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Less Than Angels

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  2,330 ratings  ·  236 reviews
In a wonderful twist on her subjects, Pym has written a book that inspects the behavior of a group of anthropologists. She pits them against each other in affairs of the heart and mind.
Paperback, 262 pages
Published 2010 by Virago Press (UK) (first published 1955)
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Average rating 3.94  · 
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Jul 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
Less Than Angels is my introduction to Barbara Pym, and I must say that I found this piece to be very appealing and surprisingly witty. I needed to fulfill a challenge requirement to read a book about anthropology. I dithered for a while in fear of getting myself stuck with a dry, textbook-like experience. Then I happened to stumble across this book, one which tells the story of a group of anthropologists and academicians living in London during the 1950s. Furthermore, I’ve been meaning to read ...more
More complicated and sad than Excellent Women, much better than Jane and Prudence. As grey a world as you'd expect, with people as small as you'd think, but shot through with at least a few characters that try to stay alive- I loved Catherine. The stock secondary younger set were entertaining. A lot more open and biting humor than I'd seen in either of the other two novels I'd read. Less patience as well, in a good way. The leading men were less than inspiring, per usual. Digby is the only one w ...more
Oct 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Less than Angels is a quality, character driven work by Barbara Pym with the plot being ostensibly around academia and anthropologists in London in the 1950s.

We meet the cast over a brief period in their lives where study, graduation and mid-period plans, including overseas expeditions, as well as grants collide with young love, flat sharing, families and backgrounds alongside the lives of experienced lecturers, anthropologists and clerical assistants.

Barbara Pym draws on her own experiences of
Thus far, I have really enjoyed Barbara Pym's work. Mind you, I’ve read only three books, but I've purchased a stack of them to be enjoyed (I hope) in the future. Less Than Angels seems to explore the opposite end of life to Quartet in Autumn, studying university students instead of retiring civil servants. Having been an undergraduate and having taken a number of archaeology & anthropology courses, I remembered some of my own experiences and realize that I was just as green as these young peopl ...more
Diane Barnes
Jan 09, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After having finished two very heavy, very depressing books, I definitely needed something light and amusing, but not insipid. My intelligence was still intact, my spirit just needed uplifting. I was looking at my bookshelves, and this Barbara Pym novel subtly jumped into my lap. I say subtle because that's what Pym excels at. Subtle humor, subtle sarcasm, subtle plot developments. All delivered so gently that the characters sometimes never get it, but the reader is doing fist pumps and loving w ...more
'After all, life isn’t really so unpleasant as some writer make out, is it?' she added hopefully.
'No, perhaps not. It’s comic and sad and indefinite – dull, sometimes, but seldom really tragic or deliriously happy, except when one’s very young.'

'After the war, I got a job at the International African Institute in London. I was mostly engaged in editorial work, smoothing out the written results of other people’s researches, but I learned more than that in the process. I learned how it was p
Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac)
I'm reading Pym's novels in sequence and this, her fourth, a tale of anthropologists and their loved ones in 1950s English suburbia, didn't grab me nearly as much as the first three. Not at first. But at a certain point Pym set her character Catherine, a nonconforming romance novelist, aflame: I was suddenly gobsmacked, wondering just how far the blaze might carry us.
Apr 05, 2013 rated it liked it
Recommended to Bettie by: Ali
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Feb 23, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another very pleasurable comedy by the marvelous Pym. I hesitate to call her novels comfort reads, lest someone think I mean fluffy, sugary, Nicholas Sparksy kind of stuff. But really, they are comforting, almost soothing. It's like immersing yourself into a hot bath scented with Earl Grey, with a glass of sherry on the edge of the tub. Her characters go about their mundane business of academic squabbling (this one is set among anthropologists), heavy tea-drinking and romantic entanglements, and ...more
Jul 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Anna by: Lucy Barnhouse
Shelves: fiction, academia
Compared with the other Barbara Pym novels I’ve read, I found ‘Less Than Angels’ more serious in tone and content. Although the little absurdities of social interaction and snobbery were definitely still present, the narrative often took the form of a stream of consciousness that reminded me of Mrs. Dalloway. There is one rather shocking plot development, and the whole felt more raw than, say, Jane and Prudence. The running theme of anthropologist-anthropologise-thyself was very astutely done. B ...more
Aug 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
4.5 stars

The back of this book describes Barbara Pym as "the wittiest of novelists." I could not agree more. Every one of her characters is at once a caricature and a living, breathing person whose feelings were as real as my own.

