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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.)
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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 between outer and inner realities. The Crown Princess, accepting the crowd's applause on her twenty-first birthday, feels so perfectly a public dummy that she wants to cry, "Go away—there's nobody here"; Gavin, the actor, is not moved from his ideal self-contemplation by his wife's departure from his life; the barrenness of Fordie, a Little Cham of criticism, is adroitly compared with the creativeness of a writer despised as merely popular. Miss Brophy's skill in treating such subjects does not always conceal their slightness; but there can be no doubt at all that hers is a brilliantly original talent.
"Character and Conduct," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1953; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2660, January 23, 1953, p. 53.∗
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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 values of an English county family, is implicit with the massive alterations that overtook all elements of English society during the second world war. The fate of the Mandfords is seen as both individual and typical. At the last, it is Geoffrey Mandford's dogged Englishness that most poignantly reveals a transformed world, for by remaining uncompromisingly the Englishman he once was, he now feels he must willingly give up the foreign wife he once cherished. The absurdity of Geoffrey's position is the key to the new spirit of the times.
"His Wife Survived Him" and "The Financial World" also treat of the subtleties of personal relationships within a wider social context….
Another story of persuasive insight is "Fordie." Miss Brophy examines brilliantly varying aspects of the literary life, the kind of vision that marks a writer's failure or success, financial, moral, and artistic. And it is through the adroit presentation of character and within the framework of a vivid narrative that the theme is mastered.
All of Miss Brophy's work, whatever its theme, has the leaven of humor. The title story is light fare spiced with wit. Perhaps it is with the fanciful, as in "Late Afternoon of a Faun," that Miss Brophy is least successful, but even here there is the compelling charm of ironic comedy.
Though several of these stories are constructed upon a series of contrasts, Miss Brophy achieves a desirable variety within what might seem to be a peculiar limitation of technique. At least, it must be said that the quality of her writing and its substance are such that she has no need of formal ingenuity. She has given us a rewarding volume of first stories.
Gene Baro, "Insight and Ironic Comedy," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, September 27, 1953, p. 8.
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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 stories, in one way or another, fails to hold the reader or go beyond its arduous intentions. Some of the stories, like "The Financial World" (about the industrialist), "Mrs. Mandford's Drawing Room" (the Rumanian woman), and "Fordie" (how to know a good novel), are quite lacking in direction and a self-critical disciplining of language and idea. Too rambling, padded and diffuse to make the mark as stories, they also lack the substance, strength and length to become successful novellas….
"Fordie," somewhat reminiscent of Maugham's brilliant and stinging lampoon of Hugh Walpole in "Cakes and Ale," attempts an intricate and complex Jamesian investigation, through a deathbed conversation at the end, into the crisscrossing of life and art. Yet nothing in Miss Brophy's portrait of the writer before his sudden confession prepares one to accept his remarks as either psychologically or dramatically true.
Miss Brophy does have an ear, and a knack with-words. But her book is more the shapeless and laboriously gathered raw material for interesting fiction than that rare and hard-earned phenomenon itself.
Pearl Kazin, "Discipline Is Lacking," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1953 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 29, 1953, p. 46.
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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 manages to make them touching as well.
What plot there is has to do with their search for a former schoolmate…. [The] book becomes for a time a kind of comic travelogue. The sad and curious climax is reached in Venice, which Miss Brophy describes with freshness and charm….
This is brittle, sparkling stuff. Lacking the pointed satire and the allegorical overtones that enlarged the scope of "Hackenfeller's Ape," one is left with the feeling that Miss Brophy hasn't, this time, found a theme to match her exceptional talent. The fact remains that "The King of a Rainy Country" exerts a strong fascination, and provides a brand of entertainment for which the best word is exquisite, in all its connotations.
Dan Wickenden, "An Original Tale, Comic, Brittle, Sad and Sparkling," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), February 17, 1957, p. 3.
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[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 is first-rate; fresh, spare, and assured. There is dead-pan comedy of the choicest order, especially in the scenes involving the dealer in pornography, who is a truly inspired creation. There is hilarious caricature and farce in the description of the trip with the American tourists. Above all, there is a genuine youthfulness of spirit, a glow of independence.
Charles J. Rolo, in a review of "The King of a Rainy Country" (copyright ©, 1957 by Charles J. Rolo; reprinted by permission of The Atlantic Monthly Company), in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 199, No. 4, April, 1957, p. 89.
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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)
Maurice Richardson, "S S Thanatos," in New Statesman (© 1962 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXIII, No. 1614, February 16, 1962, pp. 233-34.
