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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.
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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...
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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."
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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.
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The Crown Princess, and Other Stories (short stories) 1953Hackenfeller's Ape (novel) 1953The King of a Rainy Country (novel) 1956Black Ship to Hell (nonfiction) 1962Flesh: A Novel of Indolent Passion (novel) 1962The Finishing Touch (novel) 1963Mozart the Dramatist: A New View of Mozart, His Operas and His Age (nonfiction) 1964The Snow Ball (novel) 1964Don'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) 1967Religious Education in State Schools (nonfiction) 1967Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (criticism) 1968The Burglar: A Play and Preface (essay and drama) 1968In Transit: An Herio-cyclic Novel (novel) 1969The Longford Threat to Freedom (nonfiction) 1972The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl (novella and short stories) 1973Prancing Novelist: A Defence of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography of Ronald Firbank (biography) 1973Beardsley and His World (biography) 1976Palace without Chairs: A Baroque Novel (novel) 1978A Guide to Public Lending Right (nonfiction) 1983Baroque 'n' Roll, and Other Essays (essays) 1987Reads (essays) 1989
∗This work also features American literature.
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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 Kulturgeschichte—but her extended references to Pope, Tiepolo, Jane Austen, Voltaire, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Paul et Virginie, Thomas Love Peacock, Mozart, etc., get hopelessly side-tracked and tangled up. In general she makes herself hard to follow. Some chapters are two pages long, some nearly forty; The Magic Flute is analyzed in two practically rigorous long chapters, but one has to hunt for Così fan tutte among various obscurely named ones. The writing resembles stream of consciousness more than argument, a great jumble of exhaustingly clever remarks. Miss Brophy may not realize how strong an impression of intellectual exhibitionism her book creates; I am reminded of her own analysis of the role of the virtuoso woman singer in opera. Obviously she is a very bright person and awesomely well read, but unself-critical to an equally awesome degree. She can innocently write.
Indeed, to my ear, though not, I know, to everyone's, this aria ["Mi tradì" from Don Giovanni] is so remarkably Bach-like that I think Mozart must have been musically archaising; and this perhaps is a sign, unconsciously given, that his extramusical thoughts had also gone back in time—to the performance he had witnessed seven years before of an out-of-date play by Shakespeare. Certainly it is in "Mi tradì" that the influence of Hamlet expresses itself most strongly: "Mi tradì" is, in fact, an epitome of all Hamlet's soliloquies.
Of course there is nothing in the least Bach-like about "Mi tradì," as, one gathers, Miss Brophy's friends have all been trying to tell her. The innocence consists in assuming that any impression, no matter how private, is worth throwing in pell-mell, as though a book were an analytic session.
The above passage catches the eye as one of extremely few about Mozart's music; Miss Brophy writes so interestingly about his erections and lavatory training that I was looking especially for comments of comparable sensitivity about the music. It is certainly my experience that revealing things can be and have been written about opera by people who are not professional musicians, that indeed the literary sensibility has a great deal to offer music criticism. But can you—ought you—write about Mozart if you can't tell Mozart from Bach? Can you write a book about Tiepolo if you are colorblind? what kind of a book?
Because it will ignore the artistic medium in question, in the deepest sense it will be a superficial book, even though in a superficial sense it may be probing the "deepest" motives. Mozart the Dramatist does not engage with Mozart's operas as such, as works of art in their integrity, and it does not even offer an account of the dramatic aspects of Mozart's operas, in spite of its title. No effort is made to isolate and treat all the important dramatic themes or events. So in Figaro, Miss Brophy speaks at length (and well) about seduction, but not about the epiphany at the forgiveness scene near the end. In Don Giovanni she notices an Oedipal Hamlet situation, but not the fantastic personal integrity of the Don confronted by the Statue. In Così fan tutte she draws an arresting parallel between the sisters and the Weber sisters between whom Mozart's affections vacillated, but ignores the feelings expressed by sisters and suitors when they find themselves and the other untrue.
