Brigid Brophy Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brigid (Antonia) Brophy 1929–7 August 1995

Anglo-Irish novelist, critic, essayist, journalist, short story writer, and dramatist.

Brophy presents unconventional and controversial views with outspoken wit. In general, Brophy's work portrays modern society as too complacent and overly rationalistic and she proposes freedom from traditional middle-class values.

With her first novel, Hackenfeller's Ape (1953), Brophy won praise for her wit, technical control, and command of language. This novel depicts a scientist whose attempts to civilize an ape result in problems both for himself and the ape. Her novel Flesh (1962) examines eccentricities of human behavior by depicting the transformation of an introverted young man into a hedonist. These novels, along with The Snow Ball (1964), a comedy of manners that parallels themes in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, established Brophy as a critic of middle-class morality and hypocrisy. Like Bernard Shaw, whom she has acknowledged as a major influence, Brophy writes social criticism with the moral intent of promoting a better world. Brophy's style has been compared with the satirical elegance of Ronald Firbank, who was the subject of Brophy's critical biography The Prancing Novelist (1973).

In the early 1960s, Brophy began to express her social views in works of nonfiction, with mixed results. Black Ship to Hell (1962), a sweeping historical analysis of the human impulse toward violence, is heavily influenced by Freudian theories. The collected essays and reviews in Don't Never Forget (1966) are drawn from her work on various English periodicals. The book that provoked the greatest response was Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without (1967), in which she collaborated with her husband, art historian Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne of London Magazine. While critics agreed that a few of the "classics" debunked in this study were unworthy of the high literary status they enjoyed, they also derided the trio's reliance on facetious analysis based on subjective opinion.

Brophy's later fiction is marked by experiments with language, structure, and narrative. Of these novels, In Transit (1969) and Palace without Chairs (1978) are considered most significant. While critics continued to compliment Brophy as a witty and clever novelist, many were of the opinion that her experimentalism intruded upon the themes of these novels. Brophy's recent work, The Prince and the Wild Geese (1982), is a commentary accompanying a series of watercolors by a nineteenth-century Russian prince that depicts his unsuccessful attempts to woo a young Irish woman. Set in Italy, The Prince and the Wild Geese is a comedy of manners that contains the wit and social criticism that many critics have acknowledged to be Brophy's major strength as a writer.

(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Crown Princess is a book of six stories by a write still in her early twenties. The best of them show exceptional acuteness and penetrative power, and a wit which is unobtrusive but constant. "He was visible all round, like a statue on a revolving pedestal," Miss Brophy observes of an actor whose public existence is conducted with an egoism so perfect that it excludes the possibility of any inner life at all…. Miss Brophy's approach is quite unlike that of her fashionable British contemporaries who adhere to a cult of feminine sensibility; it is more nearly related to that of such tough and sharp American talents as those of Miss Mary McCarthy and Miss Eleanor Clark. Her material is generally the contrast...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Gene Baro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wit at once gentle and penetrating, a style both pleasant and forceful, and the ability to render clearly a variety of complex personal and social situations and to elucidate their meanings—these characteristics mark the work of Brigid Brophy. The six stories of "The Crown Princess" are in a most civilized tradition of English writing; restrained, sometimes muted, they are nevertheless richly perceptive and suggestive of difficult human truths.

One reason for this is that Miss Brophy is able to relate a limited subject to the larger social and moral issues that surround and shape it. Such a story as "Mrs. Mandford's Drawing Room," which deals with the attritions of wartime upon the manners and...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Pearl Kazin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brigid Brophy is a very young and admirably industrious British writer. She is possessed of a talented, imaginative intelligence, and shows [in "The Crown Princess and Other Stories"] considerable courage in her choice and manipulation of subject: a Graustarkian princess who is mad about the movies and pores over "fan" magazines all day long; a flamboyantly continental Rumanian lady who, having married into a British family, tries vainly and absurdly in wartime England to out-British the British;…; a young female writer who, through friendship with a number of older authors, searches out the true means of judging literature.

