One crucial affinity unites the otherwise diversified characters of Less than Angels: All, in their different ways, are observers of life. Much of the novel’s humor comes from the recognized or unacknowledged ironies of this fact. Catherine Oliphant, writer of pulp pieces for feminine readers, is the most self-conscious and most self-deprecating of the observers. She is a woman without roots. No parents, home, husband, or children constrain or support her. Even her occupation is one she can hardly take seriously, for her taste and judgment exceed her talent and market. Thus, Catherine is detached in a way that the other characters are not. Like the authorial eye of Barbara Pym, Catherine’s gaze sees the absurdity in her own behavior in the queer customs of the anthropologists who, eager to study exotic customs abroad, are blind to the odd intricacies of their own professional rituals, hierarchies, taboos, and totems, and in the suburban niceties of the Swan household and the ruling-class code of Tom’s female relations.
Catherine may be the chief of Less than Angels’ informal social scientists, but many of the other characters are also keen observers of human behavior. Digby, Mark, and Deirdre, recently embarked on life and their studies, scrutinize the professional and personal actions of their elders. These senior people in their turn and in varied ways examine the young. Mabel and Rhoda show the middle-class gentlewoman’s...
(The entire section is 546 words.)