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.