Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym

Less Than Angels I’ve never read anything by Barbara Pym until now, despite feeling sure that I would enjoy her books, so Barbara Pym Reading Week seemed a good time to start. Less than Angels is not a book that I’ve heard much about so I was worried that it might not be a good one to begin with, but it’s the only one I actually own so it made sense to read it first. Luckily I did enjoy it and it has left me wanting to read more of Pym’s books as soon as I can!

Less than Angels revolves around a group of anthropology students, their professors, families and neighbours. Catherine Oliphant is a writer of romantic fiction and articles for women’s magazines. Her boyfriend, Tom Mallow, is an anthropology student who has recently returned home from being ‘in the field’ in Africa and is now working on finishing his thesis. Despite having very different personalities and not really understanding each other’s work, Tom and Catherine seem to have settled into life together – until Tom meets Deirdre Swan, a younger student who is just beginning to study anthropology.

While the relationships between Tom, Catherine and Deirdre form the central thread of the novel, another storyline centres around money for research grants which the rich widow Minnie Foresight has promised to give to Professor Mainwaring’s department. Among the students hoping to receive these grants are Deirdre’s friends, Mark and Digby, who provide a lot of the book’s humour. We meet lots of other great characters too, including Deirdre’s mother, Mabel, and her unmarried Aunt Rhoda. And there’s also Alaric Lydgate, an eccentric anthropologist who lives next door and can often be seen wearing an African mask around the house (and secretly wishes he could wear it all the time).

My first impression after reading Chapter One was that I liked Barbara Pym’s writing but was completely overwhelmed by the number of characters we were introduced to in that first chapter and the way the viewpoints changed from one to another so rapidly. Fortunately, after a couple of chapters things settled down and we could concentrate on getting to know one character at a time.

I thought Catherine was a lovely person and although she and Deirdre could be seen as rivals, Catherine’s mature attitude to the whole situation made it easy for me to like Deirdre too. It was interesting to read the contrasting descriptions of Catherine’s solitary but independent life in London, and Deirdre’s life in a middle-class suburban household, living with her mother, brother and aunt. I thought it was funny when one of Deirdre’s fellow students, a Frenchman called Jean-Pierre, visits the family to study a typical English Sunday! I liked the idea that there’s as much for an anthropologist to study in English habits and traditions as there is in the customs of African tribes, and I was also interested in the comparison of the insights writers have into human life as opposed to the views anthropologists have.

I loved Mark and Digby too. One of my favourite scenes was the one where they take Miss Clovis and Miss Lydgate to a restaurant and spend the whole time worrying about the cost and trying to choose the cheapest things on the menu. I also liked the part where Professor Mainwaring invites four of the competing research grant applicants to his house in the countryside for the weekend. Near the end of the book, the story takes a more dramatic turn which I thought felt a bit out of place with the rest of the novel. Apart from this, I enjoyed Less than Angels and am excited about reading more of her books.

Barbara Pym Reading Week

27 thoughts on “Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym

  1. heavenali says:

    I have read reviews of other people who think that ending a bit out of pace with the rest of the novel – Less than Angels seems to be one some people don’t always like. I did though – glad you did too.

    • Helen says:

      I knew this wasn’t one of her more popular books so was a bit concerned that I was making a mistake by starting with this one, but fortunately that wasn’t the case!

  2. Laura Caldwell says:

    I am one of those “Pym lovers” who did not care for this book and actually quit it quite near the beginning. Hopefully your liking it means that you will LOVE the others. 😉

  3. Miss Bibliophile says:

    Like you, this was the first Pym novel I read. At the time I thought it was only okay. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t love it in a way that lived up to my expectations based on all the raves I had seen about Pym’s work. I’ve since gone on to read and love some of her other novels, though, and may have to revisit Less Than Angels at some point.

    • Helen says:

      The fact that this isn’t generally considered one of her best books makes me even more excited about trying some of the ones that are!

  4. Alex says:

    Excellent Women has been on my TBR for AGES! This would have been the perfect week to tackle it… if it wasn’t for baby. I wonder when I’ll be able to get back to normal reading/blogging activities. My guess is about a decade…

  5. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    I recently read this and really liked it, too. Catherine is a fantastic character and I love that Pym didn’t make her actions predictable. Oh, Mark and Digby…they are great. Just reading their names makes me smile!

    • Helen says:

      I loved Catherine and yes, it was great that she reacted to things in such a sensible, realistic way. I did like Deirdre too, but Catherine was my favourite.

  6. gaskella says:

    I hadn’t heard of this one, but the characters sound great, and I shall look out for a copy.. Having just read my first Pym too (Quartet in Autumn), I can see that nailing character is something Pym is good at.

  7. geraniumcat says:

    This is one of my absolute favourites because I had a similar job to Miss Clovis’s – sometimes I used to send a new President the bit about how she and the President had fallen out over the correct way to make tea. And I adore the scene in the restaurant.

  8. Fleur in her World says:

    I picked this up a while ago, I had the same feelings about the first chapter, and I put the book aside. That you found so much to enjoy later in the book definitely encourages me to pick it up again before too long.

    • Helen says:

      I might have given up after the first chapter too, but I wanted to be able to take part in the reading week so I decided to persevere. I’m glad I did keep going because the book really improved after I got to know some of the characters.

  9. TipiTopi says:

    I’ve read numerous Pym posts this week, only good things, so now I’m planning to explore the world of her novels. My first will be Jane and Prudence.

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