Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym
Some of Pym’s books deal with clergy in all their variation and even absurdity, whereas in this book many of the characters are anthropologists, a strange breed of people in many ways. With their ambitions to be in the “field”, living in Africa, noting obscure behavioural passages, exploring unknown languages, even looking at the arcane rules for land tenure in one case.
This is Pym, so there are women who follow these men, or live alongside them, and who only have the slightest idea of what anthropology really is, and what obsesses these men. Even Deirdre, a young student of anthropology, does not seem that interested in the formal study of the subject, preferring to watch those around her in an informal way, wondering about why they behave as they do. Those women who are actually anthropologists are often concerned with the process, the sacred offprints, or the provision of grants. As with all of Pym’s books, the characters feel so real in all their diffidence, their habits, their loves and so much more. The main female characters are younger than many of Pym’s, and their attitude to the men around them are somewhat different. Catherine understands certain men and is not beyond hope of loving one or two of them, whereas Deirdre falls in love quickly and completely. There is gentle humour, both obvious and understated, and I found it enjoyable and memorable in a positive way.
Rather like the opening scenes of a film, the book begins with Catherine Oliphant, a young woman looking out of her window, seeing people passing by in a slightly disinterested way. “Her present love, Tom” is an anthropologist, at present in Africa, but his occupation means that she recognises others, making their way to a building. The reader is introduced to “Felix’s Folly” , a new anthropological library and research centre, provided by the largesse of a rich widow, Mrs Minnie Foresight as persuaded by Professor Mainwaring. The view goes onto reveal Miss Clovis and Miss Lydgate, their concerns with the reception they have organised for Mrs Foresight and other notables. The scene highlights some of the students, Mark and Digby, a pair of friends whose dialogue is always entertaining. Deirdre Swann is followed to the suburbs, where she lives with her mother and aunt, whose domestic routines are painfully well known. The neighbours include Alaric Lydgate, who proves to be yet another anthropologist disappointed in his researches, who writes reviews of articles with his favourite phrase “It is a pity that…”.
Just how all these characters become interlinked by love, common obsessions, tragedy and more is at the heart of this clever novel. The relationship between Catherine and Tom is different, ill defined, and becomes changed through the novel. I found this a gently funny book, which introduces and explores characters right until the end. In a way my favourites are Mark and Digby, looking for food, discussing their concerns, expressing views on those around them, worrying in a half hearted way about their possible chances of grants to go into the field. All the relationships are carefully described, small ambitions examined, meals enjoyed or otherwise. This book is gently and subtly enjoyable, and fits well into Pym’s books about the oddity of people.
So I continue to work my way through Barbara Pym’s books, and trying to find them . I think I have two more left to read after this one. I am so pleased that her books have been reprinted by Virago in their Modern Classics series, home of such middle century writers as Angela Thirkell over the last few years. While not the traditional green Virago covers, they certainly look good and perhaps as importantly are robust. I certainly enjoy collecting them!