I am the worst sort of Anglophile.  I collect old Baedekers, not least because I associate them with Lucy Honeychurch and Adela Quested and, sadly, Captain Hastings from the Agatha Christie mysteries.  I love the whole idea of tea, not just the frilly laced clotted cream kind but the beans on toast kind as well.  Last night I watched the first episode of the new Upstairs, Downstairs series on PBS with the sort of excitement most Americans reserve for the Super Bowl.  I can name each of the Footballer’s Wives  and I have no doubt whatsoever that actual English people snicker to themselves when they see me coming.  This is all terribly embarrassing to admit.

My interest probably derives from my adolescent discovery of E.M. Forster, quintessentially English author and favorite of Messrs. Merchant and Ivory.  The whole idea of the firmly rational, competent Englishwoman in sensible boots confronted with something wild, inexplicable and beautiful, and then overcome by it, is one of Forster’s trademarks.  I started thinking about Forster and his travelling women last week  when I tweeted something about Stendhal Syndrome.  Although technically, Stendhal (Henri-Marie Beyle) was French.  It seems to me that Miss Quested’s experience in the cave was something Stendhal-like.

Forster’s women stand in firm contrast to the American women, say, in Henry James or Edith Wharton, even though those women find themselves transplanted to unfamiliar earth.  Think of Nan St. George in The Buccaneers.  But this is not a critique or even a real comparison.  I like the swooning Englishwomen better.  My essential romanticism is showing again, despite all my efforts to tap it down gently.

There is a dark side to these women.  None of them would have existed without British colonialism and its concomitant prejudices.  Caroline Abbott and Adele Quested arrive in Italy and India, respectively, with their biases intact.  But I like to think that their subsequent transformations represent the violent cultural assimilations and dispossessions that were to come with the end of Empire.  If so, these women are more English than the rugged military types and politicians who also figure in the literature of the time. 

But as she toiled over a rock that resembled a saucer, she thought, “What about love?”  The rock was nicked by a double row of footholds, and somehow the question was suggested by them.  Where had she seen footholds before?  Oh, yes, they were the pattern traced in the dust by the wheels of the Nawab Bahadur’s car.  She and Ronny – no, they did not love each other. 

“Do I take you too fast?” enquired Aziz, for she had paused, a doubtful expression on her face.  The discovery had come so suddenly that she felt like a mountaineer whose rope had broken.  Not to love the man one’s going to marry?  Not to find out until this moment?  Not even to have asked oneself the question until now!  Something else to think out.  Vexed rather than appalled, she stood still, her eyes on the sparkling rock.  There was esteem and animal contact at dusk, but the emotion that links them was absent.  Ought she to break her engagement off?

She was inclined to think not – it would cause so much trouble to others; besides, she wasn’t convinced that love is necessary to a successful union.  If love is everything, few marriages would survive the honeymoon. 

“No, I’m alright, thanks,” she said, and her emotions well under control, resumed the climb, though she felt a bit dashed.  Aziz held her hand, the guide adhered to the surface like a lizard and scampered about as if governed by a personal centre of gravity.

“Are you married, Dr. Aziz?” she asked, stopping again, and frowning.

“Yes, indeed, do come and see my wife” – for he felt it more artistic to have his wife alive for a moment.

“Thank you,” she said absently.

Probably this man had several wives – Mohammedans always insist on their full four, according to Mrs. Turton.  And having no one else to speak to on that eternal rock, she gave rein to the subject of marriage and said in her honest, decent, inquisitive way: “Have you one wife or more than one?”

The question shocked the young man very much.  It challenged his conviction of his community, and new convictions are more sensitive than old.  If she had said, “Do you worship one god or several?” he would not have objected.  But to ask an educated Indian Moslem how many wives he has – appalling, hideous!  He was in trouble how to conceal his confusion.

She followed at her leisure, quite unconscious that she had said the wrong thing, and not seeing him, she also went into a cave, thinking with half her mind “sight-seeing bores me,” and wondering the other half about marriage.

A Passage to India, E.M. Forster (Penguin Classics, 2005)