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[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 own value in helping us to comprehend our present dilemmas. It may well be that in small primitive societies man's battles were directly related to his unconscious sexual instincts, and one can tentatively apply some of these findings to whole nations, but how does one relate this to the problems that face the two Mr. K's [Kennedy and Khrushchev] at this time? It would be a bold and foolish man who muttered in their august ears at a conference table, "It's O.K., he just wants to castrate you." Miss Brophy makes no attempt to cross this gulf, but falls back on the generalized plea that we should remodel our world on Freudian terms. Certainly we should be taught more about our unconscious nature and learn something about the motives which make men behave in such irrational ways, but the many readers who, as Miss Brophy rightly points out, tend to pay too little attention to Freud's ideas will be discouraged from further investigations by her lack of balance….
And yet Miss Brophy can write interestingly and well. Sometimes her phallic arrows are well-directed; her section on religion is one of the best, but a reader is nonplussed when he finds that nicest of animals, the harmless amoeba, dragged in for us to recognize both his Eros instinct and his Thanatos instinct; and when the author goes on to talk of the relationships of cells in complex animals in the same terms, one begins to wonder if one is not lost halfway through a new version of Ouspensky….
We need investigations of this nature and, if this particular attempt must be considered a failure. Miss Brophy's broad classical knowledge, together with her deep interest in the human species, will stand her in good stead when she next sets sail.
"Dropping the Pilot," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London), 1962, reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3130, February 23, 1962, p. 119.
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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 Don Juan aficionados, it has quite enough sex, social satire, and sheer literary brilliance to charm and/or amuse operatic laymen as well.
It is The Finishing Touch, however, that makes this book something very special indeed. Touch is the story of a most exclusive finishing school on the French Riviera—or perhaps anywhere else. The lady proprietors of the school (Hetty Braid and Antonia Mount) and certain of their students—including a British princess—are, to put it in the blandest terms, rather remarkable creations. The Lesbianism and general sexual perversion prevalent at this ghastly academy would doubtless seem most morbid and obscene were it not spun out for us in such delicate Francophilia; but, as it stands, the story shares Lolita's originality in speaking of the unspeakable in such a manner that it becomes credible, understandable, almost normal. What Lionel Trilling said of Nabokov's grisly but beautifully written freak of a novel is also true of The Finishing Touch; the reader simply cannot work up sufficient indignation. Instead, he remains an amused observer, a sophisticated peeping Tom. (pp. 153-54)
Joseph L. Quinn, in a review of "The Snow Ball" and "The Finishing Touch," in Best Sellers (copyright 1964, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 24, No. 8, July 15, 1964, pp. 153-54.
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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 and funny.
In the two novellas ["The Snow Ball" and "The Finishing Touch"] that make up her new book, she does not try to disguise her interest in masks. The longer of the two stories, "The Snow Ball," is nominally about a masquerade party on New Year's Eve in a stately house in London. Many affairs—marital, premarital and extramarital—crowd round the room in preparation for a new alignment (or at least a new illusion) for the new year…. Miss Brophy offers more than sex and seduction: she offers the commentary of a knowing ironist.
Beneath her humor is, if not examination, then at least a stab at the hypocrisies of modern life. The masquerade "snow ball" opens the book, but the snow outside the house takes center stage. Miss Brophy's winter painting is reminiscent of Joyce's "The Dead" where a holiday party is surrounded by the snow falling over Dublin. In Joyce's novella the snow signified something dying but at least alive—while the hero, in his smug complacency, was dead to all passion. In "The Snow Ball," the heroine is also afraid to seize life. While she remains in the house, she is playing a game. (pp. 24-5)
The second novella, "The Finishing Touch," is probably the last word on finishing schools. This one is located on the Riviera. It is run by two fading English Lesbians—one a quiet alcoholic, the other an active deviant. Miss Brophy's style on this outing is a combination of Evelyn Waugh and Ronald Searle. She uses the familiar cast of characters, but she gives them a horrendous quality few writers can manage. Sometimes she can be so arch that her foot gets caught in her mouth, yet quibbling with this story is like trying to set a wayward child straight. It is better to sit back and laugh. (p. 25)
Martin Tucker, "Reality and Mask," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 26, 1964, pp. 24-5.
