Catherine Oliphant writes for women’s magazines and lives comfortably with anthropologist Tom Mallow—although she’s starting to wonder if they’ll ever get married. Then Tom drops his bombshell: He’s leaving her for a nineteen-year-old student.
Though stunned by Tom’s betrayal, Catherine quickly becomes fascinated by another anthropologist, Alaric Lydgate, a reclusive eccentric recently returned from Africa. As Catherine starts to weigh her options, she must figure out who she is and what she really wants.
With a lively cast of characters and a witty look at the insular world of academia, this novel from the much-loved author of Excellent Women and other modern classics is filled with poignant, playful observations about the traits that separate us from our anthropological forebears—far fewer than we may imagine.
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Less Than Angels
By Barbara Pym
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1955 Barbara Pym
All rights reserved.
A CONFUSED IMPRESSION OF ENGLISH tourists shuffling round a church in Ravenna, peering at mosaics, came to Catherine Oliphant as she sat brooding over her pot of tea. But then she realized that of course she wasn't in Italy, and the shuffling figures weren't tourists but men and women from nearby offices, coming away from the counter with their trays and settling down at the tables with hardly a glance at the mosaics on the walls. These were large bright peacocks with spreading tails, each one occupying a little alcove, almost like a side chapel in a cathedral. But why didn't the tray-carriers make some obeisance as they passed the peacocks, or lay offerings of buns, poached eggs and salads on the ground before them? Catherine wondered. Obviously the cult of peacock worship, if it had ever existed, had fallen into disuse.
She poured herself another cup of tea which had become dark and stewed, as she preferred it. She felt no guilt, sitting idly at her table in the window, watching the sun streaming through the amethyst and gold stained-glass borders, while everyone around her gulped and hurried to catch trains home, for she earned her living writing stories and articles for women's magazines and had to draw her inspiration from everyday life, though life itself was sometimes too strong and raw and must be made palatable by fancy, as tough meat may be made tender by mincing.
Catherine was small and thin and thought of herself, with a certain amount of complacency, as looking like Jane Eyre or a Victorian child whose head has been cropped because of scarlet fever. It was natural for her to look a little ragged and untidy, and the fashions of the day, when women in their thirties could dress like girls of twenty in flat- heeled shoes and loose jackets, their hair apparently cut with nail scissors, suited her very well.
Looking out of the window and down into the street, she saw the rush-hour crowds beginning to move towards the bus-stops. Soon they began to take on a human look, to become separate individuals who might even be known to her. This seemed a good deal more likely, though less romantic, in London than in Paris, where it was said that if you sat long enough at a certain cafe on the pavement, everybody you had ever known or loved would pass by eventually. Surely though, Catherine thought, peering down, it couldn't be quite everyone, that would be far too emotionally exhausting.
On this spring evening she knew that she couldn't possibly see Tom, her present love, because he was in Africa studying his tribe, but it was odd that when the moment did come, the familiar faces in the crowd should be those of two senior anthropologists she had once met at a learned gathering he had taken her to. They seemed to be walking in the wrong direction, against the hurrying stream, and Catherine would hardly have remembered them if they had not been rather an unusual pair, like comics in a music-hall turn. Professor Fairfax was tall and thin with a rather shrunken-looking head; it was a strange coincidence that the particular tribe he had studied went in for head-shrinking and his students had not been slow to point it out. Dr. Vere, his companion, was small and rotund, the perfect antithesis.
Where could they be going at this time, in the wrong direction? Catherine wondered. Was it perhaps significant that two anthropologists, whose business was to study behaviour in human societies, should find themselves pushing against the stream? She hardly knew how to follow up her observation and made no attempt to do so, only asking herself again where they could be going. Curiosity has its pains as well as its pleasures, and the bitterest of its pains must surely be the inability to follow up everything to its conclusion. Professor Fairfax and Dr. Vere continued to push their way through the crowds, then they disappeared into a side street and were lost from view. Catherine finished her tea and stood up reluctantly to go.
Down in the street a taxi slowed down opposite to where she was waiting to cross over. She could not have known that the distinguished-looking elderly man inside it, stroking his small silver beard, was Felix Byron Mainwaring, one of the older professors of anthropology, now living in retirement in the country.
The taxi turned into the side street and Professor Mainwaring leaned forward in pleasurable anticipation. He told the driver to stop before he had reached the number he really wanted, so that he could see the house from the outside. He tried to imagine how it would strike his colleagues, approaching in their shabby motor-cars or on foot, laden with the paraphernalia of their academic calling, raincoats, brief-cases, files of notes, from which they seemed so unwilling to be parted even on social occasions. Would they raise their eyes to the beautiful Georgian façade—would they even know that it was Georgian?—and envy his skill in having persuaded Minnie Foresight that some, at least, of her late husband's wealth could not be more nobly used than in founding a new anthropological library and research centre and endowing a number of fellowships for young men and women? Certainly they could not have done as much. He remembered the first-class railway carriage and the distant church spires of Leamington Spa seen in the greenish light of a spring evening last year, and Mrs. Foresight—it was difficult to think of her as Minnie which was surely an unworthy name—leaning back against the white lace antimacassar, her large blue eyes full of admiration and bewilderment while he talked and explained and persuaded ... Felix was almost chuckling to himself at the memory of it and gave the driver an unnecessarily large tip as he got out of his taxi.