The best one can say is that this book treats the myths or stories underlying the Mozart operas, and then not always fully. But an opera is more than a myth. Miss Brophy sees the distinction (at one time or another she acknowledges almost every facet of the problems she raises, without accepting the responsibility of dealing with them). In the course of an elaborate and even persuasive study of the Pasha Selim, whom she regards as the key figure in The Abduction from the Seraglio, she stops to note that he never sings:
although he is peculiarly detached from the opera because he is not a singing part, the Pasha is much more closely involved with the story than Sarastro, who is a mere figurehead …
This is so Irish of Miss Brophy. Since the discourse of the Pasha exists on the colorless level of non-music, far below the imaginative plane of other people in the piece, he has no authority of any kind, whether personal or philosophical, whether as character or observer. As Miss Brophy would put it, he has been effectively castrated by Mozart and the librettist, and Constanze simply makes herself ridiculous by her hysterical reactions to his threats of rape. Miss Brophy does likewise, building everything on aspects of the opera that would remain the same if it had been composed by Handel or Dittersdorf, or if it had never been set to music at all.
It is too bad, intellectually speaking, that Miss Brophy is obsessed with sex; Freudian analysis is a dangerous stimulant for an exuberant and undisciplined mind such as hers. The idea of hidden motives and their repression allows her to flit licentiously back and forth between any intellectual construction and its opposite. For instance, if the Age of the Enlightenment is characterized by the killing of father-figures, every time someone in an opera is killed that can be a sign of the times, and every time someone isn't that can be evidence of repression. If further we postulate Mozart's basic ambivalence towards his Age, those of his works that cannot be interpreted as pro-Enlightenment can be interpreted as anti. After discovering covert and contradictory sexual motives in every situation, comes the really serious work of discovering a criterion of relevance among them—doubtless as serious in psychoanalysis as in cultural and artistic analysis. In art, at least, a criterion exists in what the artist has chosen to present. Don Giovanni can easily be construed as a parricide, a prevaricating Hamlet who awaits the castration expected by all boys as punishment for Oedipal wishes, but the point is, how, in Mozart's opera, do his actions or his attitudes accord with such a construction? Nothing in the libretto or the music gives support to the idea that Don Giovanni reacts to the Commendatore, dead or alive, as to a father. Unlike Hamlet, he does not go through any "To be or not to be"; but, says Miss Brophy with a quite delightful wriggle, Hamlet's soliloquies are put in the mouth of Donna Elvira, thus illustrating opera's characteristic emphasis on women. "Certainly [that 'certainly'!] it is in 'Mi tradì' that the influence of Hamlet expresses itself most strongly …"
An opera is both less and more than a myth. If a motive is so far repressed as not to be articulated in the work of art, nothing is gained by bringing it to the surface. Criticism is not psychoanalysis. Art does not need to be healed.
The least Freudian part of the book, indeed, is the solidest, as well as the most closely—or anyhow, the least loosely—argued. In the section entitled, with characteristic aplomb, "'Die Zauberflöte' Solved," Miss Brophy is dealing for once with an overtly allegorical piece with clear mythological underpinnings. She turns from amateur psychoanalysis and amateur criticism to—suddenly—amateur scholarship, offering a new theory to account for the well-known confusions of the libretto. The problem is complex and I would suppose too specialized to discuss in a review—and still far from solution. Still this time the basic argument seems to me persuasive, even though, very interestingly, it assumes much the same form as the surrounding Freudian discourse. The thought is that the original plot had to be changed because, in depicting the initiation ceremonies in hell, it became too overtly Masonic; which cannot be proved because the Masonic rites remain secret. Even in a non-Freudian setting, Miss Brophy finds herself dealing with "repression" of an unknowable.