All this makes for an interesting list of contents; but each of her...

(The entire section is 308 words.)

Dan Wickenden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beyond the haunting title of Brigid Brophy's second novel lies a tale as strange and original as the one she told three years ago in "Hackenfeller's Ape." Like that small, remarkable book, "The King of a Rainy Country" is youthful, glittering, a little perverse; and it is written in the same immaculate prose.

The narrator, Susan, is a nineteen-year-old Londoner who takes a job as secretary to one Finkelheim (born Gilchrist), a dealer in publishers' remainders and pornography; and who in a manner of speaking shares a dingy flat with a youth named Neale. Susan and Neale are a pair of romantics, self-conscious, precious, intermittently exasperating; but they are, after all, very young, and Miss Brophy...

(The entire section is 262 words.)

Charles J. Rolo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The King of a Rainy Country] introduced me to a young English writer. Brigid Brophy, who is well endowed with the quality which is all-important to the novelist and is currently in short supply—a distinctive individuality. Her way of seeing, feeling, and thinking—and therefore of writing—is decidedly her own.

Miss Brophy has described her theme as "the romantic temperament," and the story in which she develops it is a curious sort of comedy….

Taken as a whole the novel is far from being a success: it is somewhat disjointed, lacking in coherence, and at times not sufficiently convincing. But it has, throughout, qualities which I found extremely attractive. The prose...

(The entire section is 205 words.)

Maurice Richardson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This huge rambling essay in applied psychoanalysis [Black Ship to Hell] takes the form—in so far as it takes any form at all—of a random meditation on man's destructive impulses. A lot of it is given over to recapitulating the Freudian hypotheses. Sometimes, as it dodges obliquely and rather crankily between past and present, it makes your head swim; but it is worth taking some trouble with. Miss Brophy has plenty of ideas of her own. She is well read. She can be witty. She is also a particularly energetic dynamiter of any religious trees Freud has left standing. Rationalists will find her explanation of the Communion service a powerful piece of anti-doctrine—to be used with tact. (p. 233)


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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Brophy's] exposition of the nature of our destructive impulses [in Black Ship to Hell] is so confusing, irritating and occasionally absurd that those who are unfamiliar with her material may be excused if they take this book as good evidence for dismissing it out of hand; her solution to the problems of our self-destructive tendencies—that man can happily be employed in making love and in creative artistic activity—is quite acceptable, but this book will not, one fears, stimulate either of these activities to any great extent.

The author's approach is massively Freudian and other disciplines are virtually excluded…. But sociology, economics, geography, political theory all do have their...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Joseph L. Quinn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Flesh and Hackenfeller's Ape Brigid Brophy established herself as a very intelligent, very assured, and very capable writer of fiction, much on the order of Mary McCarthy…. [With The Snow Ball and The Finishing Touch, Brophy] takes what her publishers call "a new turn," combining Mary McCarthy's cool, underplayed humor with the formful precision and striking prose of an Elizabeth Bowen.

The Snow Ball, the first and much the longer of these two "little novels," is a modern, sophisticated, seriocomic playlet set in an eighteenth-century town house during a New Year's Eve costume ball. While this story of a modern Donna Anna will especially appeal to Mozart and...

(The entire section is 318 words.)

Martin Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brigid Brophy is not an English master builder. She constructs her novels on traditional patterns, then decorates them with bon mots and allusions. A visitor to one of her fanciful stage-sets treads on familiar ground: if the settings are often more brilliantly conveyed than the people who perform in them, the fault does not lie with her, since she is interested in appearances, not reality. Her eye focuses on the costumes and inflections people adopt in order to keep up their pretenses: the art of disguise—public and private, verbal and psychic, therapeutic and destructive—is the subject matter on which she trains her loaded camera. From this vantage point she develops comic negatives that are deadly, lucid...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Eve Auchincloss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Snow Ball is a sort of prosy musical joke, though hardly like one by Mozart, with whom Brigid Brophy seems to be on close terms; Meyerbeer perhaps. The author begins with an epigraph from a book written by herself (Mozart the Dramatist): "That most fascinating subject for gossip, whether, when the opera opens, Don Giovanni has just seduced or has just failed to seduce Donna Anna will no doubt go on being debated for another two centuries." The novel provides an all-night debating ground….

