Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Less than Angels moves between three different worlds: that of London anthropologists competing over research grants, the suburban world with its secure and tidy routines, and a briefly sketched upper-class world in the English countryside. These worlds intersect through shifting romantic alliances, which are seen largely from the women’s point of view, and often point to the unequal relations between the sexes.

The novel begins with a party at a new anthropological research center, which gives Pym an opportunity to poke fun at the jargon of anthropologists and introduce Mark and Digby as wry observers of some of the absurdities of the academic world.

The main plot line concerns the love of three different women for Tom. Tom returns from two years of fieldwork in Africa and, although he still lives with Catherine, strikes up a friendship with Deidre. She falls in love with him, although Tom regards her as no more than a good listener for his talk about his work.

Later, Catherine spots Tom and Deidre talking intimately in a restaurant. Catherine reacts mildly, but as they discuss the matter later, Tom says he will move out of her flat. He moves into a room in the flat occupied by Digby and Mark. Tom has no intention of starting a serious romantic relationship with Deidre, and he sees her only as often as is needed for his sense of well-being, which is less than Deidre had hoped for.

Interspersed with the romance,...

(The entire section is 602 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Less than Angels was Pym’s fourth novel, and the first to be published in the United States (1956). In England, the novel did not receive as much attention from reviewers as Pym’s earlier novels had, and its sales were lower. In the United States, the book had almost no impact, and it was not until after her death in 1980 that Pym began to acquire a reputation across the Atlantic.

Like Pym’s other novels of the 1950’s, Less than Angels (the title is derived from a poem by Alexander Pope) provides a snapshot of middle-class social relations in England before the revolutionary changes of the 1960’s. Although the unequal relations between the sexes are made abundantly clear, there are also some hints that times are changing and that the men are unsettled by shifting social mores. Returning home from a party, for example, Digby suggests to Mark that one of them should have seen Deidre home. Mark says he must cure himself of such an old-fashioned idea, and Digby replies, “Yes, of course, one’s apt to forget that women consider themselves our equals now. But just occasionally one remembers that men were once the stronger sex.” There are also some backward glances at the conventions of an earlier era that suggest how times have changed. Deidre sees a daring play with her boyfriend, and Mabel remarks that when she was young, in the 1920’s, she would have been embarrassed to have seen such a play with a man. She does not think, however, that relations between men and women, although they have changed, are any more satisfactory.

One relationship in the novel, that between Tom and Catherine, seems to look forward beyond the 1950’s. The casual way in which they share a flat without being married shocks no one in their bohemian circle, but the fact that Tom’s aunt pays Catherine a visit and is ready to censure her for her conduct reminds the reader that she is indeed still in the 1950’s, before the sexual liberation of the 1960’s and 1970’s made such arrangements more common.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Burkhart, Charles. The Pleasure of Miss Pym. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987. Starting from the premise that Pym wrote for pleasure and to please, Burkhart analyzes what that pleasure consisted of, for Pym and her reader. Topics include the importance of anthropologists and Africa, relationships between men and women, and the Anglican church. Less than Angels receives its share of comment.

Cotsell, Michael. Barbara Pym. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Includes a concise reading of Less than Angels, which Long sees as depicting a crueler, harder world than that displayed in Pym’s earlier novels (contrast Nardin’s view that Less than Angels is the most serene of Pym’s early novels). Pym sets professional anthropology against “literary” anthropology, to the advantage of the latter.

Long, Robert Emmet. Barbara Pym. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. Includes detailed analysis of Less than Angels, which Long sees as having the form of a maze in which characters try to understand and form relationships with one another. It is concerned also with the isolation of women. Includes a useful bibliography that lists reviews of Less than Angels.

Nardin, Jane. Barbara Pym. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This book-length study of Pym’s work surveys her major novels. Includes a brief but interesting reading of Less than Angels. Pym plays with ideas prompted by the realization that the novelist can effectively use methods of observation—detached, tolerant—that are essentially anthropological.

Wyatt-Brown, Anne M. Barbara Pym: A Critical Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Describes Pym’s life and work in much more detail than does Hazel Holt’s biography A Lot to Ask (1990). Argues that Pym’s art allowed her to triumph over dejection and social constraints; her creativity was spurred by her personal dissatisfactions. Less than Angels represents a temporary triumph over despair; its subtext is Pym’s survival as a writer.