Brigid Brophy Brophy, Brigid (Vol. 105) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brigid Brophy 1929–1995

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

The following entry presents criticism of Brophy's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 11, and 29.

A lifelong crusader for multitudinous causes ranging from writers' rights and animals' rights to sexual freedom, women's liberation, and vegetarianism, Brophy produced a varied and extensive body of work. Her best-known novels are The King of a Rainy Country (1956), The Finishing Touch (1963), and In Transit (1969). Admittedly influenced by Sigmund Freud's theories, Ronald Firbank's literary style, and G. B. Shaw's aesthetics, Brophy's writings express unconventional and controversial opinions about modern relationships, religious education in schools, sexual psychology, pornography, and gender issues. Her work often incorporates elements of farce, word play, and witty social satire. While most critics initially responded to Brophy's works quite favorably—finding them consistently clever, lucid, imaginative, and absolutely unique—her books have been neglected for several reasons, although signs of a critical engagement with her oeuvre have begun to emerge. "The neglect of this brilliant woman's work and contributions to contemporary aesthetics is scandalous," remarked Steven Moore. "Those human beings who study contemporary literature never should forget Brophy."

Biographical Information

Born June 12, 1929, the only daughter of Irish novelist John Brophy, Brigid Brophy spent her childhood in London, but she frequently visited Ireland and was raised on Irish ideas. As a child who wrote verse dramas from the age of six onwards, she attended St. Paul's Girls' School and later studied for just four terms at Oxford University, where she excelled as a scholar but was expelled for disciplinary problems. She then took a variety of clerical jobs, published the short story collection The Crown Princess (1953), and began work on her first novel, Hackenfeller's Ape (1953), which won the Cheltenham Literary Festival first prize for a first novel. Brophy concentrated primarily on writing fiction early in her literary career, most notably the novels The King of a Rainy Country, Flesh (1962), The Finishing Touch, The Snow Ball (1964), and In Transit. She then turned to other forms: Mozart the Dramatist (1964), widely regarded as one of the best books on his operas; Don't Never Forget (1966), a well-received collection of her journalism for such English periodicals as London Magazine and New Statesman; Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without (1967), a controversial attack on such classics as Beowulf, Hamlet, Jane Eyre, and The Scarlet Letter, written in collaboration with Michael Levey, her husband, and literary critic Charles Osborne; The Burglar, a play in which the stage directions and introductory essay mimic the manner of Shaw; Black and White (1968), a critical assessment of the works of illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, who also was her subject in the biography Beardsley and His World (1976); The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl (1973), her second collection of short fiction; and Prancing Novelist (1973), a critical biography of novelist Ronald Firbank. In 1974 Brophy joined the Writers Guild of Great Britain as a member of its executive council and the Anti-Vivisection Society of Great Britain, serving as vice-president. She published her last novel, Palace without Chairs, in 1978. The next year Brophy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which worsened until she was housebound and confined to a wheelchair; her struggles with the debilitating disease are recounted in the essay collection Baroque 'n' Roll (1987). Brophy died on August 7, 1995, in a London nursing home.

Major Works

Brophy's works "evince a continuing emphasis upon art in the broadest sense," according to critic Leslie Dock, and her fiction usually features musical patterns and shifting tempos, cinematic or photographic effects, and architectural images—most notably, baroque—that enrich the narrative texture. Hackenfeller's Ape explores a number of themes, among them original sin, the romantic viewpoint, and experimentation on animals for scientific purposes; the novel depicts a scientist whose attempts to civilize an ape result in problems for both himself and the ape. The King of a Rainy Country, based largely on Mozart's opera Le Nozze di Figaro, focuses on a young boy and girl who embark on a literal and figurative search for a woman who represents their mother. Black Ship to Hell (1956), Brophy's first nonfiction work, analyzes the human impulse to violence through Freudianism and rationalism which, combined with her classicism, form the foundation of her critical stance. Flesh, Brophy's first popular success and loosely based on Shaw's Pygmalion, examines the eccentricities of human sexual behavior by showing the transformation of an introverted young man into a hedonist. The Finishing Touch, Brophy's self-termed "lesbian fantasy," focuses on an English princess's education at a lesbian-run girls's finishing school on the French Riviera. The Snow Ball, which derives its plot from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, is a comedy of manners that satirizes middle-class morality and hypocrisy. In Transit, widely regarded as Brophy's masterpiece but highly resistant to literary classification, relates the thoughts of an ambiguously gendered narrator, who sits in an international airport lounge waiting for a connecting flight, agonizing over his/her gender confusion while comically trying to determine his/her identity. Finally, Palace without Chairs involves an imaginary Eastern European socialist monarchy that eventually crumbles as each heir to the throne dies under unusual circumstances.