[The plot of The Snow Ball] is chiefly a stage for the play of three ideas. When Don Giovanni asks Anna what she chiefly thinks about, she sums it up neatly: "Mozart, sex, and...

(The entire section is 398 words.)

Naomi Bliven

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brigid Brophy's first novel, "Hackenfeller's Ape," published in the United States in 1954, was a high-spirited comedy constructed on three themes—love (or sex), death, and Mozart. She has not given up on them, as her two most recent books—"Mozart the Dramatist" …, and two short novels in one volume, "The Snow Ball" and "The Finishing Touch" …—show. Miss Brophy's style is brilliant; it is entertaining, direct, lucid, and active; it half anticipates its surprising events and ideas. Her themes, on the other hand, have developed into eccentricities. She is a Freudian as one might be a Baconian; she has the answers to questions no one cares about.

You can waste your time pondering Mozart's...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The bulk of Don't Never Forget consists of book reviews. If they are weak in critical judgment, they are stimulating and engaged in knocking down Aunt Sallies which either never existed or have been dead for years. The Novel as a Takeover Bid, a Third Programme talk, refutes the "Victorian adage that one shouldn't read novels in the morning." This is a stimulating talk, so full of nonsense, half-truths, insights and unsights, that one is forced to think. Many a wiser, less cocky essay into the appeal of the novel would have less effect because it would persuade to agreement rather than provoke the violent reaction to the smart epigram. Not that Miss Brophy's epigrams are smart. "The true paranoid...

(The entire section is 211 words.)

Anthony Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Many authors are embarrassed about letting their random journalistic writings be gathered into a book, though the embarrassment is much mitigated by the need for money. What is written for ephemeral reading finds an appropriate style, the deadline dictating flatness or hysteria, with no time for the mot juste (and who the hell cares, anyway!) or (you can always change your mind next week) the considered opinion. A book is, on the other hand, an awful undertaking: it takes a long time to come out, it costs dear, it ought to be a product of essential conviction, not just a cast-off wardrobe. Hence, however venally qualified, the embarrassment.

Asked whether her journalism interferes with her...

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Victor Strauss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Inside every dinner conversation there is a bad book struggling to get out. Acting on this proposition Brophy, [her husband Michael Levey and Charles Osborne] elected to rescue their table talk from the wine lees in which it should properly have drowned…. Not content with seeing their roguish project into hard-covers [Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without], the authors have also installed a preface conceived in a mood of pretension that complements the dreary brew of facetiousness and intolerance that is to come…. The ardent trio then dispatch from memory such well-thumbed books as The Dream of Gerontius, Aurora Leigh and The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table: with peevish zeal...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Anthony Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This deplorable little work [Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without] has been duly deplored in the literary reviews and the "class" papers: only the Sunday Express, I think, found anything to praise. The authors are now rubbing themselves in an ecstasy of the kind granted only to Exclusive Brethren…. I don't propose to help inflame the delicious abscess. I merely want to express my disquiet that this is what British literary criticism should have come to…. [Here] are three people of large culture and considerable social standing. They have enough fame and they are presumably not short of money. What then has impelled them to publish so ill-conceived, ignorant and vulgar a book?


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Alan Levensohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Remember that small clique of students who used to slouch together in the back of your English class, feeling immensely superior and whispering nasty comments about everything the class was assigned to read? The first day or two there was a certain fascination in their brashness, but it quickly became obvious that they were not reading the books, they were fleering, or weren't understanding what they read. After that, the class shrugged them off as a nuisance, and they huddled closer together, growing steadily more shallow, arrogant, and snide.

