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."
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.
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.
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."