Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym

What a joy it is to return to the world of Barbara Pym, a place where the most difficult decision anyone has to make is what to serve the new vicar when he comes over for tea. (If only real life were like that, everything would be so much simpler.) While clergymen are in relatively short supply in Pym’s 1955 novel Less Than Angels, there are plenty of anthropologists to be found, drawing once again on the author’s own experiences of life at the International African Institute in London where she worked for a number of years.

The novel focus on the lives, loves and concerns of a group of British anthropologists and the individuals they interact with as they go about their business from one day to the next. Pivotal to the story is Tom Mallow, a twenty-nine-year-old academic who has just returned from Africa where he was tasked with observing the societal structure of a particular tribe.

On his return to London, Tom moves back in with his companion, Catherine Oliphant, a thirty-one-year-old writer of romantic fiction and articles for women’s magazine. I say ‘companion’ as Catherine’s relationship with Tom is a little hard to define – more ‘old married couple’ than ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’, Catherine is fond of Tom in spite of their differences in outlook.

Catherine had always imagined that her husband would be a strong character who would rule her life, but Tom, at twenty-nine, was two years younger than she was and it was always she who made the decisions and even mended the fuses. It did not seem to occur to Tom that they might get married. Catherine often wondered whether anthropologists became so absorbed in studying the ways of strange societies that they forgot what was the usual thing in their own (p. 21)

Back at the research centre in London, Tom meets Deirdre Swann, a young, impressionable anthropology student who falls instantly in love with him and everything he represents. Deirdre lives in the midst of the suburbs with her mother, maiden aunt and brother, where she enjoys a quiet life surrounded by the comforts and traditions of home. Tom, for his part, is also attracted to Deirdre, whom he views as sweet and straightforward and easy to get along with – unlike Catherine who is somewhat more forthright in her views.

She [Deirdre] was really very sweet, he thought, uncomplicated and honest; being with her took him back years and reminded him of Elaine, his first girl friend, whom he had known at home when he was eighteen. Catherine, being older, had already been too much of a personality in her own right, always wanting to make him conform to her idea of what he ought to be. (p. 152)

While this isn’t really a plot-driven novel – Pym’s primary focus is the observation of human behaviour – what action there is revolves around Tom’s feelings for Catherine, Deirdre and also Elaine, his childhood sweetheart. During a brief visit to the family home in the country, Tom reconnects with Elaine, and his feelings for her are rekindled. These emotions, coupled with the sense that he has drifted away from his mother and brother, leave Tom feeling rather alienated from his origins and the life he passed up to study anthropology. What does he really want going forward? It’s a little hard for him to figure out…

On the surface, Less Than Angels seems a more serious, more reflective novel than some of Pym’s other early works, certainly judging by those I’ve read to date. There is a poignant note to Tom’s story, one that only reveals itself as the book draws to a close. Nevertheless, Pym’s trademark dry humour is never too far away. There are the usual priceless observations of human nature, and it is often the most trivial of matters that prove to be the most troublesome, especially where academic institutions are concerned. In this scene, we gain an insight into an earlier disagreement between Miss Clovis, the new caretaker of the research centre, and her former employer, the President of a Learned Society – an incident so *serious* it had prompted Miss Clovis to hand in her notice!

The subject of Miss Clovis’s quarrel with the President was known only to a privileged few and even those knew no more than that it had something to do with the making of tea. Not that the making of tea can ever really be regarded as a petty or trivial matter and Miss Clovis did seem to have been seriously at fault. Hot water from the tap had been used, the kettle had not been quite boiling, the teapot had not been warmed…whatever the details, there had been words, during the course of which other things had come out, things of a darker nature. Voices had been raised and in the end Miss Clovis had felt bound to hand in her resignation. (p. 7)

The activities of the other young students attached to the research institute also provide some delightful moments, especially when they try to make a good impression with their tutors in the hope of securing a research grant. In one such development, Professor Mainwaring invites four students – two male and two female – to a weekend retreat with the express purpose of observing them at close quarters. It’s an event that ends in frustration – not just for the students hoping for funding but for Mainwaring too.

There is also much to enjoy in the character of Rhoda, Deirdre’s nosy maiden aunt, who seems intent on doing a little anthropological research of her own – so interested is Rhoda in other people’s business that she can barely contain herself.

How silly Rhoda is, thought Deirdre, almost as if she were interested in Father Tulliver in a flirtatious way. She was as yet too young to have learned that women of her aunt’s age could still be interested in men; she would have many years to go before the rather dreadful suspicion came to her that one probably never does cease to be interested. (p. 150)

I also loved the character of Catherine, a bright, independent young woman with much more insight into the workings of the wider world than Tom gives her credit for.

While Less than Angels isn’t my favourite Pym, it’s still very much worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of her work. In writing this book, Pym seems to be saying that one doesn’t have to travel to Africa or be a qualified anthropologist to study the foibles of human nature; one can just as easily observe these things at home without any specialised training.

