Less than Angels Essay - Critical Essays

Barbara Pym


Barbara Pym often commented on the similarity between the work of the anthropologist (which she knew about through her work as assistant editor of the journal Africa) and the novelist. Each is concerned with the detached, objective observation of human behavior. Part of the humor of Less than Angels lies in the fact that the tables are turned: The observers become the observed, and the anthropological profession does not come out of it well. Its rituals, consisting of jargon-ridden seminar papers, scholarly articles, the sending of offprints to all the right people, and periodic spells of fieldwork, are subjected to Pym’s gentle but pointed satire. Even the anthropologists find their own profession unfulfilling. Tom questions the value of it, Mainwaring is no longer much interested in it, Mark leaves it, Alaric finds liberation through rejecting it, and Catherine mocks its “cowardly” caution, in contrast to the aplomb of poets and novelists, who do not fear to rush in with their analyses of the human mind, heart, and soul.

Pym saw the literary uses of anthropology, realizing that it was not confined to the study of “primitive” African tribes. One minor character in the novel, a French anthropologist, observes English culture as if he is doing fieldwork, and Pym’s narrator frequently looks with a detached eye at English social customs and rituals, such as a debutante ball and a flower-and-vegetable show in Shropshire, and suggests that the customs of faraway tribes in Africa may not be any more strange than English ones.

Mabel and Rhoda are also anthropologists of a kind, since they spend a large amount of time at their upper windows, observing the eccentric (at least to them) activities of Alaric. Yet they never approach the objectivity of the anthropologist, judging what they see only by the narrow standards of suburbia—it is not proper, for example, to beat the carpets...

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