Barbara Pym was assistant editor at the International African Institute in London for almost two decades, and working with the anthropologists there inspired her to put anthropologists in her fiction. Less Than Angels is populated by anthropologists at every level—from the almost 70-year-old professor who devotes himself to milking rich patrons for scholarships and research centers to a 19-year-old starting undergraduate study in the field. The exception is Catherine, an eccentric, kind, and fanciful writer for women’s magazines.
Catherine’s love, Tom, has just returned from research in Africa and is sweating the completing of his PhD thesis. Dierdre, the 19th-year-old, develops a crush on Tom, and Catherine generously releases him, but Tom’s main interest is in getting back to Africa. Meanwhile, Dierdre’s somewhat older associates Mark and Digby are maneuvering for funding for their research abroad and provide some of the book’s funniest scenes.
Like a good anthropologist, Pym is a keen observer of behavior, and in Less Than Angels she created many colorful characters to observe. These include a failure-at-publishing anthropologist who wears African masks at home; his sister and a priest, experts in African linguistics, who grunt pronunciations at each other; a French student who wants to study a typical English Sunday; and Dierdre’s fusty mother and unmarried aunt, with whom she lives. One of Pym’s most delightful characters, Catherine, rattles on unconcerned about whether she’s listened to. “The small things of life were so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasures . . . funny things seen and overheard,” she muses at one point—a comment that’s also a good description of the content of Pym’s fiction.
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