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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 death." Considering the latter preoccupation, however, one wonders what to make of an observation by Don Giovanni a little later: "Obsessive thoughts about death are in inverse proportion to the frequency of sexual intercourse." For Brigid Brophy evidently puts a very high value upon sexual intercourse. Anna gazes at a statue of Cupid—described, oddly enough, with beady-eyed disgust—and offers "a prayer to the only god she believed in: but him she believed capable of saving the world." Like other ideas in this book, however, this estimate of the powers of Eros is stated, not demonstrated.
Peacock's novels shows how bracing can be the play of ideas among pantomime people; but such tours de force call not only for wit and style but a context of intellectual ferment. Miss Brophy is not particularly lucky in any of these respects. Her prose is a curious pastiches of magazinish naturalism and clogged baroque, studded with passages of apothegmatic dialogue ("… the rich have libraries, whereas people like us have books. People like to read books. The rich have them catalogued"). She has something in common with Iris Murdoch—pleasure in ideas, extravagance, an ambivalent attitude toward the physical end of life—but she is without the older, far better, writer's narrative skill. The intellectual jokes—often either banal or irritatingly illegible—take precedence over the interplay of personalities (the people are no more than rather ugly dolls); yet under the surface one senses the beat of a sentimental, vindictive female heart.
Eve Auchincloss, "Bad Characters," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. III, No. 3, September 24, 1964, pp. 19-20.∗
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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 problems with his father, Leopold (who is surely history's most appalling stage mother), unless you remember that Mozart bequeathed us his work—pure pleasure—and not his problems. Miss Brophy, alas, cannot enter into this joyful inheritance with thanksgiving. In "Mozart the Dramatist," she applies her own notions of psychoanalysis to the eighteenth century, to the Enlightenment, to Mozart, and to his librettos. She is looking for difficulties, and she solves the ones she finds by overworking that intellectually dangerous word "really"—"the scandalous transgression of class barriers which is really a question of incest." "Really" allows her to make a unity out of what is in fact multiplicity, to achieve coherence at the price of sense. "The Snow Ball," which could have been a touching story about love offered and rejected, is weakened by its unconvincing psychoanalytic assessments of some personages in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and by touches of character that seem to come from textbooks. About "The Finishing Touch," the less said the better. It is intended as a naughty joke about Lesbian loves at a girls' school, but it doesn't come off. As a matter of fact, though all three of these Brophy works have enchantingly funny surfaces, their obsession makes them at bottom humorless. (pp. 75-6)
What is wonderful Mozart doing in Miss Brophy's gallery of gummy abstractions? Well, Miss Brophy thinks he is not only the greatest opera composer of the eighteenth century (and ever after) but the best expositor, in his operas, of that century's psychosexual problems. These, she believes, matter to us; I am not so certain. I doubt that we profit from Miss Brophy's suggestions about Mozart's operas: say, that Cherubino, the love-happy adolescent page in "Figaro," is really a phallus. Our sexuality, like our faces, goes wherever we go, but when we go to the opera, we are after an essentially musical experience. Mozart provides the score, and we can talk to our analysts some other time. Miss Brophy praises Mozart as a psychologist; she might as well praise Joan of Arc for her cooking.
Good sense (as well as charm) is mixed in with her nonsense. She argues well that psychology cannot destroy art by explaining it away, and wouldn't if it could. She does not realize, though, that the psychology of art is not art, or even criticism, but psychology. As a critic, in "Mozart the Dramatist," she bases her judgment of artistic value almost entirely on how well a work of art handles the psychological ideas she's interested in. As an artist, in "The Snow Ball," she reverses her critical process and builds her characters around these ideas, which protrude distractingly. (p. 76)
Naomi Bliven, "Military Merriment, Mental Marshlands," in The New Yorker (© 1964 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 45, December 26, 1964, pp. 75-7.∗
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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 situation is on the other foot" is not the happiest metaphor.
Don't Never Forget is a delightful period volume, filled with the moral fervour of the liberated atheist, vegetarian feminist of sixty years ago attacking the Christian, social and philistine absurdities of that time with all the vigour of someone who had absorbed hook, line and sinker, what G.B.S. had been writing for twenty years before that.
"Cold Air," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3379, December 1, 1966, p. 1116.