A strange book, a strange author, and a very strange author's picture on the dust-cover. In the middle ground, soberly clad, sits Miss Brophy, who one can see must clearly be nicer-looking than she appears here with her eyes averted and with the light playing around her mouth in such a way as to make her look older. In center focus is a bright little girl who points with trembling finger at Miss Brophy's lap, the direction also of Miss Brophy's gaze. As though to screen this blunt sexual reference, a plane object is placed edgewise on her knees—doubtless a child's drawing, since to the left another one is displayed, representing three girls dancing in bouffant skirts (repressed Graces?). Court ladies of the Enlightenment would have themselves painted by Nattier or Vigée-Lebrun in the roles of Venus, Hera, Psyche, or Galatea. Miss Brophy has herself photographed as Erda, but as Urmutter of artist girl-children only who draw girl-children only. Also as Pallas Athena, perhaps: on the exact level of her ears, a coarse diagonal swings all the way across the back of the photograph—a very heavily-laden bookshelf skewering her brain. Exquisitely, this bookshelf is tilted well off level.
My thoroughly amateur iconographic study has a slightly serious point. A good photograph should presumably show us what Miss Brophy looks like, not distribute clues about her self-image as mind and mother. Consciously or—is it possible?—unconsciously, she has quite misconstrued what photography is about; as she has done with opera.
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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 that common, since she has so much of it and others have so little. A lonely, ubiquitous toiler in the weekend graveyards, she has scored some direct hits on massive targets: Kingsley Amis, Henry Miller, Professor Wilson Knight. But she has been compensatingly indulgent to young, up-and-coming female novelists, and a mere whiff of the rococo makes her head spin.
Being right, though, is a solitary calling and for her latest publication B. B. has called in reinforcements, in the shape of Michael Levey (her husband) and Charles Osborne (Assistant Literature Director of the Arts Council). Just as in Don't Never Forget she packaged for posterity her merest book reviews, she has now had the idea of immortalizing her after-dinner conversation. Nibbling a nut roast, sipping a last glass of champagne, she has steered the brilliant conversation round to one of her favourite talking points: those Great Books to which the Eng. Lit. operators have persuaded us to pay Dutiful Homage but which, if we were really honest, we would admit are pretty second-rate. Neither Mr. Levey (who is Deputy Keeper of the National Gallery) nor Mr. Osborne is noted in his official role for iconoclastic demolition of old, over-rated objets d'art. But they seem to have pitched in with zest and the upshot is yet another volume we would gladly do without.
Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without is little more than a compendium of flaunted smartness. Creaking wit, determined spleen, thin, anxious ironies. All the symptoms of an exhausted social eagerness are on display. The aim is for outrageousness, a superb refusal to be lulled by other people's tepid, idle judgments. The effect is of a damp impertinence. A good number of the chosen (or unchosen) works are easy sport, and a few really do deserve oblivion, but they are hounded with a good deal more ineptness than they can themselves be blamed for. And when this fanged trio set about, say, Jane Eyre or The Scarlet Letter, we can merely smile. Similarly, when Whitman is written off with a "what is one to say of this garrulous old bore?" (which garrulous old bore?) and Hopkins as "a mental cripple", or when we are instructed that "the man must have a heart of stone who could raise a laugh at Volpone", or when Defoe and Fielding and Smollett are all found to be as "red-faced as the brick houses of the [Georgian] period, but quite without their elegance and form"—whose mud is in whose eye? A sample of B. L. O.'s intricate textual criticism should put paid to any doubts. Here they are, on Wordsworth's "Daffodils":
The implication is that to gaze and gaze at them is good for the health or the soul—perhaps even for the income. After all, Wordsworth claimed that gazing has brought him "wealth". Perhaps that's why he called these quintessentially yellow flowers "golden".
What acumen, what rigour! Is nothing sacred? Well, some things are—as a glance at Miss Brophy's old novel reviews will confirm. Janice Elliot, Hortense Calisher, Kathryn Perutz—it is to make room for talents of this magnitude that she would have us ditch the Brontës.
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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.
Review of Palace without Chairs, by Brigid Brophy. Washington Post Book World IX, No. 9 (7 October 1979): 15.
Briefly comments that the novel "is told in a verbally dexterous style, with dialogue that is alternately silly and sharp."
