Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Less Than Angels – Barbara Pym

I loved this book and thought it would be so easy to write about – which in a way it has been– I’ve written literally thousands of words about it, deleted them, started again and so on. I’m not sure why it is but the best ones always seem to be the hardest to write about. Anyway here goes...

I wonder if in thirty years time I’ll be reading books from the 1990’s with as much enthusiasm as I currently read books written in the 1950’s. I can just about imagine Bridget Jones being reissued by Virago with an introduction explaining how it was a best seller in its day neglected ever since. I have mixed feelings about Ms Jones, and slightly less mixed but not very positive feelings about her imitators, and yet she may just age better than some of her more literary contemporaries, only time will tell and its part of the reason that the process by which a book becomes a ‘classic’ fascinates me.

Barbara Pym is a great example of this, she was popular in her day, and then not, rediscovered, almost forgotten again, and now is having her Virago moment (a well deserved moment I hasten to add). She never deserved to be neglected, but seeing as she was I wondered why now was considered the moment to reassess her. The answer in this case seems to be that the (Virago) stars aligned and we were lucky enough to get Pym back.

She has been described as the Jane Austen of the fifties and I think of all her books I’ve read ‘Less Than Angels’ is the one where that comparison makes most sense to me. It would be ‘Persuasion’ Jane (which is quoted) because Pym’s territory is that of the disappointed woman and she is mistress of it. So far ‘Less Than Angels’ is by far and away my favourite of her books. I had to stop myself from scribbling all over it with biro to mark the bits I particularly liked; I will be reading it again, and again after that I should think – I feel like one reading only scratched the surface of what might be in there.

This is a book of men and women – the women are imperfect but affectionately drawn, the men are imperfect and somewhat less affectionately drawn; they mostly seem to exist to live off of and be cared for by their women folk and none of them come out of it particularly well. I read through with mounting indignation at the way women are viewed and treated – Pym’s anger seemed to burn off the page – but I want to be sure it’s her anger and not mine. I think it’s her anger; the observations seem sharper and the humour drier this time - the introduction suggests that there’s a strongly autobiographical element which makes it interesting.

So many of her female characters seem compliant with their fate, accepting of it and determined to make the best out of not always promising material, ‘Less Than Angels’ is the first hint I’ve had that this might change (in my reading so far; I keep getting dark hints and promises from hardcore Pym fans of shocking things to come). I could easily imagine Catherine (the heroine here) saying enough’s enough. As it is she decides after being let down by one man to pursue another, not in a terribly predatory way, but certainly with quiet determination after deciding she’s not ready to become one of those ‘excellent women’ who turn to good works and the church for their solace. A thoroughly absorbing and rewarding read this one.


  1. I would rate this one near the top of the Barbara Pym's too. There were chuckle aloud moments in it for me. Everything to do with Miss Clovis and also the weekend away were gently hilarious.

  2. I love the idea of Virago republishing Bridget Jones in the future - I think they probably will! I did enjoy this barbara pym, and what a lovely collection of Pyms there are now in VMC editions.

  3. Merenia - it was the idea of daughters growing so tall despite a labour government which delighted me the most. It's a gem of a book.

  4. It's a wonderful novel. Although I think that Pym's gifts are everywhere, if I had to choose, anything which features a glimpse of Esther Clovis is well worth a read. Catherine is a delightful heroine.