Fairfax and Vere, trudging along on the opposite side of the street, were talking loudly as they approached the house. Each had a penetrating voice—William Vere because, as a refugee, he had been forced to build a new life in a strange country and make his impression in a foreign language, and Gervase Fairfax because he was the youngest of a large family and had always had to assert himself. Now they were discussing their students, by no means unkindly, for there was a friendly rivalry between them in getting the young people fixed up with research grants which would take them into the 'field'—Africa, Malaya, Borneo or any remote island where there remained a tribe still to be studied.
'Number twenty-three—this must be it,' said Fairfax shortly.
'Yes, I think so.'
They made no comment on the elegance of the house because they did not even glance at it, except to see the number on the door. They were curious to see the place—Felix's Folly, they called it among themselves—but they had both had a hard day and needed a drink.
'I hope everything is ready inside,' said Fairfax, glancing at his watch. 'It's a bad thing to arrive too early, you know. I hope Esther Clovis and her helpers have been cutting sandwiches, or perhaps Felix will have been wise enough to leave that side of it to a catering firm.'
'I suppose he would hardly concern himself with the domestic side of things,' said Vere. 'But we must hope for the best.' He had told his wife that he would not be needing a large meal that evening.
Inside the house there was plenty to eat and drink, but a crisis had arisen. The library had already been open to readers for some days and at this particular moment it happened to be full of young anthropologists, some of them mere students, who had not been invited to the party, which was to take place in the library itself.
Miss Clovis and her friend Miss Lydgate, who was an expert in African languages, had been in and out of the room with plates of eatables in their hands several times, thinking that surely at the sight of food, unexpected in any kind of library, the visitors would realize that something was afoot and make a move to go. But they continued to read books and make notes.
'I shall have to take action,' said Miss Clovis firmly. 'Come, Gertrude,' she added to her friend, 'we will confront them yet again.'
Six faces glanced up from the long table as the two women entered the room. Miss Lydgate was exceptionally tall with white hair, her garments seeming to flutter round her like draperies, while Miss Clovis was of stocky build with roughly cut short hair and tweedy clothes.
'Good afternoon,' she called out in a ringing tone. 'I am so glad to see that you are taking advantage of this splendid new library so soon. There is really something quite special about it, you know.' She paused, expecting some kind of an answer.
It came from Brandon J. Pirbright, a short dapper young man, elegantly dressed in lavender grey with a spotless white nylon shirt and bow tie. 'I guess it must be, Miss Clovis,' he said. 'We haven't been offered refreshments anywhere else, have we, Melanie?'
'Why no,' said his wife, a dark fierce-looking woman, some inches taller than her husband and less elegantly dressed. 'I think it's a lovely idea.'
'It is a celebration of something?' asked another reader, Jean-Pierre le Rossignol, a good-looking young Frenchman, wearing a suit of biscuit-coloured corduroy velvet.
'Well, I suppose you might say that it is,' admitted Miss Clovis remembering that as well as the Foresight money they had also received a generous grant from the United States and a legacy from a distinguished French anthropologist. Perhaps, after all, it would be a gracious gesture to include these young people in the party. 'A few people are coming in to drink sherry,' she said. 'I should be very pleased if you would join us.'
Miss Clovis now glanced rather doubtfully at the other three readers who had looked up expectantly on hearing her words. They were a girl of nineteen, Deirdre Swan, and two young men, Mark Penfold and Digby Fox. The last two were close friends and at first sight looked rather alike in their shabby tweed jackets and grey flannel trousers; but while Mark's hair was dark and inclined to be curly, Digby's was fairer and straighter and he was also thought to have a nicer disposition. To Miss Clovis they were just two of the many undistinguished-looking students with whom her work brought her into contact; solid, hard- working, worthy and just a little dull. But let them come too, she thought with an impulse of generosity, as representatives of the hundreds who will use this library. They certainly could not afford to dress as elegantly as the American and the Frenchman, but they were none the worse for that and she had never been one to judge too much by outward appearances. Indeed, she hardly could have been when she obviously paid so little attention to her own.