Critical Reception

Throughout her career Brophy was recognized as one of the most controversial writers in England, promoting her views in her books and in articles in periodicals as well as on television and radio. For instance, she advocated for and succeeded in the establishment of the British Public Lending Right, which pays royalties to authors whenever their books are checked out of libraries; referred to marriage as "an immoral institution"; exhorted the better treatment of animals long before it was popular; and wrote about gender confusion before a critical context for the topic existed. Many critics have admired Brophy's wit and social criticism, although others have considered her experiments with language, structure, and narrative as major hindrances to comprehending the themes of her fiction. However, Brophy's critical reputation has declined considerably since the early 1980s—the majority of her books remain out of print—despite the freshness and contemporary literary relevance of many of her ideas. A number of scholars have attributed several reasons for this neglect. Moore has suggested that, since her writing career was sharply curtailed by her fifteen-year illness, "few readers under the age of forty recognize her name." Moore also has detected, along with others, that "she was cursed for being too far ahead of her time," exploring topics that only came into vogue during the 1990s. Chris Hopkins has joined the debate by arguing that Brophy's work resists standard literary classifications and categories like realism, modernism, and postmodernism. Yet Hopkins has concluded that Brophy's "books have much to contribute to the current interest in [the postmodern feature of playing with boundaries], as well as to a more various history of twentieth-century literature."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Crown Princess, and Other Stories (short stories) 1953
Hackenfeller's Ape (novel) 1953
The King of a Rainy Country (novel) 1956
Black Ship to Hell (nonfiction) 1962
Flesh: A Novel of Indolent Passion (novel) 1962
The Finishing Touch (novel) 1963
Mozart the Dramatist: A New View of Mozart, His Operas and His Age (nonfiction) 1964
The Snow Ball (novel) 1964
Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (essays) 1966
Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without [with Michael Levey and Charles Osborne] (criticism) 1967
Religious Education in State Schools (nonfiction) 1967
Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (criticism) 1968
The Burglar: A Play and Preface (essay and drama) 1968
In Transit: An Herio-cyclic Novel (novel) 1969
The Longford Threat to Freedom (nonfiction) 1972
The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl (novella and short stories) 1973
Prancing Novelist: A Defence of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography of Ronald Firbank (biography) 1973
Beardsley and His World (biography) 1976
Palace without Chairs: A Baroque Novel (novel) 1978
A Guide to Public Lending Right (nonfiction) 1983
Baroque 'n' Roll, and Other Essays (essays) 1987
Reads (essays) 1989

∗This work also features American literature.

Francis Wyndham (review date 1957)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of King of a Rainy Country, in London Magazine, Vol. 4, 1957, p. 69.

[In the following review, Wyndham praise Brophy's achievement in The King of a Rainy Country.]

A great deal of fuss is made nowadays about books by young writers and there is certainly no lack of these; young books, however, are more rare, books, that is, in which the quality of youth is a positive feature instead of being an excuse for inexperience or impressively disguised by a precocious maturity. Brigid Brophy is a young writer (under thirty) who has written a young book about young people: in The King of a Rainy Country she strikes exactly the right note, conveying the gaiety, absurdity and pathos of youth without whimsy, complacency or self-pity. She is witty and observant and has produced, it seems to me, a model light novel. Her ghastly hero, her ruefully romantic heroine, the squalor of their London life, the hilarious account of their career as guides to a coach-load of American tourists in Europe, the culmination of their ridiculous quest at a film festival in Venice, are treated with high-spirited assurance: and when the fantasy of their emotional lives is splintered by a tentative contact with reality, an aching sadness is introduced which the author handles with unsuspected subtlety. This is, in fact, 'more' than the light novel it initially appears to be, but Miss Brophy achieves her serious intention with no sacrifice of readability, economy of style or funniness and although she has written a modern picaresque she shows no trace of the portentousness and implied aggression that this form now suggests.