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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 serious writing, Brigid Brophy replies that her journalism is serious writing. She was never one for embarrassment. So here [in "Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews"], bold as brass, are articles on the subjects which Miss Brophy feels—even with the approach of a deadline—deeply about. They are best defined as Brophyesque subjects, which is the best possible tribute to her integrity and consistency. This means that they are for Brophyesque readers. I am, for the most part, temperamentally unfitted to be one of those. (p. 4)
There is something endearing about the consistency of Miss Brophy's tastes and convictions: setting out to surprise, she never surprises—at least, not if we start with the premise of her ying chu-i (or yinnism). Naturally, she is vegetarian (meat is yang food), an advocate of polyandry, a lover of the rococo, and an adorer of Mozart. Kingsley Amis's "Lucky Jim" (a yang book) has a reference to "filthy Mozart," twice mentioned in these essays by Miss Brophy, and that seems to be the irritant which impels her to a very cruel attack on one of the funniest books of the last 20 years. But humor, especially of the British Jerome K. Jerome variety, is yang; wit—which is more of a weapon—is the proper yin stuff.
Which writers must she, conditioned prenatally as she is, prefer to what other writers? Colette and Françoise Sagan to Simone de Beauvoir; Genet to Sartre—isn't the core of "Nausea" a revulsion at the sight of that chestnut tree, indecently and excessively flourishing, all yin? She does well and right by John Horne Burns, a fine and neglected novelist cut off early, but she despises Henry Miller so much that she shakes herself off balance….
There's a great measure of unashamed self-regard in these essays (reviews rather, reviews she's kept and not, like most of us, regarded as expendable along with the checks that were paid for them). Consistent in her attacks she permits herself a haughty helping of inconsistency in her ideas. The woman who is all for natural foods and the rights of animals has no great love of nature, preferring the elegance and rationality of an idealized Augustan metropolis. The woman who is passionate for angelic writing (like, God help us, that of Hortense Calisher) defiantly thrusts at us the silly Cockneyism of her title, which is the final injunction of an essay on Mozart. She is clever, but she is not very likable. One of these days the yang—which normally suppresses the innate qualities of the gentleman—is going to bite back. (p. 5)
Anthony Burgess, "Yang Strikes Back," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 21, 1967, pp. 4-5.
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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 they press on to abuse Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and a number of other popular works. (p. 722)
Through the drollery and affectation it is difficult to detect any principles the authors may be applying. Authors are praised for not professing moral standards. Moby Dick was not 'the organic product of a true imagination'. Wuthering Heights is implicitly condemned for being 'the first and the meatiest morsel in the long broad tradition of melodramatic daydreams….'… Not surprisingly this mature posture is allied with copious reverence for George Eliot and Henry James. But this implicit attitude never hardens into any sort of an argument, and is blended with some curious antics about sex…. It is undeniably possible to construct a list of English works that have been over-estimated. Doubtless some of the Brophy. Levey and Osborne candidates would be on the list. But no 'common reader' should be escorted into the paths of mature intelligence by this patronising crew, so courageously fingering their noses at 'the Eng-lit mentality' and the 'semi-educated' who see superior merit in South Wind. (p. 723)
Victor Strauss, "The Fifty-First," in New Statesman (© 1967 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 73, No. 1889, May 26, 1967, pp. 722-23.
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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?
One answer, a shameful one, is a hunger for notoriety. Their book, far from being ignored (if it had been the work of uneducated people that would have been a just response), has had wide newspaper coverage; they themselves have been interviewed at length on commercial television. Like children, they have shown off, and the showing-off has provoked attention. They have even angered a number of people, and anger, like sexual desire, can be flattering to its object. What they regard as iconoclasm can also be seen as the indiscriminate destructiveness of infants who will do anything to get notice. They kick Hamlet, Pilgrim's Progress, and the poems of T. S. Eliot. Very naughty, most smackable. But they also pulverise the already broken pieces of Aurora Leigh and Lorna Doone and Tom Brown's Schooldays. They're still in the nursery, cut off from the big world. In the nursery are a few books, many of which they don't like. They have still to engage libraries and the systematic study of literature.
Their first target is Beowulf…. I don't think students of Beowulf have ever really preferred its eponymous hero to Grendel and his mother, though the crunching-up of the Danes because they drink late and loud seems to be going too far. And I don't think the passing of value-judgments much concerns them either. Nobody, in fact, tackles Beowulf merely because he wants a good read: he can get that, can't he, from Flesh, which still sells well in the bazaars. We go to Beowulf out of curiosity, a very reasonable motive, and for the sort of special pleasure to be gained from watching the manipulation of a language both alien and familiar. Doubtless, as we are told, "we need some respectable pseudo-Homeric epic from which to make Northern literature evolve," but, unless one of these three can do a Macpherson, we have to be content with what's already there. And we can't hope to understand the evolution of English literature without knowing something about the aesthetic behaviour of English before French and Latin got into it.