Esther Clovis had formerly been secretary of a Learned Society, which post she had recently left because of some disagreement with the President. It is often supposed that those who live and work in academic or intellectual circles are above the petty disputes that vex the rest of us, but it does sometimes seem as if the exalted nature of their work makes it necessary for them to descend occasionally and to refresh themselves, as it were, by squabbling about trivialities. The subject of Miss Clovis's quarrel with the President was known only to a privileged few and even those knew no more than that it had something to do with the making of tea. Not that the making of tea can ever really be regarded as a petty or trivial matter and Miss Clovis did seem to have been seriously at fault. Hot water from the tap had been used, the kettle had not been quite boiling, the teapot had not been warmed ... whatever the details, there had been words, during the course of which other things had come out, things of a darker nature. Voices had been raised and in the end Miss Clovis had felt bound to hand in her resignation. She had been very lucky to be appointed as a kind of caretaker in the new research centre, for it happened that Professor Mainwaring, in whose hands the appointment lay, disliked the President of the Learned Society. Esther Clovis might not be much of a tea-maker but she had considerable organizing ability and knew how to act in a crisis, as at this moment, confronted with the anthropologists who would not go.
'You will join us too?' she beamed, rather alarming in her geniality. 'We must have the younger generation represented. Mrs. Foresight will be interested to see what her money is likely to be spent on,' she added obscurely.
'Thank you,' said Mark, who was the first to find himself capable of speech. 'We should like to very much. It's almost a good thing we are so very much not dressed for a party,' he murmured to his friend Digby, 'then Mrs. Foresight will see that our need is very real.'
Digby smoothed his hair, glanced indifferently at his grubby hands and made some slight adjustment to his tie. 'I suppose we'd better put these away then,' he said, bundling his notes into his brief-case.
Deirdre Swan, who supposed that she too must be included in Miss Clovis's invitation, wished that she had made her escape earlier. She was a tall thin girl with large brown eyes and a rather lost expression; she did not always quite understand what she was doing and was beginning to wonder if it had been a mistake to embark on the study of anthropology rather than history or English literature. Now she stood in a corner, as if trying to merge herself with the rows of books behind her, watching the arrival of the guests with a kind of fearful wonder.
'Ah, Felix!' shrieked Miss Clovis, as Professor Mainwaring entered the room, 'so glad to see you nice and early!'
'My dear Esther, I have only just beaten the others to it. Academic toilers do not understand the art of being fashionably late. If it says six o'clock on the invitation cards you can be sure that my colleagues will arrive at that time.'
His forecast was accurate and the hands of the library clock were barely pointing to six when a mass of people seemed almost to hurl itself through the door. First came Professor Vere and Dr. Fairfax, still talking loudly. They were followed closely by Father Gemini, a missionary and linguistic expert, whose bushy beard and layers of fusty black garments seemed too much for the warm April evening. Behind him came others, too numerous to describe separately, men, and women too, who had all achieved some kind of eminence in their particular sphere. A few stood out by reason of their odd appearance, but the majority were reassuringly ordinary, the kind of people one might see any day on a bus or in the underground. Bringing up the rear were a small benevolent-looking man, bowed down by the weight of two suit-cases which appeared to be filled with lead, and a tall thin man walking with a catlike tread. After them there was a pause and a gap in the procession of guests, and then a worried-looking man in dark jacket and striped trousers, who was something in the Colonial Office, came in, peering from side to side. He disliked sherry which he thought 'livery', was rather frightened of Miss Clovis, and was most anxious to get back to his garden in North Dulwich, but he had never ignored the call of duty.
'Well, well, Comus and his rabble rout!' cried Professor Mainwaring, clapping his hands. The man from the Colonial Office dived quickly into a corner, but the Professor did not seem to expect any comment on his remark. 'What a pity all our friends cannot be with us today,' he went on, almost in a sarcastic tone. 'My dear friend Tyrell Todd is at this very moment, perhaps, hacking his way through a Congo forest in search of the ever elusive pygmy. Apfelbaum is standing on his head in the Antipodes ...' here his invention failed him and he drained his glass of sherry with a gesture. Then he was back at the door, welcoming the guest of honour, Mrs. Foresight.
'Ah, Minnie,' he said, bringing out the name almost as if he were savouring its comic flavour, 'this is a great occasion!'
Excerpted from Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym. Copyright © 1955 Barbara Pym. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A wonderful read but read the author's "Excellent Women" first. ~*~LEB~*~
My impression of the first 50 pages of Less Than Angels was that it's plot was very slow-moving, like a wide river with almost no perceptible action. Indeed, the first 50 pages are the reader's surface introduction to at least fifteen different characters and the very beginnings of a plot. Less Than Angels is a community of contrasts. Professors of Anthropology mingle with fledgling students. The aged and retired cast a skeptical eye on the young and impulsive. Frenchmen stand baffled by the British. At the center of the story is Tom Mallow, a distinguished yet vain anthropologist caught between a relationship with a sophisticated older journalist and a younger wide-eyed student. This is an excellent study of English culture (lots of tea-times and interesting meals) along with the typical social graces and faux pas.