Jocelyn Brooks (review date 21 March 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Anatomy of Violence," in Punch, Vol. 242, March 21, 1963, p. 478.

[In the mixed review below, Brooks suggests that Black Ship to Hell "might have been [better] if Miss Brophy had not tried to cover quite so much ground."]

[Black Ship to Hell] is a vast, overloaded rag-bag of a book, in the tradition of Burtons's Anatomy, and Miss Brophy, like Burton, is prolific with quotations, recondite allusions and scraps of curious information. The book began, she tells us, as an attempt to psycho-analyse the Greek myth of the Underworld, but grew into a full-scale analysis of violence, aggression and the death-wish. Her attitude is anything but detached: she is a militant atheist, in a refreshingly old-fashioned way, and a militant Freudian as well. She delivers a virulent attack upon Jung, but too often herself falls into Jung's maddening habit of making dogmatic statements unsupported by the least shred of evidence. Apart from Freud, she draws much upon Frazer, and also upon Shaw, whose ideas she considers, rather oddly, to have been as influential as those of Freud himself.

In so far as she comes to any final conclusion, this would seem to be that our aggressive and self-destructive impulses can be overcome only by the release of sexual inhibitions: a theory which, one would have thought, a glance at any newspaper would be enough to disprove. War she considers to be almost entirely the result of repressed homosexuality—a view which, if shared by the Government, would presumably lead to the immediate implementing of the Wolfenden report. Or would it?

This is an interesting, sometimes amusing and often exasperating book; it might have been a better one if Miss Brophy had not tried to cover quite so much ground.

Joseph Kerman (review date 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Opera Misconstrued," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 18, no. 3, Summer, 1965, pp. 309-12.

[Below, Kerman faults Mozart the Dramatist for ignoring Mozart's music and emphasizing a Freudian approach to the musician's operas.]

I do not think that Miss Brophy knows quite what she is up to in [Mozart the Dramatist]. She has some striking and original ideas about the way Mozart's operas reflect his and his century's psychosexuality, but she is constantly shifting ground as to whether this information should be treated as criticism, biography, or sociology. She is as seduced as a sophomore by Kulturgeschichte—in her case, by a feminist Freudian...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 1 June 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gone with the Wind," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3405, June 1, 1967, p. 485.

[In the following review, the critic asserts that Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without "is little more than a compendium of flaunted smartness."]

Brigid Brophy has won herself a small reputation in recent years as one of our leading literary shrews. Irascibly well-meaning, intemperately fond of common sense, she is known to have no time for mysteries or maladjustments. Kind to animals, cruel to lettuce, afraid of Virginia Woolf, she is mad about marriage, Mozart, Watteau and champagne. Her tone is hectoringly superior. She knows that sense cannot be all...

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The New York Times Book Review (review date 25 February 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without, in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 73, February 25, 1968, p. 16.

[In the following review, the critic wishes that the targets of Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without included more of the "beefy sacred cows" of English literature.]

[Fifty Works of English∗ Literature We Could Do Without] are 50 more or less sanctified old literary birds, habitat Eng. Lit., some still fluttering their wings in the halls of Academe, others so thoroughly fossilized one wonders at the waste of ammunition. They are works of English (∗and American) literature the authors...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 23 November 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shavian Shavings," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3742, November 23, 1973, p. 1417.

[In the review below, the critic admires The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl, but dislikes Brophy's "ostentatious" display of her own erudition and "verbal dexterity."]

It was Brigid Brophy who "devised" that enjoyable literary game in which television viewers could try identifying quotations quicker than the pundits. They would have had fun guessing the author of some items in Miss Brophy's new volume [The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl]—a bedside book for the irreverent intellectual. There are some Swiftian fables, a...