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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 could do without, and they largely turn out to be works most of us have been doing without from the moment they were thrust into our unwilling hands early on the road to Graduation Day.
Thus we learn, to our surprise, that Beowulf is really a terrible bore and "dreadfully long," that The Dream of Gerontius (does anyone remember a word of it?) is dreary doggerel, that Whitman was a repressed(?) homosexual who wrote execrable poetry and that Maugham was a middle-brow. Well, if that were all, we could turn back to our bedside copies of The Faerie Queene, but that isn't quite all. This is primarily a blast at the fusty caretakers of the Eng. Lit. syllabus, and as such it is effective. But when the authors let fly at bigger game, notably T. S. Eliot, Hemingway and Faulkner, with some deadly bullets doux, they make one wish they had concentrated on more of these beefy sacred cows instead of all those bedraggled sitting ducks.
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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 conte or two to please bright kids, and chop-logical conversations such as Lewis Carroll would have appreciated; the title refers to a Socratic dialogue, with echoes of Peacock, a cast that includes Voltaire, Samuel Butler and (of course) "the elderly gentleman with white hair and a white beard" who introduces himself with a page of Irish historical diatribe before delightedly joining the "celestial Fabian Society".
Miss Brophy is always sui generis, despite her fondness for playing jokes with her favourite authors, and makes good use of this Shavian bran-tub to provoke, shock or argue the reader into sharing at least some of her preoccupations—vegetarianism, feminism, atheism, and pacifism. A great many bees buzz energetically away, so that the dialogue of the dead is just as likely to include a harangue on characterization in Shakespeare, a plan for public library royalties, and a comparison of the literary merits of Genesis and Treasure Island as a metaphysical discussion on human and divine love. There is no doubt that Miss Brophy is exceedingly funny when she is also impassioned—how, for instance, does God reply to "the humble Christian's" ardent prayers? Since the whole debate has arisen because God is determined to demonstrate for good and all that he is a fiction, he merely complains gloomily that his followers are
like an officious secretary who considers herself a "treasure" because she keeps a pop-up card index that reminds her to remind the boss when his aunt's birthday is coming along … only, in my case, it's of my own birthday that they insist on giving me warning weeks in advance.
And it turns out that the Black Girl (who has become one Hector Erasmus Mkolo on a pilgrimage to Rome and Western Success) originated as a female version of Candide—a tribute that Voltaire, who appears here as more of an atheist than most historians might accept, receives without comment.
Elysian Fabians may not have been quite what Gibbon, credited with this particular literary game, had in mind. Certainly Shaw's prudish and aseptic ghost would be shocked by Miss Brophy's "Homage to Back to Methuselah", in which Corydon and Co. learn the corruption of materialism by discovering that a ruby lasts longer and shines more brightly than the menstrual blood previously thought of as their greatest treasure. Nor do we all find a ghoulish pastiche of Agatha Christie-ish detection, in which the assembled house-party guests realize that they are accused of murdering kidney, bacon and haddock (not to mention the leather-covered books and desk) quite the witty exposé of our carnivorous customs Miss Brophy intends. The bad taste is, of course, a deliberate challenge to smug indifference. Aspects of society we pretend to deplore invite this kind of satire; Emperors of East and West might one day swim to an ocean chat and agree to total disarmament; it is not altogether preposterous to argue that "poverty is the commonest crime" when the poor suffer very similar deprivations to convicted felons.
Where Miss Brophy tends to lose sympathy—for which this book so entertainingly begs and bullies—is in wearing her "quiz-game" erudition (snippets of half-digested knowledge) and her very considerable verbal dexterity quite so ostentatiously. Far too many puns are of the order of the Minotaur saying he's now a minotaurist attraction, too many good ideas—like the reluctant millionaire who demands amputation of any of his own limbs that contribute nothing to efficiency—are extended just beyond our initial appreciation of the paradox. Like Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without, this is Miss Brophy taking the mickey—and if it weren't for the vigour and blarney of her approach, one would be inclined to dismiss her as wasting talent on readers she clearly doesn't much like.