Less Than Angels focuses on a group of anthropologists, mostly students, who are competing for research money while moving in and out of relationships. Tom Mallow is the leading man, if you could call him that, and is living with a woman named Catharine Oliphant, a rom
Nov 11, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4.5 stars.

Excellent writing and the satire about anthropologists was a lot of fun, though the book is more about the relations between men & women in my opinion. I would guess that this is semi-autobiographical based on the little I know about Pym's life... maybe that is why she can hit the mark so accurately!
May 27, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, tbr-list
I had forgotten how funny and wry Barbara Pym's fiction is. I started marking particularly good passages in this story about English anthropologists and a writer, but there were too many--bad for underlining, but delightful reading.

"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, t
Jun 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
This one is full of anthropologists, and what could be better? And then there is also wonderful Catherine Oliphant, who is a writer, but as Pym makes clearer and clearer in each of her books novelists are like anthropologists in that they too study and document the human condition. Catherine lives with Tom, who has been away for two years doing his fieldwork in Africa. When he returns, he moves back in, but theirs is a relationship that is more comfortable than passionate. Tom soon becomes inter ...more
Nov 25, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Loved, loved, loved it! I was a bit afraid when I read Jane and Prudence and found myself disliking the characters so much, but the characters in this one were once again written with the compassionate detachment that I'd appreciated in Pym's first two. I think this is my favorite so far. Catherine Oliphant's such a lovable character, and Digby and Marks, too.

I'm appreciating how the separate novels are beginning to be so connected--a character from a previous one pops up in passing reference, a
Jan 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
What a joy it is to return to the world of Barbara Pym, a place where the most difficult decision anyone has to make is what to serve the new vicar when he comes over for tea. (If only real life were like that, everything would be so much simpler.) While clergymen are in relatively short supply in Pym’s 1955 novel Less Than Angels, there are plenty of anthropologists to be found, drawing once again on the author’s own experiences of life at the International African Institute in London where she ...more
Jun 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"If we lamented the decay of the great civilizations of the past, he thought, should we not also regret the dreary leveling down of our own?"

Less Than Angels

I couldn’t put the novel down and I hated the realization that I had finished. I’m a slow reader and Ms Pym’s work seemed to have the ability to slow me down more. Her style is a quiet, unobtrusive nearly a meandering float down the river. Yet right away beneath the think bottom of our boat, do we feel the strong current in her river of word
Pym is known for her slice of life British stories. This did not disappoint. Written in 1955, it's a satirical look at the life of professors of anthropology in a small college, close to either Cambridge or Oxford, I forget which. Pym cleverly flips things so the reader is analyzing the lives of the anthropologists. She manages to bring up missionaries' role, women's struggle for equality, middle class norms, and everyone's struggle for a sense of place.
Nov 05, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: uk, a
I found "Less Than Angels" somewhat disappointing, as compared to other novels by Barbara Pym I've read. I had trouble actually liking or identifying with any of the characters. Quite well written, of course, but lacking this "je ne sais quoi", which makes a great book for me. Three and a half stars.
Now this was a lovely surprise. I had fully expected this to be another 3 star like, the same as the other three Pym novels I have read, but it was better. I didn't fully realize that for a few chapters, and naughty Goodreads has removed my reading history because I chose to change the shelves on the review page rather than from my home page, so it's impossible to see that I read this over 4-5 weeks for an ongoing book discussion.

