The Big Pym-Re-Read: Less Than Angels


I haven’t really blogged about Barbara Pym’s novels and, now that I have physical copies for all of them, I thought I would do a big re-read and then write a post about each book.

I chose Less Than Angels at random, but after this I will read the novels in order of publication:

  • Some Tame Gazelle (1950)
  • Excellent Women (1952)
  • Jane and Prudence (1953)
  • Less than Angels (1955)
  • No Fond Return of Love (1961)
  • Quartet in Autumn (1977)
  • The Sweet Dove Died (1978)
  • A Few Green Leaves (1980)
  • An Unsuitable Attachment (written 1963; published posthumously, 1982)
  • Crampton Hodnet (completed circa 1940, published posthumously, 1985)
  • An Academic Question (written 1970–72; published posthumously, 1986)
  • Civil to Strangers (written 1936; published posthumously, 1987)

Less Than AngelsLess Than Angels is about a group of anthropologists and students of anthropology, each at a different point in their career and studies.

Tom Mallow has just come back from Africa to finish writing his PhD dissertation and is reunited with his live-in lover, Catherine Oliphant. Catherine is in her thirties and writes short stories for women’s magazines. In appearance and lifestyle, Catherine seems bohemian, but she is really a practical and conventional person.

Tom finds himself drawn to Deidre Swan, a nineteen-year-old university student who falls in love with him practically at first sight. Tom eventually leaves Catherine for Deidre, although he doesn’t seem very sure of his actions and continues to keep in touch with Catherine after he moves out of her flat.

Catherine, while putting up a calm and cheerful front, is actually quite affected by the break-up.

I felt angry with Tom on Catherine’s behalf and I have no idea how she manages to keep her emotions in check. There is a scene in which she goes into a restaurant, sees Tom and Deidre dining together and holding hands, and just walks out again, quite calmly.

Later on she refers to the incident in a conversation with Deidre herself:

‘I don’t think we can ever hope to know all that goes on in a man’s life or even to follow him with our loving thoughts, and perhaps that’s just as well. You know how you say to yourself sometime “‘I wonder what he’s doing now?” You can’t always know that.

‘Tom has usually been working on his thesis when he hasn’t been with me,’ said Deirdre, doubt clouding her face.

‘Yes, writing a thesis is an excellent alibi and a good way of keeping out of mischief,’ Catherine agreed. ‘But one evening, when I thought I was doing just that, he was holding a young woman’s hand in a restaurant.’ She threw Deirdre one of her bright sardonic glances.

‘Oh, Catherine, I’m sorry … I didn’t know what to do. You see, I love him so much.’

I would have smacked Deirdre at that point! What a perfect example of selfish, self-absorbed youth! Catherine behaves so well that I find her a little too good to be true. However, I suppose it’s partly to do with her personality, and also because she doesn’t feel an awful lot for Tom in the first place! They share a fondness for one another, but their relationship is far from being a grand passion, but rather a matter of convenience and comfort. Still, I believe Catherine is genuinely fond of Tom even if she isn’t madly in love with him.

As for Tom, he enjoys Deidre’s attention, and the reverence and awe she treats him with. At the same time, he misses Catherine’s familiarity and easy ways, and how she looked after him when they shared a flat. There is also Elaine, his childhood sweetheart whom he re-connects with when he goes home to see his family one weekend.

Perhaps, ideally, he would have been happiest with all three women, setting up the sort of menage he probably would have witnessed on his travels in Africa. This is never suggested in the novel, but it’s not hard to imagine the thought crossing Tom’s anthropological mind.

Also attracted to Deirdre is Digby Fox, an undergraduate who, with his fellow student and flatmate, Mark Penfiold, is perpetually worrying about making ends meet and wondering how to finance his field work. Digby and Mark are friends with Tom and Catherine; and  Tom  moves in with them following his break up with Catherine.

Although they seem interchangeable at first, on closer inspection, Mark is the colder, more calculating of the two men. His actions are usually based on some benefit he imagines will be forthcoming, whereas Digby always seems warmer, kinder, more sincere and earnest.

Two of my favourite characters in Less Than Angels are Esther Clovis, former secretary of the Learned Society, now caretaker of the new Foresight Research Centre (the setting for many of he novel’s scenes), and Gertrude Lydgate, an expert in African languages. They are plain, middle-aged, unmarried, badly dressed, untidy and hopeless at housekeeping:

Miss Lydgate was exceptionally tall with white hair, her garments seeming to flutter round her like draperies, while Miss Clovis was stocky build with roughly cut short hair and tweedy clothes.

