Catherine Oliphant writes romantic stories for magazines. At the beginning of Less than Angels, she’s sitting in a cafe speculating about the people sitting near her, wondering what their real stories are. Catherine lives with Tom Mallow, a young anthropologist just back from the field in Africa. Deidre Swan is a student at the anthropological institute & she’s dazzled by Tom’s looks & his aura of achievement. What man could resist such hero worship? Before long, Tom & Deirdre are holding hands in the little local restaurant where Tom & Catherine used to go & Catherine realises that she’s about to be superseded.
Deirdre’s hand still lay on Tom’s; their moussaka would be getting cold, Catherine thought, & then pulled herself up, horrified at the sardonic detachment with which she had been watching them… I’m not one of those excellent women, who can just go home & eat a boiled egg & make a cup of tea & be very splendid, she thought, but how useful it would be if I were!
Deidre lives at home in dull suburbia with her mother & aunt, next door to Alaric Lydgate, an eccentric anthropologist who is sometimes seen wearing African masks in his backyard. Less than Angels is full of recognizably Pymian characters. I loved Catherine, one of my favourite Pym heroines. I always think she may have more than a little of Barbara Pym herself in her. A writer, who enjoys speculating on the lives & loves of others, quotes bits of poetry & makes odd jokes at the wrong moments.
Deidre’s mother & aunt are portraits of two other Pym favourites, the widow & the spinster, living together more or less happily but aware of the petty irritations of living with family. As always, her women are more interesting than the men, although Alaric Lydgate has his moments. He & Catherine start a tentative relationship when she asks him for some information for a story she’s writing. She doesn’t tell him that he was the inspiration for her hero,
“…I’m writing a story about somebody who’s just come back from Africa. I’ve made him a big game hunter, that seems suitable for the type of people who will read it. Naturally I have to make him have thoughts about the country he’s been in, & I was wondering if they were too wildly improbable.”
“I’m afraid I should be no judge of that,” said Alaric. ”I shouldn’t like to say what thoughts might be in the mind of a big game hunter.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that exactly. You see, I have him sitting in this West Kensington hotel, remembering the noise of the rain splashing down among the mangroves, or the laughing faces of the women bringing in the yams…But would the rain splash down among the mangroves, & would the women bring in the yams?”
Tom is a very ordinary, insipid young man, much more suited to conventional Deirdre than the more unusual Catherine. Catherine realises that she’s managed without him very well for the two years he’s been away &, although there are some tears, I don’t think she is very distressed when he leaves her for Deirdre.
Barbara Pym worked for an anthropological journal & she uses the experience here with her portraits of impecunious young students vying for study grants & the sometimes less than ethical way that handsome men inveigle money for their projects from susceptible widows. I enjoyed Less than Angels very much although it will never be in my top rank of Pym. Excellent Women, A Glass of Blessings & Some Tame Gazelle are among my favourite comfort reads. I’m so glad Virago is bringing Barbara Pym back into print.