There is a book summary, so you want to know that sort of informat
Jan 19, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
"…though life was sometimes too strong and raw and must be made palatable by fancy, as tough meat may be made tender by mincing" (7).
"...and secondly because it was helpful to missionaries and government officials to know as much as possible about the people they sought to evangelize or govern" (15).
"And so it came about that, like many other well-meaning people, they worried not so much about the dreadful things themselves as about their own inability to worry about them" (41).
"He often thought
Mar 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
Less than Angels follows the lives, loves and fortunes of a group of young and not so young anthropologists. This is very familiar territory for Barbara Pym, she herself worked in The African Institute in London, and at the centre of this novel is an anthropological research centre.
One of the darlings of the centre is Tom Mallow –“out in the field” as the novel opens, who lives with Catherine Oliphant a writer when he returns. Deirdre Swann is just nineteen, starting out on her anthropological
Sep 12, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011-reads
This is the second Barbara Pym novel I've read, and it did not disappoint. The main characters - Catherine, Tom, Deidre, Mark, Digby, and Miss Clovis - are all connected in the beginning of the novel, by their study of or involvement with someone studying anthropology. The two primary characters, Catherine and Tom, live together at the beginning of the novel. Tom is an anthropologist, spending a lot of his time researching a tribe in Africa, and living with Catherine when he is back in England. ...more
Sep 12, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm currently re-reading much of Barbara Pym and really feel that the impact of her writing is best experienced by reading a group of her novels, rather than just one.

I perused some other reviewers comments on her books and gulped as one reader called her (essentially) an early Chick Lit writer; to me, that entirely misses the point of her writing. Like Jane Austen, with whom she has been compared, Pym was an unmarried woman, familiar with the society of a small village. She had a very lively cu
Aug 19, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: this-england
If there were expectations here of savage satire, witheringly pointed repartee, cleverly observed takedowns, let's remove those right away. For some reason, all the summaries and blurbs on Less Than Angels set you up for a devilish puncturing of social mores, maybe a kind of "Lucky Jim" amongst the anthropology set. But no such luck.

We seem to have a bedsit Renewal Of Purpose tale here, and it's sad to say it but a Women's Monthly humor story full of near-misses, tender moments and bittersweet r
Oct 28, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: historical
A snapshot of the lives of various people, predominantly middle class and all connected to an anthropology school in some way. Some are rather tiresome, like Tom, writing his thesis and strangely attractive to various women. I absolutely loved one--Catherine Oliphant, a writer of magazine articles who loves Victorian poetry. And I became rather fond of others as their characters were revealed slowly over the course of this novel.

I don't know 1950s Britain in the least but this felt so true, lik
Jaya Gulhaugen
Aug 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm on page 206. Here's a quote I really like: Catherine is thinking this after Tom's aunt has come to visit her: The day was coming to its end, and although it had been tiring and upsetting it had at least been full and that, she supposed, was all to the good. Pain, amusement, surprise, resignation, were all woven together into a kind of fabric whose colour and texture she could hardly visualize as yet. Something with little lumps on it, she thought, knobs or knops as it said in the fashion mag ...more
Jan 05, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I want to step back in time and savor this book...just opened it and am starting to read!
OK, finished it today and I found it an extremely pleasant book to read. The plot is basically simple, involving everyday occurances--some tragedy, you could say but the way it's written makes you feel you are there sharing every aspect of it! I loved all of the characters also, especially Catherine!
Stephanie McCarthy
Outstanding. I'm constantly amazed by Pym's ability to take mundane, commonplace situations and create magic. The beauty of her writing is in the detail, and since this was her last book I was fascinated by the themes of illness, death and dying. The fact that she knew she was dying when she wrote it, and that it remains free from pathos, speaks highly of her abilities as a writer.
Nov 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
We're in the familiar world (underworld?) of anthropology again, but with the added spice of Catherine Oliphant who writes stories for women's magazines, as well as several other wanna-be anthropologists who turn out not to "wanna-be." Plus, we NEARLY have a happy ending! But not so happy as to be un-Pym. :-)
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After studying English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, Barbara Pym served in the Women's Royal Naval Service during World War II. From 1950 to 1961, she published 6 novels, but her 7th was declined by the publisher due to a change in the reading public's tastes.

The turning point for Pym came with a famous article in the 1975 Times Literary Supplement in which two prominent names, Lord David Cecil a

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