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 June 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XLII, No. 12, June 15, 1974, p. 646.

[Below, the critic briefly describes the content of Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl.]

Brigid Brophy, critic of note and stylist absolutely par excellence, is also a bit of a crazy lady in the classical sense—defender of animals, decrier of hypocrisies, champion of reason and beauty, a sort of solitary, spiritual activist who vaults along by sheer perverse whimsicality and logic. It must be a happy state of existence, judging by these stories, or fables, or whatever you would call the likes of, say, Brahms and...

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Brigid Brophy with Leslie Dock (interview date 17 July 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Brigid Brophy," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 17, Spring, 1976, pp. 151-70.

[In the following interview conducted on July 17, 1975, Brophy discusses her early career, the influence of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, Ronald Firbank, and Mozart on her works, her position as a feminist, and her association with the Writers' Action Group.]

Novelist, playwright, critic, and essayist, Brigid Brophy is an Anglo-Irishwoman who lives in England. Her childhood was spent in London, yet, since her father, the novelist John Brophy, was fervently Irish, she visited Ireland frequently and was brought up on Irish ideas. As a child she appeared briefly in a...

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Peter Keating (review date 28 January 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Outline Is All," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3907, January 28, 1977, p. 108.

[In the following review, Keating highly commends Beardsley and His World.]

"I am anxious to say something somewhere, on the subject of lines and line drawing", Aubrey Beardsley wrote to his former school teacher A. W. King on Christmas Day 1891, and added: "How little the importance of outline is understood even by some of the best painters." At this time Beardsley was nineteen years old; he had recently been told by Burne-Jones that he would one day "assuredly paint very great and beautiful pictures", and, on Burne-Jones's advice, he was attending evening classes at the...

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Gabriele Annan (review date 28 April 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Romp among the Royals," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3969, April 28, 1978, p. 463.

[In the review below, Annan praises the satiric tone of Palace without Chairs.]

The crown prince's name is Ulrich; his brothers, the archdukes, are called Balthasar, Sempronius, and Urban; the youngest child is the Archduchess Heather, a butch seventeen-year-old; their father rules the modern kingdom of Evarchia. All this, with the subtitle "a baroque novel", suggests a Firbankian romp, or something like Muriel Spark's The Abbess of Crewe. That was a send-up of politics and the media; they are sent up here too, but fundamentally [Palace without Chairs] is a...

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Edmund White (review date 16 July 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gradations of Silliness," in The New York Times Book Review, July 16, 1978, pp. 8, 27.

[Below, White favorably compares Brophy's "silliness" in Palace without Chairs to Ronald Firbank's literary style, but concludes that "the book doesn't work."]

Through the sturdy homespun of English fiction runs a single thread of silver silliness. It is a filament drawn from an art that may seem snobbish and arch but that in fact affects attitudes only for the sake of the imagination. For that reason it must not be regarded as satire, for the foolish, delicate creatures it pokes fun at have, alas, never existed save in the tented gossamer daydreams of a few writers....

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A. S. Byatt (review date 13 January 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Explosive Embrace," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4380, January 13, 1987, p. 269.

[In the following review, Byatt calls Baroque 'n' Roll "a celebration of life and thought."]

The English perceive Brigid Brophy as a maverick. They do not know where to have her. She writes athwart our traditions of understatement and mild social comment. Her novels are witty and artificial, and irritate the tidy categorizer, since they resemble each other only in the intellectual sensuality of their construction. Her enthusiasms are also disparate, but have in common a tendency to combine precision of expression, a certain extravagance, and formal or logical rigour...

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John Bayley (review date 5 March 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In Praise of Brigid Brophy," in London Review of Books, March 5, 1978, pp. 11-12.

[In the following positive review, Bayley defines "baroque" as portrayed in Baroque 'n' Roll.]

In his recent book Reasons and Persons the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit is inclined to decide that persons have no existence, and that the motives to morality are for that reason clearer and more cogent. So-called personality is a matter of self-interest: bees in a hive have no moral problems. Examining their own world and using their own vocabulary, empirical and linguistic philosophers quite naturally and rightly come to such conclusions. Hume could perceive only a bundle of...

