Less than Angels, like Barbara Pym’s other novels, is preeminently successful at creating a small world peopled with characters whose prosaic lives become interesting, even fascinating, because of the perspective from which they are presented. Here, the heart of the microcosm is the Learned Society, a fashionably situated London center for the social and intellectual pursuits of a group of established and aspiring anthropologists. Pym takes her readers from this center to Catherine Oliphant’s flat on the “shabby side” of Regent’s Park; to bourgeois Barnes, the suburb where Deirdre Swan lives with her mother, brother, and aunt; to Mallow Park, the manor from which Tom Mallow has escaped into academia; and to the Gothic country house where Professor Mainwaring, upper-class in his origins, as Tom is, takes refuge from the inelegant academics.
Less than Angels is much concerned with the interplay of these various social subsets. At the Learned Society itself, there are American and French students to be contrasted with the English ones and a wide and memorable gallery of anthropologists to be contrasted with their students and with one another. In the suburbs, Mabel Swan, her sister Rhoda Wellcome, and their circle, the embodiments of middle-class comfort and conventionality, are counterbalanced by the academic people Deirdre meets at the Learned Society, with the imaginative bohemian Catherine Oliphant, who comes to stay with them, and with Alaric Lydgate, the eccentric retired colonial administrator who has settled next door. Catherine, a waifish and whimsical woman given to irony and gifted with a keen sense of the absurd, holds values and cherishes customs very different from those of her lover Tom Mallow, an anthropological researcher who shares her flat when he is home from the field. Tom, in turn, a rebel against upper-class rural standards he has not entirely left behind, seems an odd fish when he returns to the Shropshire village his family dominates, a tribal enclave as “exotic,” if only one sees it that way, as is the African culture he studies. This ruling-class world which Tom has abandoned is one to which Professor Mainwaring, at the end of his eminent career, has returned, and according to whose values he wryly judges his colleagues and students, in much the same way that Tom’s Sloane Ranger sister and his former girlfriend Elaine see Catherine and Deirdre when the four women meet for tea and mutual sympathy.
The story line making possible these cultural and personal contrasts is partly anthropological and...
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