Ah, but I'm on the wrong track, aren't I? We're concerned not with historical monuments but with books as isolated in struments of pleasure and enlightenment. Nonsense; literature is a continuum. Ignore Anglo-Saxon literature and the technique of headrime it bequeathed to Middle English literature, and you're able to talk, à propos the York Mystery Plays, of drunken monks writing doggerel: "They must have been drunk: the preponderance of alliterative verse in the plays points to this. Alliteration is most frequently resorted to in intoxication." The jettisoning of history enables you to see the Middle Ages spatially—an island no one wants to visit, what with its "crudity of life and religious thought" and the mean "intellectual capacities of the credulous citizenry." Soon you will reach the state of scoffing at old writers because they lived before the Enlightenment or before Freud. (pp. 71-2)
Apart from unwillingness to look at literature historically. Osborne and the Leveys are above being, ashamed at their own ignorance. We can ignore small gaffes like the retitling of "Kubla Khan" as "Xanadu," but we're entitled to ask for evidence when we're told that Ben Jonson's verse is laboured, that he is "the great Elizabethan non-poet," that his intelligence is "arid" and his language lacks vigour. (p. 72)
The most summary of all the condemnations is of Gerard Manley Hopkins…. (p. 73)
There are far too many statements demonstrably untrue. In Hopkins there was no struggle between poet and priest, however these three like to think that the two vocations are incompatible. His early work had Keatsian rather than Pre-Raphaelite qualities; his true voice is raised after ordination. He was never "confused," though he was conscious of failure in his mission and, in his last poems, expressed the horror of the dark night of the soul (indigestion really, these three will say: "I am gall, I am heartburn"). He formulated his theories only after composing his first long poem in sprung rhythm. There is not one poem which embodies "neurotic longing for the cross." He has never made much of an appeal to Catholics: his great followers in the 1930s were the young left-wing poets Auden and Day Lewis. His verse expresses no "ascetic" urge. Far from not existing, the "aesthete" in him tends to over-richness. He never "groped" for a new mode of expression: "The Wreck of the Deutschland" is mature and assured writing. We grant that he was superstitious, if to be superstitious is to be a Catholic. No amount of good-humoured acquiescence in semantic distortion can, however, reconcile the contradictory sneers—"mental cripple" and "muscle-bound," "permanently bared breast" and "cringingly irrelevant" (irrelevant to what?); "all metaphysics" and "almost Nihilistic emptiness of his thought"; "meaningless" and "arbitrary" (an arbitrary meaning is still, presumably, a meaning). If "poor Hopkins" is confused, what shall we say of poor Brophy, Levey and Osborne?
This sort of half-literate and more than half-ignorant pseudo-criticism would be harmless enough if its perpetrators did not profess an anti-philistine and reformist aim. The danger is that students, bemused by the status, reputations, and qualifications of the authors, may reproduce this kind of waffle in their examination papers. No examiner objects to reasoned abuse, but evidence of failure to read the texts is unforgivable. "Discuss the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins." Off we go then: "Hopkins's is the poetry of a mental cripple…." Could the examinee possibly hope for a pass? And yet he might seem justly aggrieved: after all, if printed books by leaders of British taste can get away with it, why not a mere candidate for a degree? (pp. 73-4)
I understand that Mr. Osborne and the Leveys are next going to tell us what pictures to get rid of. I look forward to the same bizarre mixture of the misunderstood great and the nonstarter—the unbelievably disparate brought together only by irrational dislike, the democracy of prejudice. If we can have Hamlet and Lorna Doone in the same gallery we can also have The Last Watch of Hero and the Botticelli Venus. Hogarth will be rejected because he ate too much beef (or accepted because his dog is in the forefront of his self-portrait?). And then, with Mr. Osborne in the lead, they can have a crack at music. Already, in the margin of this present book, The Bride of Lammermoor is slated so that Donizetti's opera can be called "a valid work of art," and Brahms and Dixieland jazz occupy the same slot of rhythmic ineptitude. (pp. 74-5)
Anthony Burgess, "The Democracy of Prejudice," in Encounter (© 1967 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, August, 1967, pp. 71-5.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465
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 will answer your question. They haven't changed a bit.
The book is a collection of 50 brief, sneering essays, heaping insults on a miscellany of major and trivial works of English and American literature from "Beowulf" almost to the present. The sneerers are Brigid Brophy, a British essayist and critic who specializes in being irritating, and two men who have here done their very best to think and write like her—her husband, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne.
Their sneering takes many forms, of which the most common is the direct, unsupported insult. When these insults are precise, they are usually demonstrably wrong, as when "Alice in Wonderland," an excoriating satire on adult pomposity and hypocrisy, is dismissed as "a nice, wholesome, dull book."
