Barbara Pym: Less Than Angels


This is Barbara Pym’s centenary year, and my own special celebration is to read or re-read all her books. My most recent read is her Less Than Angels, and rather than writing a review explaining what the storyline is about, I will simply share some of the passages that I enjoyed the most. In each of her books, I find quotes that have to be saved, either because they are so wise or because they are clever and humorous. I love both.

The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things, she decided, wondering how many writers and philosophers had said this before her, the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.


Conversation at real life parties is not usually very witty or worth recording, and where members of the same profession are gathered together it is likely to be incomprehensible to all but themselves.


She was at yet too young and inexperienced to be quite sure that one can love and criticize at the same time.


Tea is more healthy than alcohol and much cheaper, she reflected, and there must be thousands of people who know this.


She was as yet too young to have learned that women of her aunt’s age could still be interested in men; she would have many years to go before the rather dreadful suspicion came to her that one probably never does cease to be interested.


What odd turns life does take!’ And how much more comfortable it sometimes was to observe it from a distance, to look down from an upper window, as it were, as the anthropologists did.

Pym’s way of telling a story is slower-paced and perhaps “quieter” than many of us are used to these days, but as I read her books, I find myself slowing down and enjoying the time spent with her characters and in her villages.


3 thoughts on “Barbara Pym: Less Than Angels

  1. Nan

    Such a beautiful post. I do like quiet and slow in my books, but I’ve had the oddest experience. I thought I loved BP. I began with Excellent Women over thirty years ago, and then I didn’t read her at all until Jane and Prudence, and An Unsuitable Attachment both of which I wrote about on the blog. Really liked both of them, so of course signed on for this BP reading week, and was astounded to find that I couldn’t read her anymore. I couldn’t understand it, but there it was. I tried both Some Tame Gazelle and Crampton Hodnet, and had to put them both down. I was actually bored. How is this possible? I sure don’t know.


  2. Robin Post author

    Thanks, Nan. I had some moments with Less Than Angels when it seemed to go from slow motion into no motion, but just as I began to feel bored, she picked it up and took it somewhere else so it kept me going. Also, the last two books I read by her, I really didn’t have time nor energy to be reading at all, so I read them in little snatches of time and that seemed to work better. I feel like there’s a lot in her books that I don’t fully understand because I’ve never spent time in that culture, (except in books), and her stories are definitely a cultural immersion.

    When I described them as “quiet” stories, I was really trying to describe the effect they had on me…I have had to “slow myself down” to read them, and not approach them with my usual 90 miles per hour reading approach. And I’ve shifted my expectations because I realized they aren’t as much about action as about reaction and nuance.

    What I do really like about her is how she manages her stories. In Less Than Angels (which I consider a lesser work than the others I’ve read) I was struck by how she manages time in the story. She would be telling a story within the story and then she would suddenly jump to another time. It wasn’t jumpy or haphazard, but quite startling and effective. It was an impressive glimpse of the author at work, and I enjoyed it.

    I can certainly understand, though, what you described about your experiences with her work, i.e. the boredom. They don’t grab, and sometimes they don’t even hold on, but I have become quite fascinated with the how-she-tells-her-stories, and with her wicked little sense of humor, and I continue to find poignant observations of the human experience that ring true to me.


  3. LesNE

    I’ve never read anything by Pym, but somewhere along the way I wound up with a copy of A Few Green Leaves. Did my mom send it to me? Did I get it at a library sale? Who knows! What I’d really like to know is if this is a good one to start with? I do love the cover art! 🙂

    Lovely passages, Robin. Something about them reminds me of Rosamunde Pilcher. Oh, I really should reread The Shell Seekers. I loved that novel dearly.



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