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Less Than Angels (1955)

by Barbara PYM

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
8483225,815 (3.88)1 / 146
A tale of a woman's romantic entanglements with two anthropologists--and the odd mating habits of humans--from the author of Jane and Prudence. Catherine Oliphant writes for women's magazines and lives comfortably with anthropologist Tom Mallow--although she's starting to wonder if they'll ever get married. Then Tom drops his bombshell: He's leaving her for a nineteen-year-old student.   Though stunned by Tom's betrayal, Catherine quickly becomes fascinated by another anthropologist, Alaric Lydgate, a reclusive eccentric recently returned from Africa. As Catherine starts to weigh her options, she must figure out who she is and what she really wants.   With a lively cast of characters and a witty look at the insular world of academia, this novel from the much-loved author of Excellent Women and other modern classics is filled with poignant, playful observations about the traits that separate us from our anthropological forebears--far fewer than we may imagine.  … (more)
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English (30)  Italian (1)  All languages (31)
Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
I don't think I was quite prepared for Less than Angels, coming quite late in my Pym education. It is certainly classic Barbara Pym, with its disarming changes of perspective, its ironic and fierce (but rarely judgmental) observations of everyday figures, and its moments of heightened absurdity, here the anthropologist performing ritual dances in an African mask in an otherwise calm English suburb.

By focusing on the young (but, of course, Pym was hardly old when she wrote this novel), the author transmutes her usual world weary melancholy into a great sense of uncertainty: young people for whom it is still possible the world might yield up all of its cornucopia of treasures... even as we're aware that the middle-aged characters in the story have settled into their routines, half complacent and half unsatisfied.

There isn't really a central character here; Tom Mallow, he of the grey eyes and aristocratic bearing, seems like the most likely candidate, but we end up spending most of our time with Deirdre and Catherine, his two paramours. They both deliver in their own ways, especially when caught off-guard by a plot twist late in the novel that may be unique among Pym's works. The world here is again one of quietly Anglican lives and of the secular anthropologist, desperate for a grant equal to their intellectual talents but usually disappointed.

I suspect at this stage in my life I prefer Pym's more evidently amusing novels: Jane and Prudence, Some Tame Gazelle, Crampton Hodnet among them. But Less than Angels intrigues in its own way as a study of melancholy, and rewards with its cavalcade of characters attempting to follow etiquette but often grievously aware that others around them are taking liberties. Classic Pym in many ways. ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 21, 2024 |
Pym observes the observers in this novel populated mostly by anthropologists and anthropology students. Tom Mallow returns from two years of field work in Africa to finish writing his thesis. He resumes his live-in relationship with writer Catherine, only to soon take up with first-year student Deirdre.

This book raises the question of who is better equipped to observe and describe human nature – the anthropologist or the fiction writer? (Advantage: fiction writer. It’s obvious that Catherine understands Tom and his behavior better than Tom understands himself!) Pym gives several nods to her earlier novel, Excellent Women, with the reappearance of Esther Clovis and repeated mentions of Everard Bone and his wife Mildred. At a point of crisis, Catherine reflects that “I’m not one of those excellent women, who can just go home and eat a boiled egg and make a cup of tea and be very splendid…but how useful it would be if I were!” ( )
  cbl_tn | Apr 15, 2024 |
Another deceptively ordinary story of women and their "little" lives. So engrossing, so amusing, sometimes so profound. In this novel Pym gives us the academic world of anthropologists home from their field work, or preparing to go back to it, or hoping to get a grant to begin it....and the family/staff/girlfriends around the edges who seem to have a very foggy notion of what it's all about. As in every other Pym I've read, there were one or two scenes that crept up on me and hit me in the funny bone, making me laugh out loud when I least expected it. Pym also has a trick of making me sympathize in the end with a character she seemed to be setting up as the villain of the piece earlier on. And it's all so subtle.
Read and reviewed in 2013 ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Mar 28, 2024 |
Perhaps too many characters to slip as easily into as most of Miss Pym's novels, and not enough of that coziness and parochial paraphernalia that makes her so enjoyable, but on the whole very passable. ( )
  judeprufrock | Jul 4, 2023 |
Well, that wasn't terribly interesting. The ending was a bit of a let down, but at least it saved all of Tom's women friends from further involvement with such a useless man. The internalized misogyny was rampant and all the observations about human nature were coloured with that lens. The older academic without a solid grasp on securing funding was exasperatingly believable.

Probably won't be picking up another Pym. ( )
  natcontrary | Aug 16, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
In ''Less Than Angels,'' published first in 1955 and now issued in America, anthropologists get the full treatment as Pym records their follies and pretensions with exasperated glee. Some bond of kinship, affection or self-interest ties the novel's characters to a research center in London. More a bemused observer than participant is Catherine, a hack writer, who stoically reflects, ''There are few of us who don't occasionally set a higher value on ourselves than Fate has done.'' Yet she delights in her busy, wayward solitude, relinquished from time to time when her young anthropologist lover, another fecklessly charming Tom, returns from the field. When an earnest young student from the suburbs falls for Catherine's Tom, relationships undergo uneasy realignments, while exotic new perspectives are opened, with bizarre backyard activities espied from upstairs windows. And throughout, whether in the leafy groves of outer London or the intellectual hotbed of the research center, where masterful women and evasive men grapple over grants, human couples of whatever sex demonstrate that there is generally one who must boss and one who must submit.
 

» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
PYM, Barbaraprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ford, JessieCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
ROSATI, NicolettaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schuman, JackieCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tomlinson, PatienceNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vickers, SalleyIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
What would this Man? Now, upward will he soar,
And little less than angel, would be more;
Now looking downwards, just as grieved appears
To want the strength of bulls, the fur of bears.

Alexander Pope
Dedication
First words
A confused impression of English tourists shuffling round a church in Ravenna, peering at mosaics, came to Catherine Oliphant as she sat brooding over her pot of tea.
Quotations
Catherine's attention was caught by a row of houses whose gate-posts were ornamented with stone lions. She stopped in front of them in delight and began to stroke their heads and bodies. "Poor things", she said, "their noses and paws are all worn down, like soap lions might be after the first time of using. You know my favourite Shakespeare sonnet, don't you? 'Devouring time, blunt thou the lion's paws ...' do you think he could have seen a worn stone lion and that gave him the idea? On the gate-post of some noble house, perhaps?"
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A tale of a woman's romantic entanglements with two anthropologists--and the odd mating habits of humans--from the author of Jane and Prudence. Catherine Oliphant writes for women's magazines and lives comfortably with anthropologist Tom Mallow--although she's starting to wonder if they'll ever get married. Then Tom drops his bombshell: He's leaving her for a nineteen-year-old student.   Though stunned by Tom's betrayal, Catherine quickly becomes fascinated by another anthropologist, Alaric Lydgate, a reclusive eccentric recently returned from Africa. As Catherine starts to weigh her options, she must figure out who she is and what she really wants.   With a lively cast of characters and a witty look at the insular world of academia, this novel from the much-loved author of Excellent Women and other modern classics is filled with poignant, playful observations about the traits that separate us from our anthropological forebears--far fewer than we may imagine.  

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Book description
Less Than Angels follows the loves, works and hopes of a group of young anthropologists.

Catherine Oliphant is a writer and lives with handsome anthropologist Tom Mallow. Their relationship runs into trouble when he begins a romance with student Deirdre Swann, so Catherine turns her attention to the reclusive anthropologist Alaric Lydgate, who has a fondness for wearing African masks. Added to this love tangle are the activities of Deirdre's fellow students and their attempts to win the competition for a research grant.

The course of true love or academia never did run smooth.
Haiku summary

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