The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Catherine Oliphant

Catherine Oliphant, a writer of stories and articles for women’s magazines. A short, slender woman, thirty-one years old, she is a keen observer of everyday life, more perceptive in her reading of the nuances of social behavior than are many of the anthropologists who figure in the story. She is witty, whimsical, self-deprecating, and unconventional. In her fiction, she manipulates romantic clichés with ironic detachment, yet she nurtures such fancies herself. As the novel begins, she is awaiting the return of her lover, Tom Mallow, who has been in Africa for nearly two years. Later, after Tom leaves her, she develops an interest in Alaric Lydgate, a fellow outsider.

Tom Mallow

Tom Mallow, an anthropologist. Handsome, vain, self-absorbed, and unfailingly attractive to women, the twenty-nine-year-old Tom is the last scion of a once-prominent family with a rundown estate in Shropshire. He returns from Africa with a nearly completed dissertation and no real belief in his work. After jilting Catherine for a young student, Deirdre Swan, he goes back to Africa, where he is killed by accident when police fire into a crowd to suppress a riot.

Professor Felix Byron Mainwaring

Professor Felix Byron Mainwaring, an eminent anthropologist. A cultured man from a privileged background, he is conscious of his distinction. In retirement, he has turned to fund-raising, using his considerable charm to establish in London an anthropological library and research center. The irony is that he has entirely lost his passion for the actual practice of anthropology.

Minnie Foresight

Minnie Foresight, a wealthy widow whom Mainwaring has persuaded to...

(The entire section is 718 words.)