(Firstly I should say SPOILER ALERT, as I will be discussing a major event in the plot here!)

It’s April (for anyone who hasn’t noticed!) and I’ve reached book 4 in my monthly read-along of the Barbara Pym novels (we LibraryThing members are celebrating her centenary, if anyone has missed this!) “Less Than Angels” is this month’s book, a tale of love and academia, set in the world of anthropology.

This science is, of course, not making its debut in Pym’s fiction here, as several anthropologists featured in her second novel, “Excellent Women” (and in fact some of Pym’s earlier characters re-appear here – a recurring trend in her work, I’m finding!) However, the focus is firmly on academia in LTA, with a large cast of professors, students, priests and excellent women. But Pym throws her net a little wider this time and we have stifling suburban families and willowy young women wishing to break out as well.

As for the plot – well, probably our main character is Catherine Oliphant, a writer of short stories and pieces for women’s magazines who lives with Tom Mallow, an anthropologist who is just returning from the field. Catherine and Tom’s relationship is a strange one – not seemingly founded on any great passion, but one which they have just slipped into. We are left wondering early on quite what they have in common as there does not seem to be much of a meeting of minds. There is a side plot of a number of the students applying for grants for fieldwork, and also the mystery of Alaric Lydgate, who has returned from the field but never done anything with his notes and lives as a recluse. Then Tom meets young student Deirdre Swan, who falls in love with him and becomes the catalyst for the breakup of his relationship with Catherine.

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I have to say that the break-up was very well depicted; not dramatic or spectacular, just sad, somewhat inevitable and coming across as almost happening without great provocation. Pym portrays the pain and confusion of the ending of a relationship well and I wonder again how autobiographical this particular book is, because this part of the story is very convincing. However, LTA didn’t entirely succeed for me as a novel for a number of reasons.

The plot goes in too many directions and the various strands do not really cohere. There are long sections on Tom, Catherine and their associates’ love lives which is then abruptly dropped when Tom goes off to Africa, and we then have chapters on the grant funding weekend where Mark and Digby, the two major student characters, compete for the chance of a grant. Tom’s death is almost thrown in as an afterthought, a plot device to get rid of him and allow the rest of the characters to move on to the next phase of events. Catherine’s attraction to, and involvement with, Alaric Lydgate is somehow unconvincing and I felt that he wasn’t really developed enough as a personality.

I also found myself wondering about Pym’s motivation with this novel. Her previous books have told a good tale, but I felt with an underlying commentary about the role of women, the kind of relationships they have with men and with each other, and a funny look at the worlds of churchgoers, anthropologists and excellent women. But I didn’t find these elements here at all, really – the book came across as a fairly broad sideswipe at academia and the science of anthropology itself (perhaps most obviously in the burning of Alaric’s notes at the end in an almost pagan ceremony!). Pym seems to be implying that it’s a fairly worthless pursuit, followed by those with no wish to engage in real life itself, but simply to observe it from outside – an accusation that could in fact be hurled at novelists, although Pym allows Catherine (her alter ego?) to experience love and loss and so involve herself in living.

“Your people wait for you,” said Catherine. “How soothing it will be to get away from all this complexity of personal relationships to the simplicity of a primitive tribe, whose only complications are in their kinship sructure and rules of land tenure, which you can observe with the anthropologist’s calm detachment.”

I did wonder whether any of the happenings in LTA were based on Pym’s own life and experiences, and if the book was perhaps a kind of catharsis – no doubt I shall find out if I read a biography! Certainly, she is critical of anthropology, and when Tom visits his family in the country, his comparisons of the rituals and traditions there were the cultures in so-called primitive countries is very sharp (and the above quote is also relevant here too).

“A very curious sound, which it is impossible to reproduce here, then came from her. Has she been in the company of ordinary people, it might have been supposed that something had gone down the wrong way and that she was choking, but here nobody took any particular notice of her or Father Gemini when he cried excitedly, “No, no, it is this!” and proceeded to emit a sound which would have appeared to the initiated exactly the same as Miss Lydgate’s choking noise.”

There *is* something of a subtext in this book, which is that of the rejection of the traditional and the suburban way of life. Deirdre is desperate to break out of the confines of her family, and aspires to a lifestyle similar to that of Catherine. She finds the prospect of settling down with Bernard, a reliable young man with a steady income, terribly dull.

“There are few experiences more boring or painful for a woman than an evening spent in the company of one man when she is longing to be with another, and that evening Bernard’s dullness seemed to have a positive quality about it so that it was almost a physical agony, like the dentist’s drill pressing on a sensitive tooth.”

Conversely Catherine, who has lost out on family life through the death of her parents when she was young, finds considerable comfort staying with the Swans after Tom’s death, although she ultimately rejects this way of life as a long-term option, preferring to reclaim her independence. But Pym I think is a little ambiguous in her feelings here, unsure as to whether family life or the single life is best.

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This possibly all sounds a little negative, and I did enjoy LTA a lot – there are enough examples of Pym’s clever writing and dry wit to lift it – but I didn’t engage with the story or the characters in the same way as I have her other novels and ended up feeling slightly let down at the end. However, not -so-good Pym is still streets ahead of most modern novels I look at, and maybe I shall get on better with next month’s book!