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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 Polyhymnia sniping back and forth about Sir Edward Elgar—in which Brophy provides herself with arrestingly choice occasions for the airing of her views which might not hold up so well in a more usual form of exposition. Instead, a frequent ploy is to invent a couple of types or invoke historical personages and let them bat out restricted segments of the argument. Voltaire, Gibbon and God, plus a psychiatrist and a couple of academic specialists and an assortment from the general populace, cover a good many topics in the course of a ramble across the Elysian fields, God proving to be a quite sophisticated, reflective sort of being, modest, and profoundly cognizant of his existential nature as a fictional character. (He has a striking rapport with Voltaire, who is less modest and posthumously addicted to psychoanalysis.) The topics they debate would interest the parties involved, probably, and the quality of the argument will delight anyone with a suitably literary turn of mind, but these are crotchets that will be shared or not. What everyone can enjoy in Brophy is style and wit nearly always adequate to the burdens she puts upon them. The few real fables are acid and lovely, just as such.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7405
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 film, was bathed by T.E. Lawrence, and wrote verse dramas from the age of six onwards. After attending Oxford for four terms, Brophy was, in effect, expelled for indiscretions. She then took a variety of clerical jobs, published a volume of short stories, and began work on her first novel, Hackenfeller's Ape (1953). While writing it she met Michael Levey, who is now her husband and director of the National Gallery. With their daughter Kate, Levey and Brophy live in an elegant four-room flat on the Old Brompton Road in London, where the interview took place on July 17, 1975.
Since 1953, when her first volume was published, Brophy's output has been extensive: six novels, two collections of short prose fiction, one play, four nonfiction works, a critical collection written in collaboration with Michael Levey and Charles Osborne, and numerous articles. Her best-known novels are The King of a Rainy Country (1962), The Finishing Touch (1963), and In Transit (1969). Black Ship to Hell (1956), her first nonfiction work, is a lengthy treatment of Freudianism and rationalism which, combined with her classicism, are the underpinnings of her critical stance.
Her essays, both topical and critical, treat issues and the arts from a psychological and rational standpoint. In England Brophy is known both for her fiction and as a proponent of human and animal rights who writes and speaks out in favor of vegetarianism, birth control for animals and birds, prison reform, freedom from censorship, and a change in attitudes toward marriage and divorce. Her essays are both whimsical and penetrating: she has analyzed Mickey Mouse as a modern folk-hero and animated phallic symbol.
What Brophy considers to be the best, or most representative, of her articles are collected in the nonfiction volume, Don't Never Forget (1966). An allusion to a phrase in one of Mozart's letters (written, in broken English, to an English-speaking friend), the title reflects Brophy's love for Mozart's music and her eclecticism. To varying degrees, her works all evince a continuing emphasis upon art, in the broadest sense. She uses musical patterns and shifting tempos, cinematic or photographic effects, and architectural images—most notably, baroque—to enrich the texture of her fiction.
Although her approach to fiction and concern with human and animal rights have remained fairly constant, her works are not all of a piece, which, she thinks, may be one reason for her not being well-known, especially in the United States. Hackenfeller's Ape explores a number of themes, among them original sin, the romantic viewpoint, and experimentation on animals for scientific purposes; The Burglar (1968) treats sexual puritanism and society's attitudes toward criminals; The King of a Rainy Country concerns a young boy and girl who undertake a literal and figurative search for a woman who represents their mother; and so on. Her most recent work, The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl, subtitled A Novel and Some Fables (1968), indicates her debt to Shaw, as do the preface to, and stage directions for, The Burglar. Equally influential on Brophy's style and aesthetics is Ronald Firbank, the subject of her nonfiction work, Prancing Novelist (1973), and the stylistic model for The Finishing Touch.