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Sheryl Stevenson (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Language and Gender in Transit: Feminist Extensions of Bakhtin," in Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic, edited by Dale M. Bauer and Susan Janet Mckinstry, State University of New York Press, 1991, pp. 181-98.

[In the following essay, Stevenson discusses parallels between Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of language and In Transit, focusing on the connections the novel makes between the mutability of language, conceptions of gender, modernist fiction, and individual identities.]

Tracing an Orlando-like figure through shifting guises of femininity and masculinity, Brigid Brophy's In Transit lends support to Sandra Gilbert's idea that modernist writers...

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Sarah Lyall (essay date 9 August 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Brigid Brophy Is Dead at 66; Novelist, Critic and Crusader," in The New York Times, August 9, 1995, p. D20.

[In the following obituary, Lyall summarizes Brophy's life and career achievements.]

Brigid Brophy, a novelist, critic, essayist and crusader for myriad causes ranging from better royalty payments for writers to better treatment for animals, died on Monday at a nursing home in Lincolnshire, England. She was 66 and had been suffering from multiple sclerosis for many years.

Miss Brophy was the author of 4 plays, 7 novels and 14 other books, but she is just as well known for her most successful campaign, for landing rights for authors. In...

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Steven Moore (essay date Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Brigid Brophy: An Introduction and Checklist," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 7-11.

[In the following essay, Moore provides an overview of Brophy's literary career.]

There was a time, in the sixties and early seventies, when no one needed an introduction to Brigid Brophy. She was one of the most controversial writers in England—occupying a position somewhat like Camille Paglia's today—and here in the States her books were published by the best New York houses and widely reviewed. Now, unfortunately, most of her books are out of print on both sides of the Atlantic and few readers under forty recognize the name. Some of...

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Chris Hopkins (essay date Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Neglect of Brigid Brophy," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 12-17.

[In the following essay, Hopkins explains why Brophy's fiction resists generic classification and academic characterization, concluding that her manipulation of multiple literary conventions, often within a single work, deserves a wider audience.]

Brigid Brophy has been neglected not only in the academy but also outside it: neither my university library in England nor the local public libraries possess any of her novels, and they are now equally unobtainable in bookshops. Neglect (and ultimately obscurity) is, of course, the fate of many authors, but there...

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Patricia Juliana Smith (essay date Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Desperately Seeking Susan[na]: Closeted Queens and Mozartean Gender Bending in Brigid Brophy's The King of a Rainy Country," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 23-31.

[In the following essay, Smith examines the latent homosexuality and postponed heterosexuality in The King of a Rainy Country, relating these themes to various narrative plot conventions that structure Brophy's novel.]

At first glance (and perhaps second and subsequent glances) Brigid Brophy's second novel, The King of a Rainy Country, might not seem an Ur-text of lesbian postmodernity. Like many of its earliest critics, Charles J. Rolo found...

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Corinne E. Blackmer (essay date Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Finishing Touch and the Tradition of Homoerotic Girls' School Fiction," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 32-9.

[In the following essay, Blackmer situates The Finishing Touch in the tradition of homoerotic pedagogical fiction, suggesting that the novel "represents an important milestone in the history of lesbian and, more broadly, antihomophobic literature."]

Upon her death, the British novelist Sarah Scott (1732–1795) requested that her personal papers, including her intimate correspondence with her longtime companion Barbara Montagu, be destroyed. Yet given the suave, bravura skill with which, two hundred...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Brophy, Brigid. "The Great Celtic/Hibernian School." Performance & Reality: Essays from Grand Street, edited by Ben Sonnenberg, pp. 118-25. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Details the consequences of Oscar Wilde's morality trail and its consequences in relation to his thematic concerns in some of his works.

Miller, Karl. "Brigid Brophy: A Memoir." Raritan 15 (Spring 1996): 38-52.

Reminisces about Brophy's writings contributed to the New Statesman, where Miller was editor, and the various critical reactions they prompted.


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