Guest Blog: Alison Hennegan on E. M. Forster

E. M. Forster: For Love of Italy

This is an extract from Alison Hennegan's lecture on Forster and Italy,
given at our Study Day, 17 March 2018.

Before we plunge into today’s two novels – Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and A Room with A View (1908) – and his short story, ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904) – I think it would be helpful to have a little context, to think a little about what Italy, rightly or wrongly, often meant for English visitors.

The Mediterranean has for many years exerted a powerful fascination over the British for whom the countries which enclose it have been seen as the most desirable antithesis of the grey, cold, wet, Northern Protestant part of the Continent.

From at least the sixteenth century we have records of Englishmen, and some women, visiting, travelling, sometimes living in Italy. With the evolution of the Grand Tour those feelings intensified as young Englishmen travelled across the Continent, sometimes for as long as two years, under the usually watchful eye of a tutor. 

Renaissance Italy spoke powerfully to those later visitors, but so too did the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome which underpinned it and whose rediscovery was the re-birth, the renaissance. Italy was the home of ‘Culture’, of Art – two things with which today’s two novels are much concerned with their constant exploration of the meaning, definition, value and power of Art, and Beauty; and of the relations between Art, Beauty and Morality and the frequent conflicts between them. 

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And we should remember that in the years when Forster was growing up and entering adulthood, the relation between Art and Morality was an especially potent and inflammatory debate – these were the years in which Wilde was coming to the peak of his powers, culminating in his spectacularly dramatic and very public downfall. 

During the trials of 1895 which sealed Wilde’s fate that debate – Art versus morality, as it was so often framed – was central to much of his cross-examination by Edward Carson. The morality or not of Wilde’s work, the validity or not of his arguments for Beauty as morality, and Carson’s insistence on conflating the morality of fictional characters and their creator’s shaped the case for the prosecution, and part of the problem was that the two men kept using the same words with entirely opposite meanings – what was beautiful to one was gross ugliness to another, love was merely lust, truth was merely obscenity. We can see similar misunderstandings and cultural ’mistranslations’ at work in today’s two novels.

The novels also question the relation between ‘Delicacy’ and ‘Beauty’ –the two are not the not the same, as the old lady at the beginning of A Room With a View knows. And some forms of false delicacy, of over-refinement, become actively unpleasant. There is, for example, a thin line between Miss Bartlett’s ‘delicacy’ and a rather gross prurience, in for example, her insistence that she should take the larger of the Emersons’ two rooms because it was the son’s, so it would be better for Lucy not to be obliged to him, with an underlying possibility, though, that it would too readily prompt an awareness in Lucy of George’s physical presence - the Room in which he would disrobe, prepare himself for bed, wash, perhaps use the chamber pot in the night, shave the next morning, et cetera. In all those things of which Lucy is to be assumed to be ignorant, and which the two older ladies communicate obliquely, there is a strong seam of sexual awareness and implicit emphasis.

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The novels question, too, the ‘comfortableness, or the ‘tameness’, or ‘niceness’ of beauty. And they question whether or how Beauty might enact itself in our daily lives – and would we like it, if it did?

Caroline Abbott, in Where Angels Fear To Tread, is only one of several characters who find themselves encountering powerful, even awe-inspiring instincts and emotions they do not really understand when she is confronted with the mystery of paternity as passion, as she watches Gino bathing his baby son. The emphasis is on the majesty of Gino in that mode and moment - beyond language, nationality, or class. 

'This cruel vicious fellow knew of strange refinements. The horrible truth, that wicked people are capable of love, stood naked before her, and her moral being was abashed. It was her duty to rescue the baby, to save it from contagion, and she still meant to do her duty, But the comfortable sense of virtue left her. She was in the presence of something greater than right or wrong.' 

Alison Hennegan
Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Literature Cambridge