, which she had learned at school. Past it there wandered a thin black line, notched at intervals like a saw, and she knew that this was a railway. But the map left a good deal to imagination, and she had not got any.”
TurinTheater Once the brother and sister arrive, they find that Augusta is also there. Despite themselves, Philip and Augusta begin to find themselves seduced both by the country and by Gino himself. Forster gives us a charming description of the vulgarity and irresistible liveliness of an evening at the local opera house: “It had been thoroughly done up, in the tints of the beet-root and the tomato, and was in many other ways a credit to the little town. The orchestra had been enlarged, some of the boxes had terra-cotta draperies, and over each box was now suspended an enormous tablet, neatly framed, bearing upon it the number of that box. There was also a drop-scene, representing a pink and purple landscape, wherein sported many a lady lightly clad, and two more ladies lay along the top of the proscenium to steady a large and pallid clock. So rich and so appalling was the effect, that Philip could scarcely suppress a cry. There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England, or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty, and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty’s confidence. This tiny theatre of Monteriano spraddled and swaggered with the best of them, and those ladies with their clock would have nodded to the young men on the ceiling of the Sistine.”
Harriet will have none of it, however, and when her brother and Augusta tell her that Gino refuses to sell his son, she brazenly steals the baby on the day the British party is to leave town, joining her fellow travelers on the road with the kidnapped infant. The rain is pouring down, the mountainous road is slippery with mud, and there is a terrible accident.
The ending is dreadful, and inevitable. The clash between the cultures is fatal.
At no point does Forster drop into any facile adoration of the noble savage–he shows Gino as exactly the callow, selfish youth he is, and his society as pandering and venal. But he at least loves his boy! On the other hand, Harriet and her mother are presented as completely despicable–self regarding, arrogant, dismissive of others. Perhaps another author might have cut them a little slack, made them a little less repellent? But perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a satisfying story–if a story that ends with the death of a baby can be called satisfying.

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