In case you've ever wondered what happened to them, this new book ["Fifty Works of English Literature We Can Do Without"] by three people exactly like them...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Edward Weeks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brigid Brophy, her husband, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne have concocted what the English would call "a wicked book," Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without…. Their demolition technique is based on two principles: find a defect in a long-revered classic, and then jump on the thing until it is dead; and, second, the most amusing way to push down an esteemed author is to push up a minor writer in his place. But unfair or otherwise, their attack has produced some splendid fireworks, and the fifty works which they have blasted are of such varied assortment that every reader is bound to find among them some old enemies and smile as they are blown sky-high.

The list begins with...

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Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What is depressing about Brigid Brophy's sixth novel [In Transit: An Heroi-Cyclic Novel] is not its echoes of a horde of other writers, among them the Olympian Joyce, but that the echoes are so painfully feeble, the bizarre wit of the "avant-garde" novel here so hopelessly halved, that the reader feels a kind of desperation in his desire to come upon something good in all these pages—something intelligent, something original and striking—something. (p. 4)

It is difficult to sense when Miss Brophy is being consciously comic (though I suspect the entire novel can be defended as a "comic" novel); but I am fairly certain that the very ending is meant to be a joke: a simple line drawing of a...

(The entire section is 421 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brigid Brophy, the Irish controversialist, classics scholar, champion of animal rights and vegetarian, continues her war on the 20th century. In Transit, her sixth novel, takes the fight underground, where it is more likely to be seen. The book is a highly cerebral contrivance that cannibalizes such literary conceits as puns, anagrams, typographical innovations, styles of alienation and cultural shock. These are then excreted as parodic wastes, which, in turn, become a further source of nourishment. With such transcendent offalness, Miss Brophy seeks a form suited to her view of the times.

Her central conception is impressive enough. The modern world is an airport waiting room, "one of the...

(The entire section is 240 words.)

Hermione Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Clever, inventive and assured though ['Hackenfeller's Ape,' 'Flesh,' and 'The Snow Ball'] are, they now, 15 or 20 years later, show up as the work of a thin imagination. Brophy's sleight-of-hand, her control over her metaphors, her adventures into rococo prose are impressive. But for a first-time reader, the works seem hollow; and in spite of their intimate references to Mozart's humane grandeur, they entirely fail to move.

To ask that novels should produce strong feelings by being interested in and truthful about people is naïve, and it's for continuing to ask this that fiction reviewers are most despised. Why shouldn't novels, on the contrary, produce strong feelings by their interest in metaphor?...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Alan Hollinghurst

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Prancing Novelist, a study of Ronald Firbank,] is an imaginative pursuit of a writer absolutely outstanding in the tenacity of its research and in its sympathetic and enlightening speculation.

It is also a book co-ordinated with the relentlessness of an obsession, complexly self-referring and never deterred from its chosen objective. Brophy is entirely serious in her task, and is prepared to defend her seriousness. Her polemical writing has tended to receive the bored and insensitive criticism often awarded, in this country, to the upholding of beliefs and the life of genuine moral principle. And a morality of this kind, when brought to bear on the creation of fiction, introduces particular...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

Marilyn Butler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Prince and the Wild Geese is a story of 1832 told in words and pictures, the words almost all Brigid Brophy's, the pictures by Prince Grégoire Gagarin, artist son of the Russian ambassador in Rome after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Graceful and witty, Gagarin's drawings portray his social world much as Pope in 'The Rape of the Lock' portrayed his, in a spirit of satire touched with complicity. Gagarin's Rome, like Pope's London, emerges the more definitively from seeming, at the outset, only the backdrop to a story of thwarted passion. The drawings illustrate a simple tale: how Gagarin is obsessed with an Irish girl, Julia Taaffe, how he meets her in Rome's villas, squares and esplanades, and how in the...

(The entire section is 660 words.)