But often the insults are so breathtakingly sweeping and absurd that any reasoned rebuttal must seem heavy-handed and strangely irrelevant. T. S. Eliot and William Faulkner are not invulnerable to devastating criticism; but how does one reason with a mind that—without explanation or documentation—scoms Eliot as a "birdbrain" and Faulkner as "vain and humorless … pseudo-intellectualized … essentially second-rate"?…
Where all else fails, the sneerers resort to amateur Freudianism. They discern unconscious motivations in some works, then discard the works because the authors were in part unconsciously motivated; to the sneerers, only conscious motivation is tolerable. In other cases they pseudo-psychoanalyze an author's life, find or imagine emotional complications, and cast aside all his works as irremediably tainted.
The book is not an utter waste. Three of the essays are worth skimming for their textual critiques—those on "The Faerie Queene," "Tom Jones," and Gray's "Elegy." Two others are worth skimming for their perceptions, those on Emily Brontë (and Heathcliff as a demon lover) and William Wordsworth (seen as "an essentially baroque artist").
But the rest is merely relentless, irresponsible invective, enounced with serene self-confidence, which leaves the reader first exasperated, then bemused, and finally bored.
Alan Levensohn, "The Literary Games Critics Play." in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor, © 1968 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 15, 1968, p. 14.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 295
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 Beowulf, which is rated "a fine example of primitive non-art." Spenser's The Faerie Queene is dynamited for its "punishing length, utter confusion and unremitting tedium … and monotonous rhyming verses which run endlessly on …" (I agree)…. Their short rejection of Huckleberry Finn betrays a fundamental lack of understanding, and they complain about everything in Hamlet except that the play works on the stage. A Farewell to Arms is written off because Hemingway had not learned his lesson from Gertrude Stein and did not possess her exquisite choice of words (this is plain silly; see Stein's monumental monotony, The Making of Americans). Arbitrary and malicious as they are, the trio are protesting against the thoughtless acceptance of "classics," established by tradition and perpetuated by the reluctance of teachers and examiners to alter a system which everyone has learned to endure.
Edward Weeks, in a review of "Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without" (copyright © 1968 by Edward Weeks; reprinted by permission of The Atlantic Monthly Company), in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 221, No. 3, March, 1968, p. 128.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421
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 fish, with the helpful word FIN on its lowermost fin.
But a novel must be about something. It can't simply establish itself as the stream-of-consciousness of an argumentative, clever, modish woman of middle age. And so In Transit is "about" an extremely talkative consciousness, an argumentative, clever, modish female (male?) who finds herself (himself?) in a vast airport lounge, waiting. The allegorical possibilities are many, and Miss Brophy's blurb writers have not hesitated to shake them out for us, but I will resist: Somehow one never gets beyond the superficial sound of words in In Transit.
And that is one of the dozens of themes that fail to escape the "probings of Miss Brophy's pen." The problem of language; the failure of language; the confusion of language; language as a "given" theme for a modish modern novel; language as the cause of "linguistic leprosy." Perhaps because of the deterioration of words in the twentieth century we are being treated to extremely dull novels and plays that celebrate such deterioration—and the illustrious Beckett, the demonic Ionesco come most immediately to mind—as if a natural ineptness for language, for the beauty of language, were a prerequisite for this serious and profound good news. Unfortunately, Miss Brophy can do nothing with her theme except write line after line, page after page, occasionally blossoming out into typographical tricks and drawings, leading us whimsically through sequences which are evidently meant to be parodies of other types of writing, while the hero/heroine is involved in "surrealistic" adventures that may have something to do with a "quest for self-recognition" or a "quest for form." (pp. 4-5)
Joyce Carol Oates, "Miss Brophy's Probing Pen," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1970 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), January 25, 1970, pp. 4-5.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 240
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 rare places where twentieth-century design is happy with its own style." Life beneath this vaulted metaphor is amorphous, ambiguous, oysterous. Culture, history, psychology, and even physiology are hopelessly confused.
So is Evelyn Hilary O'Rooley, the novel's bifocal, bivocal, bisexual narrator….
In the world-as-airport, Evelyn-Hilary-Brophy-"I" falls in with a number of atrocities: a TV quiz show whose panel attempts to discover the favorite perversions of its guests; lesbian and youth rebellions; a nun hunt, and a plane crash engineered to secure human organs for transplants. In such an environment, rationalism mutates into absurd rationalization. Like rebellious cancer cells, words metastasize into puns and compound forms that lead destructive lives of their own.