Less Than Angels is published by Virago; personal copy.

31 thoughts on “Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym

  1. Marina Sofia

    As you can imagine, as an anthropologist, this is one of my favourite Pym novels. Probably precisely because she is quite ruthless about the foibles of both anthropologists and academics more generally.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can understand that! She is so adept at drawing out the absurdities and failings of these individuals, many of whom seem oblivious to the feelings of those around them. Her novels are often much richer than they might seem on the surface.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that would be wonderful. What a marvellous way to make light of the housework! There’s something very comforting about the structure of her world.

      Reply
  2. Radz Pandit

    Wonderful to see another Barbara Pym review, Jacqui! I had read and loved Excellent Women a couple of years ago, but am hoping to read more of her this year. Any you would particularly recommend?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Radhika. Crampton Hodnet is very amusing, as is Some Tame Gazelle. I think she crammed some of her funniest scenarios into those early works. I also have a soft spot for Jane and Prudence, particularly as the main protagonist (Prudence) is more independent than most of Pym’s other ‘excellent’ women!

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always Jacqui. I read this one back when the LT Virago group were having a year of reading Pym, and I liked it less than some of the others (I got a bit burnt out in the end and didn’t finish them all). It had strengths, and of course Pym’s wonderful writing, but didn’t quite gel for me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. I remember you saying that you’d OD’d on Pym as part of that readalong. They do benefit from being spaced out a little, otherwise there’s a danger that they’ll all merge into one big comedy of manners. I really enjoyed this, although not quite as much as some of her earlier novels. It’s a touch more reflective, I guess.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Super review Jacqui. I like the take on Anthropology. Many things about humanity are indeed universal. It sounds as if this book deals with that in a somewhat light way, but it is a very profound issue.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I think her books have a lot more substance to them than might appear at first sight. There was a time when some critics probably dismissed her as a clink-of-teacups writer, but she’s far more insightful than that descriptions suggests. Her observations on the foibles of human nature are spot on, probably aided by her interest in anthropology.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, Excellent Woman was my first Pym, a great introduction to her style. It’s probably more contemplative than some of her other early novels, but still very much a treat. I hope you get a chance to try her soon. I’d love to hear what you think.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Barbara Pym is always a joy to get back to. I think I slightly prefer the books with vicars and excellent women to the anthropology ones, but they all bear re-reading. I am looking forward to re-reading Some Tame Gazelle with the Barbara Pym virtual tea party FB group next week.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t she just! Ideal for the dark days of January. Like you, I think I prefer the ones with hapless vicars, naive curates and put-upon spinsters – all with the odd bossy woman thrown in for good measure. The village fete scenarios are always a delight. I’m sure you’ll enjoy revisiting Some Tame Gazelle – its definitely one of my favourites. Belinda Bede…where did she get those names?!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I am now, although I actually started with her second published novel, the highly regarded Excellent Women. Her later novels – A Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died – are generally considered to be darker than the early books, so perhaps Less Than Angels is something of a bridge between the two.

      Reply
  6. Izzy

    I was wondering which one I would buy and read next, thank you for providing the solution. So far I’ve read Crampton H, Excellent Women, QIA and Jane and Prudence. Clever books, but not too “meaty”, lovely writing.
    P.S. I finished reading The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne last night. I can never thank you enough for reviewing this wonderful book and making me want to read it. Brian Moore is a Great writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, cool. I really hope you enjoy it. The anthropology angle makes it an interesting one, something slightly different from Crampton et al. I think her observations on human nature are marvellous, both insightful and entertaining in equal measure. And I’m so delighted to hear than you liked Judith Hearne so much, that’s fantastic! What a heartbreaking story, beautifully told.

      Reply
  7. Grier

    This isn’t my favorite Pym either but still a very good novel. I also read the books in the order written and favor the earlier novels. The quote about Miss Clovis and her quarrel with the president is vintage Pym!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just! The correct way to make tea is clearly a very important matter in Pym’s world. As you say, it’s classic Pym. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene in another of her novels (Some Tame Gazelle?) in which the heroine is admonished for wrapping Lady Clara’s marrows in newspaper at the church garden party. As far as the vicar’s wife is concerned, only tissue paper with do!

      Reply
  8. madamebibilophile

    Pym is such a delight, thank you for this reminder Jacqui! I love that first quote you pulled. It sounds like there’s still plenty to enjoy here even if its not her strongest. I have A Glass of Blessings to read, I must dig it out :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, you’re welcome, Madame Bibi. Happy New year to you – I hope you had a good break. Pym is eminently quotable, so much so that there’s a little nugget or insight on almost every page. What I particularly liked about this novel was Catherine’s personality, her independence and refusal to pander to Tom’s foibles on his return. A Glass of Blessings sounds great too, I really hope you enjoy it. :)

      Reply
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