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Where Angels Fear to Tread opens with Lilia, a young unsophisticated widow, being dropped off at the train station by her in-laws: the domineering Mommy Dearest Mrs. Herriton and her children, Philip and Harriet. They are sending her on a trip to Italy with the young but trustworthy Caroline Abbott, to prevent her from making a bad match in England. Yup, we're back in those days. Hello, Edwardian-era repression. You look really uncomfortable in that corset.
Okay, this book deals with two completely different worlds. On one side, we have the stifling world of Sawston, England, your typical small town full of dust, good manners and narrow-minded gossips. Life in Sawston is not attractive. It's conventional and dull. People pretend to be virtuous, but they usually care more about keeping up appearances than actually doing the right thing. It's a couple of degrees removed from Stepford.
Our Sawston cast includes Mrs. Herriton. She's the kind of tyrannical matriarch you'd never want as your mother-in-law, and exemplifies the hypocrisy of English society. The Herriton family tries to mold Lilia into a respectable member of society, but they fail bigtime. So now they're trying to get Lilia out of the way so that they can mold her daughter Irma, who is still young enough to be influenced. Given the suffocating atmosphere of Sawston, we can hardly blame Lilia for wanting to escape.
On the other side, we have Monteriano, a pretty Italian town "where one really does feel in the heart of things, and off the beaten track." The Italians are full of passion and know how to live life to the fullest. The problem with Monteriano is that—even though it's beautiful and a stark contrast to the repressed ol' England—it's hard to say whether it is morally good. Certainly its customs are way different than Sawston's, and it's hard for an Englishwoman to navigate.
Lilia marries the handsome but selfish Italian, Gino Carella (guess that Herriton plot didn't work out so well, eh?) and she soon finds herself in an unhappy marriage with little personal freedom. The cultural struggle between England and Italy becomes more and more heated, and we're not sure exactly who comes out on top. After the unexpected death of Lilia during childbirth, the fate of her newborn son becomes the main plot-line for the remainder of the novel. Yeah: Where Angels Fear To Tread is one big custody battle.
Mrs. Herriton sends Philip and his sister Harriet off to Italy to rescue the "poor" child from his "uneducated" father. And no, we didn't just discover scare quotes: everything Mrs. Herriton says is so unbelievably off the mark that we feel the need to put bunny ears on most of her words.
But Caroline suspects that Mrs. Herriton's motives aren't pure—and she's right. Mrs. Herriton only wants to preserve her reputation in the eyes of society, but she doesn't in fact care a bit about the baby. What follows is series of events, at times funny, in which Philip, Harriet, and Caroline attempt to persuade Gino to part with his son. This section of the book would be awesome set to the Benny Hill song.
When their efforts prove futile, Harriet decides to take matters into her own hands and kidnaps the child. But as fate would have it, their carriage overturns and the poor baby is killed. Ouch.
Caroline manages to restore peace between a grief-stricken Gino and a repentant Philip. And the novel concludes with Philip about to express his feelings to Caroline during their train ride back to Sawston. But Forster denies us the "Love Conquers All" ending by having Caroline confess that she has fallen for Gino. Sadly, there's no happy ending on the horizon for these two lovebirds. Womp womp.