Monday, May 22, 2017
Back to the Classics Challenge 2017: Less Than Angels
For the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 (hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate) for the category “Classic by a Woman Author” I decided to go with Barbara Pym’s Less than Angels, which was first published in 1955.
Less Than Angels more or less revolves around the lives and loves of a handful of anthropology students and their lecturers in 1950’s London. I write “more or less” but really it is so much more. One could consider Tom Mallow, the anthropology grad student who comes back to London after two years of field work in Africa to write his PhD dissertation to be the main character and the plot to be how he handles the three women who love him. However, in my experience with Barbara Pym novels, plot is really secondary to the characters and the small world they inhabit within the wider macrocosm of London. Pym worked for an anthropological society in the 1950’s and 60’s, so not only does she understand her subject matter, but she also very purposefully observes academics and the middle class as if they were anthropological subjects in their “native habitats”.
Less Than Angels is the third Pym title I have read and I particularly enjoy her understated style and subtle humor. One of Tom’s love interests is Deirdre Swann, anthropology undergraduate who is uncertain of her choice of study. Deirde lives at home in the London suburbs with her mother, older brother and Aunt Rhoda. I loved Rhoda, who sneaks around at night correcting her sister’s housework like refolding towels or setting out the juice glasses for the next morning’s breakfast. Another favorite minor character is the Swanns’ neighbor, Mr. Lydgate, semi-retired from the colonial service, who sometimes sits at home in his study with an African mask over his head, wishing he were back there. “He often thought what a good thing it would be if the wearing of masks or animals' heads could become customary for persons over a certain age. How restful social intercourse would be if the face did not have to assume any expression--the strained look of interest, the simulated delight or surprise, the anxious concern one didn't really feel.”
Were it not for the internet, I doubt I would have ever encountered Pym’s work. I first heard about her from Thomas at the blog Hogglestock in 2011. She is definitely one of those lesser known writers who inspire profound love and devotion when she connects with the right reader.