"Unholy Trinity," in Time (copyright 1970 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 95, No. 5, February 2, 1970, p. 72.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562
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? Nevertheless, Brophy's novels do seem lacking in that old 'felt life.' It's instructive to compare her with Ian McEwan, not only because his chilling use of extremes makes her Sixties' outrageousness look tame, but also because his equally contrived, circumscribed metaphors don't in his case exclude a grave and even tender understanding of fear and inadequacy, embarrassment and obsession. Brigid Brophy has a Shavian commitment to social diagnosis, which McEwan hasn't; but she certainly isn't tender.
The all-white bedroom, complete with cherubs' heads and expensive peppermint creams ('tart's rococo') of 'The Snow Ball', or the 15-room fake Tudor Kenwood house in 'Flesh', display Brophy's flashy knack of explaining people through furnishings….
The sacrifice of people in the interests of style reaches an elaborate peak in 'The Snow Ball,' where an appropriately baroque manner is assumed for a masked ball in an 18th-century London house….
Guests into spaniels, 1960s into 1780s, London lovers into Mozartian figures: metamorphosis is Brophy's favourite trick. In ['Hackenfeller's Ape,'] the sympathetic surveillance of a zoologist professor, induces in Hackenfeller's ape, a near-human primate otherwise known as Percy, stirrings of intellectual aspirations. Trying to thwart plans for Percy to go up in a rocket, a quest which involves a series of satires on what Brophy calls 'the Age of Cain,' the Professor turns himself into a revolutionary and gives his 'half-enlightened' Caliban a taste of freedom.
In 'Flesh,' a revoltingly unattractive Jewish boy is taken up by a sexually accomplished girl and transformed into an obese, hedonistic aesthete: he becomes the kind of flesh he most admires, that of a Rubens woman. The nasty little tale, very smoothly told, is as much about second-generation North London Jews reacting against parental vulgarity and stuffiness as it is a pastiche of sensual awakening.
In the most complex of the three, 'The Snow Ball,' Brophy invents a bitter-sweet 1960s version of the ambiguous relationship between Donna Anna and Don Giovanni. Their masked ball is at once a satire on this century's inability to pursue pleasure in a thoroughly baroque and aristocratic manner ('Nowadays it's all so sordid'), and a context in which to reenact the tragic Mozartian conjunction, most powerfully felt in 'Don Giovanni' between pleasure and death.
It's a skilfully sustained piece of atmospherics, but the pretensions at profundity about love and death, like the knowingness about Mozart, have an irritatingly smug air. A queasy feeling lingers that for all Brophy's Shavian acerbity about the privileged English middle-classes, she likes to flaunt her intimacy with the luxuries of a decadent decade.
Hermione Lee, "All Dressed Up, Nowhere to Go," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), January 13, 1980, p. 38.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788
[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 qualities. While Eliot could joke that James (a writer Brophy loves) had a mind so pure that no idea could violate it, Brophy's is a mind vitally concerned with ideas and principles and their manifestation in human behaviour. Equally her belief in the power of the imaginative worlds of novels is strong; she has written of the novel as the only art-form which exacts from its audience a total surrender of the Ego…. (pp. 134-35)
Hackenfeller's Ape (1953) involves us. It has a control rare in a first novel, and a compelling lucidity of style, entirely spare and relevant. The story itself is simple, the implications complex. The larger part of it is set in London Zoo. By clever manipulation of tone and angle man is considered in the context of 'other-than-human animals', in shifts of pathos and illusion about the ape of the title. Though humanised by the name of Percy and by the friendly Professor Darrelhyde's imagination, the monkey retains its instinctual life that is coloured by fear and (the novel's final word) wrath. The book makes profound points without any raising of the voice, and is funnier and more disturbing for this restraint.
In this novel man is observed with repugnance, but a repugnance which occasionally aches for remission in art. The spindly Professor turns himself into the Countess of Figaro, and Marcus, in Flesh (1962), imaginatively (and almost physically) turns himself into a Rubens woman. The author approaches people as both disgusting and capable of refinement and sensibility. Marcus, an appallingly gauche youngish Jew, is rescued from social inadequacy by an aesthetic sense which is enlarged in him by the girl who becomes his wife. Released from the unrecognised sensitivity which makes him interesting he lapses through inherited wealth into corpulence and laziness, sheer self-indulgence.