Although she claims not to be totally Irish and, like Yeats, has lost faith with the Irish revolutionary movement, she retains an Irish drollness of expression and speech. Unfortunately, an interview such as this diminishes the satiric force of her diction in phrases such as "The British Museum has not made me an offer." Her voice, although soft, is musical. She sits very still, thinks about a question, utters a characteristic "ahh" or "ummm," then plunges into a complex sentence structure.
[Dock:] Having read your article, "My Mother,"I have a fairly clear impression of her personality. About your father, I know little other than that he was a "middlebrow novelist."
[Brophy:] I was so fond of him that, although ten years have passed since his death, I still don't find it very easy to talk about him. I got on with him, by nature, very much better than with my mother. We had in common the fact that, obviously, the arts meant more to us than anything else. He was a very generous, very easygoing person. We argued and disagreed furiously about literature the whole time, but, as I say, had this in common, that it mattered desperately to us both. What else ought I to say about him?
If you don't want to say more, fine.
He was a very remarkable person in very many ways and a lot of people have asked me why I have never written about him, but I don't think this would be emotionally possible.
In the story"Fordie,"which is in Crown Princess, a collection of your early stories, are any of the characters—Fordie, Philip, or Elgin—based on real persons?
I shouldn't think so. I think it's probably true to say that, with one exception, I have never written anything based on a real person, though obviously little pieces of real experience get used. But I have certainly never attempted to put—and I don't think I have ever even inadvertently succeeded in putting—a real person into a book.
What would that one exception be?
I wrote a novel called The King of a Rainy Country, in which there is a young man called Neale; that was a deliberate, close attempt—definitely, though with all his externals disguised—to make a portrait of somebody I had been involved with.
Was he the "Jungian"? You said in an essay that you were once attached to a Jungian, and that later the relationship ended with your disliking both the Jungian and Jung.
That is very shrewd of you. Yes, indeed, he was, or is, the character on whom Neale is based.
Would you care to tell his name, or not?
It is probably better that I shouldn't; he is in no way famous, but I wouldn't care to suffer his return into my life after all these years, in the form of a libel action.
You published an article entitled"The Rococo Seducer"two years before The Snow Ball appeared in print. How long do you usually work on each novel?
I have no idea how long the ideas for a novel germinate: probably a very, very long time. The actual writing I usually do very quickly, but one of the stories in that first collection—the stories that you spoke of, which I published when I was twenty-two or twenty-three—I can remember writing an early version of when I was fifteen, during my Latin class in school. So, things do go on for a very long time in the mind. But they don't for me go on for very long on paper.
Do you remember which story that was?
It was a story called "The Late Afternoon of a Faun."
Ah, yes. I can see how it could be an escape from Latin class, in a way.
It was, indeed, classically inspired. I was a person who read Latin and Greek at Oxford, because of a passionate love of Greek. At that time I disliked Latin very much indeed, but one couldn't do Greek without Latin, so I had to struggle through it. And, indeed, through exploring the nonclassical periods of Latin literature, I came to have much more respect for the Latin language than I set out with.
How long did it take you to write Black Ship to Hell? The reason I ask is that I was wondering if you had those ideas in mind when you wrote The King of a Rainy Country.
Yes, I think I probably did quite consciously have the ideas in mind; I certainly did unconsciously. It took me a long time to write. I wrote a complete version of it first in a completely undramatized manner, just as if I had been writing a statistical report, or something. I had difficulty finding a publisher for it, and so on, and came to see that this escape wouldn't do, that if one were going to write nonfiction, one couldn't just write it as though one were concocting a report. So then I rewrote the whole book, at a time when I had a very young child around; thus it was a very happy book to write, but it was very fraught, physically, because I had this thing crawling around on the desk at the time!
Yes, there is that gap between 1956 and 1962, between The King of a Rainy Country and Black Ship to Hell; were you more or less taking care of Kate the whole time and working on the book when you could?
Yes. I had a gap, a sort of emotional gap, anyway—a thing I used to have in those days about writing—I no longer do. And then, in that intermittent gap I had the child, and this proved to be sufficient occupation for the time being.
