Review: Less than Angels, by Barbara Pym

In Less than Angels, Barbara Pym once again satirizes English manners, especially among academics. The story revolves around a mixed bag of anthropologists:  some established in their field, others young and striving for professional distinction.  Tom, recently returned from field work in Africa, strikes up a relationship with Deirdre, a young student.  Deirdre lives with her mother Mabel and aunt Rhoda, who conduct their own anthropological research by studying their neighbors’ habits, peeking over hedgerows and glancing into windows.

Deirdre and Tom’s relationship blossoms while he is working on his thesis, providing Pym with an opportunity to poke fun at academics.  When Deirdre shows her friend Catherine a copy of Tom’s chunky manuscript, Catherine replies:

A thesis must be long. The object, you see, is to bore and stupefy the examiners to such an extent that they will have to accept it — only if a thesis is short enough to be read all through word for word is there any danger of failure. (p. 167)

Pym’s sharp wit was also used to good effect in developing her characters, such as Deirdre’s aunt Rhoda:

She left the bathroom as she would wish to find it, folding her own towels and everyone else’s in a special way that pleased her. It worried her a little that Malcolm was not yet in, for he would spoil the symmetrical arrangement … Before going back to her own room, Rhoda went quietly downstairs to see if her sister had laid the breakfast satisfactorily. She saw that Mabel had made an effort, but there were one or two things missing, the marmalade spoon and the mats for the coffee; she put right these omissions and then returned quietly to her room. (p. 44)

The plot in Less than Angels was fairly thin, and made a disappointingly abrupt turn near the end, solely for wrapping things up quickly.  The book is worth reading for Pym’s wit and satirical abilities, and is made more interesting by references to characters from other books: Everard Bone, an anthropologist in Excellent Women, and Professor Mainwaring, brother-in-law to Dulcie Mainwaring from No Fond Return of Love. These references painted a larger portrait of Pym-land, an amusing world of “excellent women” and striving academics.  I enjoy reading Pym when I need something light, and this book suited me at the time.  However, it’s not one of her best.

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