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