The family of her first husband decide the baby must be brought up in England and travel to Italy to retrieve the child. The central question asked by the book is "Do you want the child to stop with his father, who loves him and will bring him up badly, or do you want him to come to Sawston, where no one loves him, but where he will be brought up well." (p130)
The novel vividly portrays the suffocating bloodlessness of the English Middle Classes for whom correct grammar is more important than passionate prose; for whom doing the right thing supersedes enjoying your life.
The principal characters:
- Lilia the widow who has been trapped by her in-laws after her husband's death and longs to escape their clutches; her marriage is, however, unhappy although the letter to her daughter describing her misery is intercepted by her mother-in-law and destroyed.
- Philip, her brother-in-law, the main protagonist, who is a disinterested spectator of life, who loves the Tuscan sunset because the guide books tell him how marvellous it is. His best expectation of life is to be an honourable failure, and of course he is.
- Harriet, the sister-in-law, a dour, determined, low Church woman whose certainty that she is right blinds her to any other points of view.
- Caroline, Lilia's companion on the Italian trip, a sensible, church-going woman, who reacts to events in Italy with hysteria.
- Mrs Herriton, Lilia's mother-in-law, the spider at the centre of the web, who has dominated her children and her friends with her complacent self-belief.
- Gino, the classic macho Italian, for whom life is good if you are a man in Italy, who doesn't really understand anyone else but who loves his son: "He is mine; mine for ever. Even if he hates me he will be mine. He cannot help it; he is made out of me; I am his father." (p121)
The hallmark of a really good book is the way the author brings the characters to life. Forster's writing is of its time, clipped and stagey like a drawing room comedy, but the characters are immediately real. Brilliant!
Also read Howards End and A Room With a View and Maurice.
One thing that infuriates me about authors is when they quote something in a foreign language and assume that their readers will recognise the quote or be able to translate it. On page 29, Signor Carella quotes Dante's Inferno:
"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita"My Italian is poor but this means roughly:
"In the middle of the track of our life
I rediscovered myself by a dark wood
Where the direct road was lost."
Philip, Harriet and Caroline go to the opera in Italy to see Lucia di Lammermoor. This is the opera featured in Mme Bovary, a fact which is referred to in the text.
In the room that acts as a memorial to the dead Lilia ("if we shall resent anything on earth at all, we shall resent the consecration of a deserted room" p109) a "coon song lay open on the piano". Clearly this word was not taboo when Forster was writing.
"A wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and - by some sad, strange irony - it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy." (p121)
May 2009, 160 pages