They are, Miss Clovis in particular, very forceful, no-nonsense types who would strike me dumb in person. It seems that Miss Lydgate started off as a missionary, but “‘… found that she was more interested in tongues than in souls.'”

There’s a delightful scene in which Miss Lydgate meets with another linguist at a gathering of anthropologists and they describe some rare language that is spoken by only five persons:

A very curious sound, which it is impossible to reproduce here, then came from her. Had she been in the company of ordinary people, it might have been supposed that something had gone down the wrong way and that she was choking, but here nobody took any particular notice of her or of Father Gemini when he cried excitedly, ‘No, no, it is this!’ and proceeded to emit a sound which would have appeared to the uninitiated exactly the same as Miss Lydgate’s choking noise.

Miss Clovis and Miss Lydgate could be seen as stereotypical female academics whose seriousness about their work precludes any qualities that are conventionally associated with being female. In contrast, Deirdre, and two other students Vanessa and Primrose, are all decidedly more frivolous and feminine in outlook and actions than the Misses Clovis and Lydgate.

Excellent WOmen‘”How refreshing to meet a feminine and unscholarly girl,”‘ says Digby, about Deirdre, at one point. Did Pym believe that women couldn’t be both learned and attractive; both passionate about their careers and also interested in love and sex? Or was she just recording what she saw around her?

In an earlier book, Excellent Women, Helena Napier seems torn between marriage and her career as an anthropologist. In fact, Miss Clovis tries to encourage Helena’s attraction to a fellow anthropologist called Everard Bone. This is referred to in Less Than Angels:

That had been a most promising partnership which had never come to anything. Two gifted young people, who had worked together, but Helena Napier had a
husband and Miss Clovis’s efforts in the cause of anthropology had been in
vain. After a short estrangement the Napiers had been reunited and Helena
had retired to the country.

The ’cause of anthropology’!

Miss Clovis, at any rate, acknowledges her sexuality, even if it seems to have taken a backseat to her work. In Less Than Angels, she reminisces about a past incident:

Poor Dr Obst … once, many years ago, at some learned conference abroad, they had been walking together one evening after dinner and he had taken hold of her in a most suggestive way. Not to put too fine a point on it, he had made a pass at her. Miss Clovis smiled; she was older and more tolerant now, and wondered if she need have slapped his face with quite such outraged dignity. Why had she done it? Had she been thinking of her rights as a woman, the equal of man and not to be treated as his plaything, or had it been because she had not found Dr Obst particularly attractive?

Do characters like Miss Clovis and Miss Lydgate reflect the reality of the times in which they lived, when women felt it was necessary to choose between career and marriage; and also, to adopt a certain persona that would keep them safe from unwanted male attention? Did many women then feel it was necessary to suppress their femininity as it would cause them to be taken less seriously, and viewed as less dedicated to their work? (This attitude hasn’t entirely disappeared in 2019!)

Helena Napier chooses her marriage over her career. Would she have done so if she were a 21st century character? Well, many real life 21st century women continue to face the wife-or-work dilemma.

In this novel, even the young male anthropologists, Mark and Digby, see the role of a wife as being mostly functional. Why marry anyone unable to help you, at very least, type up your notes?!

Mark expresses doubt that Tom will marry Catherine as not only is she not ‘keen on going to Africa with him’, she ‘isn’t a trained anthropologist.’

Digby adds that Deirdre might be a better choice for wife as she is ‘”still young enough to be moulded.”‘

And the fore-mentioned Everard Bone is said to have married ‘a rather dull woman who was nevertheless a great help to him in his work; as a clergyman’s daughter she naturally got on very well with the missionaries they were meeting now that
they were in Africa again.’

In fact, Mr Bone marries Mildred Lathbury, the protagonist of Excellent Women, whom I don’t find in the least bit dull, although that is of course simply Miss Clovis’s opinion.