The principal agent of this change is his discovery of sex itself—a sensual rather than a sentimental education. The guilt subconsciously associated with sex, and which rewards it eventually with death, is an element in Don Giovanni; and a fascination with Mozart, which effectively contributes to the earlier two novels, becomes a dominant concern in The Snow Ball of 1964 (the year of Brophy's excellent and penetrating Mozart the Dramatist). The novel constitutes a kind of commentary on Don Giovanni, and is tainted rather with the enthusiasm of the amateur (in the French sense) who cannot resist drawing her characters into extended chat on subjects dear to the author. One hesitates or is even repelled to investigate an author's work along guidelines too specifically suggested, and a certain deliberateness of intention mars this novel—a defect present too in the overworked style, in which descriptive similes are followed through and repeated with remorseless thoroughness. This indigestible manner was developed further in the ensuing In Transit.
What The Snow Ball does insist on is a more intense examination of the ambiguous repulsion and lure of the flesh, and the manner itself encourages a Pope-like fastidious minuteness of description and disenchanted, dehumanised vision of the grotesque physicality of persons. Brophy Dickensianly turns her people into animals, and her crowds into inanimate seas and baroque sculptures. The snow ball (function) is presided over by a hideous baroque Cupid whom Anna, the principal character, thinks can save the world. But the love that finds expression in the novel is random unsatisfactory sex (couched in theoretical conversation) rather than more constructive relationships. It may be that like Firbank's Cardinal Pirelli, Brophy feels that 'the world is all love, only no one understands'—but her novel's achievement is to show how hard it is for people to believe constructively in a repellent humanity. The author again seems, like Anna, to find it 'easier to like animals than people. And things than animals'. The frigidity of the snow ball (missile) infects the reader with a heavy dissatisfaction, finally declining, like Don Giovanni, to endorse the copulative comedy and offering only the thought of death, and death itself. (p. 135)
Alan Hollinghurst, "People As Animals," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 99, No. 2549, January 25, 1980, pp. 134-35.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
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 end she refuses him. Since social convention bars him from speaking or writing seriously of his passion to the object of it, he translates himself, Julia and Rome into fantasy, a more eloquent medium than their polite foreigners' French….
Brigid Brophy must have wondered whether to use her novelist's skills to invent the missing … [dialogues, letters, and diaries], but has finally had the discretion to supply nothing but a commentary which fills in biographical information and 'reads' Gagarin's pictures. The drawings are left to tell the story, in the form of a very high-class strip-cartoon, rather as though Byron had elected to give an episode of Don Juan in the medium of Feiffer or Posy Simmons….
On the one hand, the story as it unfolds is precisely located and specific. Gagarin shows Julia attending a masked ball in Carnival time. She is rudely stared at by a visiting Englishman on a promenade…. She drops her glove, perhaps deliberately, over the balcony of a seaside hotel, for a similar-looking young man to pick up. And so on. Gagarin documents his actual world: the band of adoring young men who surround Julia are individuals, Gagarin's friends and fellow students.
But many of Julia's actions belong only to fantasy or to art. She descends on a baroque cloud, accompanied by Cupid, and fires darts unerringly at her suitors, the youthful intellectuals of the Villa Medici….
Who and what is Julia? The 'plot' of Gagarin's picture-sequence implies that she is pretty, but the face he draws is hard to read—unresponsive, even characterless, and slightly out of focus. Julia, true to her 1832 form of coinciding with the latest fashion, here performs the 1980s function of an absence in the text. Brigid Brophy injects more pathos into her situation than Gagarin does, by reminding us that she was choosing between a life of permanent exile with a foreign husband and return home to the probable social disgrace of spinsterhood….
In one respect Brigid Brophy sentimentalises Julia. It is a cheat in her commentary that she links her heroine with a more exotic kind of Irish émigré, and more principled patriots, than she and her sister had a chance to be. The Wild Geese of the book's title were the Irish upper-class Catholics who in the 18th century served the monarchies of Continental Europe because the Penal Laws at home prevented them from serving both their religion and the British King. Calling it The Prince and the Wild Geese cunningly strengthens the story's links with folk and fairy-tale, but Julia is no Wild Goose (how different it sounds in the singular), even if, inevitably, she has relatives who are. She is a 19th-century tourist, or a debutante, having her belated Season not in London, Bath or Harrogate, but in a setting in which most of the prospective husbands are likely to be Catholics….
Brigid Brophy has the feel of post-Napoleonic Romanticism. Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir is its text, with its nostalgia for a once-upon-a-time idealism, its perception of the world of 1830 as hopelessly trivial.
Marilyn Butler, "Julia Caesar" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, March 17 to March 31, 1983, p. 6.
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