Incidentally, Pym spent some time working at the International African Institute in London and must have based some of her fictional portrayals on her own experiences. Apparently, Miss Clovis was inspired by two real people: the institute’s secretary Beatrice Wyatt; and its librarian Ruth Jones. I picture her looking like Wendy Hiller who could be quite an intimidating presence. She has a ‘ringing tone’ and is ‘alarming in her geniality’ — obviously a personality that makes a strong impression on those she meets, as this passage reveals:

It was thought by many to be ‘good policy’ to send an offprint to Esther Clovis, though it was not always known exactly why this should be. In most cases she had done nothing more than express a polite interest in the author’s work, but in others the gift was prompted by a sort of undefined fear, as a primitive tribesman might leave propitiatory gifts of food before a deity or ancestral shrine in the hope of receiving some benefit.

I wouldn’t say no to provoking that sort of ‘undefined fear’! Ha-Ha!

One thing I like about Pym’s novels is the way they highlight the way each gender views the other and itself. Perhaps the views are of their time, although not much seems to have changed, in my opinion.

Pym makes her point in her usual subtle way, through the observations of and conversations between her characters. Here is Catherine being confronted by Tom’s aunt, Mrs Beddoes, who has called on her with the intention of asking Catherine to end her relationship with Tom. She is surprised to find that Catherine is not quite what the family have imagined, and that the relationship is already over:

‘You sent him away?’ she ventured.

‘Not exactly – though women always like to think that they have taken the initiative in ending a love affair. But I may as well be honest. I think he wanted to go.’

‘My dear, I am sorry, believe me when I say that. But it was very wrong of you, you know, to live with him without being married. Don’t you realise that?’

Catherine smiled. ‘I see you are thinking the very worst.’

Mrs Beddoes seemed uncomfortable again, and took up her furs and gazed into the bright glass eyes of the little animals’ heads, as if they might help her. ‘Well, one does usually think something of the kind, surely,’ she said, on the defensive now

‘Yes, of course women do think the worst of each other, perhaps because only they can know what they are capable of. Men are regarded as being not quite responsible for their actions. Besides, they have other and more important things on their minds. Did you know that Tom was writing a thesis, for his Ph.D.?’

Later, Mark and Digby discuss Catherine being an ‘experienced woman’:

‘Ah, yes, to have a last evening with Deirdre, I expect,’ said Catherine in a matter-of-fact tone. ‘I can imagine what that will be like. I’m coming to the air terminal to see him off tomorrow, by the way, so I’ll see you there.’

‘I suppose a last evening with Deirdre might not be quite the same as one with Catherine,’ said Mark thoughtfully, ‘so I wonder if Catherine really can imagine it.’

‘Writers like to think that they can imagine everything,’ suggested Digby, ‘or do you think that Catherine has now reached the age when she has had so many partings and last evenings that she really does know all that can possibly happen?’

‘How dull the life of an experienced woman must be, if everything has happened before,’ said Mark.

Catherine is another of my favourite characters. In the end, it was she I cared for the most of all and the one whose fate I was most interested in although the others were also interesting and amusing. I find her sympathetic and relatable, perhaps because I too am an ‘experienced woman’ who is, nonetheless, not immune to being hurt and wronged.

I do think Catherine has been wronged by Tom, although she herself would probably disagree. The fact that Tom is gentle in manner and generally ineffectual means that he avoids looking like a downright bastard, but that doesn’t let him off the hook.

Does Catherine allow herself to be treated badly by Tom? Does she ‘ask for it’ by not protesting about her treatment? Should she have dug her heels in and fought for their relationship? No, I feel that by recognising his lack of conviction and encouraging him to leave, she saves herself the drama and misery of being two-timed for an extended period, not that there would have been any real drama, all things considered. If Catherine hadn’t ended the relationship, Deirdre would probably have engineered it eventually. Left to his own devices, Tom might have strung the two women along for years, quite oblivious to their feelings.

Catherine eventually develops an interest in Alaric Lydgate, Miss Lydgate’s brother who is also Deirdre’s next door neighbour. He is recently back from Africa, a retired Colonial administrator with a ‘wild Ancient Mariner gleam in the eye’. Back in England, he has become well known ‘as a writer of sarcastic [book] reviews’, but is otherwise a somewhat reclusive individual who ‘walks in the garden at night, wearing an African mask’. That final detail is bizarre as well as hilarious, and I hope Catherine and Alaric end up happy together.  African mask

Next on my Pym list: Some Tame Gazelle.

P.S. 29th March, 2019

I forgot to say that this book studies a group of anthropologists somewhat like anthropologists might study a community in an alien and foreign land. ‘Courtship Rituals of Anthropologists in London’ might be the heading for some field notes, with Tom Mallow as a rather misleading case study.











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