Do you type, or do you write rough drafts longhand? How many drafts do you write?
I write the whole thing in longhand, meticulously. I can't actually even write a letter straight onto the typewriter, partly because I touch-type. I earned my living as a typist and therefore the eye constantly seeks the copy to copy from, so I have to have one, as I say, to write a letter.
In your article"Sex-'n'-Violence"you say that psychoanalysis, by advancing the concept of normality, has hindered the advance of sexual tolerance. Have your attitudes toward psychoanalysis changed significantly since the publication of Black Ship to Hell?
I don't think so. I think that, as Freud himself recedes in history, it becomes easier to pick on the things which were incidental (and a lot of what he said about women comes under that heading) and to, as it were, write them off. At the same time I think my impression of the absolutely vital, Aristotelian-sized importance of what he discovered just grows stronger and stronger; hardly a day goes by without some incident which simply makes one say over and over again, "He was right! He was right!" If one goes to a committee meeting somebody will betray what he is really thinking by a slip of the tongue.
So, then, your contention is with psychoanalysis, and not with Freud; your contention is with his practitioners?
I differ from Freud; he was superman, but he wasn't super-superman. He couldn't instantly distinguish between where he'd picked up the accepted ideas of his time and where the truth was: so, once or twice, he went wrong. But I think it was, to revert to this normality thing, inevitable that he should take over that concept of normality from medicine—he was a doctor—and take over the concept of, "If it's normal, it's healthy, it functions," and this is not an adequate concept to deal with human beings in society, because one has to take in "what it ought to be," as well. I think he wasn't always altogether clear about this, but he was so good at clearing through the undergrowth, that one is not accusing him.
In Black Ship to Hell you observe that the eighteenth century failed to produce a "penetrating literary aesthetic because it lacked a free and vital theater." You have also said that you began writing plays at the age of six. Why is it, then, that you have written many more novels than plays?
Oh, because nobody would put the plays on, as simple as that. They put one on, and it was a gross commercial failure.
Yes. There have been quasi-bites ever since, towards later ones, with the stipulation to me, "If you rewrote the whole of Act Two, and changed all the male characters into female characters, and moved the whole setting from Sweden to Australia, then…." But nothing serious. I feel very attracted by the theater, but I know now, what I didn't know at the time of The Burglar, that the author's responsibility extends all the way. You've got to go to every rehearsal; you've got to teach the actors how to act in the style you want; when they say, "I can't say the line," you've got to explain to them the idea of the line as it's written; you've got to tell the director the pace at which it should go; you've got to do everything in the theater. And I'm not very good at doing these personal things in personal relationships to people I don't know very well. Therefore, I prefer to dodge out of this responsibility.
It would be easier, then, if you did a movie because, once done, it would be forever on film, as your books are forever on paper.
It would be very nice to do a movie, I must say!
You mentioned in the preface to The Burglar that you had written a play, or were about to write a play, called "Libretto" or "The Libretto." Was it ever published, and if so, where? I haven't been able to find it.
No, it was never published, because it was never performed. In England one can't publish a play that hasn't been performed.
How early did you begin reading Ronald Firbank? Do you remember when it was?
No. I read one novel, The Artificial Princess, as a child; I guess there was a copy in my home. I don't know at what age, because I began reading everything at the age of about five.
Part Two of the preface to The Burglar begins with your describing the writer of your works as a "masochistically-inclined non-narcissist." In other articles, as well, you speak of your masochism. Could you please elaborate: do you see writing as a masochistic act?
No, except insofar as it's very painful, but then creating a work in any medium is very painful, I imagine. No, I don't think writing is, in itself, masochistic. I think that one might guess the masochism in my personality from the fact that I practice criticism as well as creative writing, which would suggest that the critical faculty was very sharpened and was always ready to turn on the creator.
Have you read Simon Raven's insulting article, "Brophy and Brigid," in which he maintains that the "intelligent writer of clear masculine prose is Brophy," whereas Brigid is the "faddy and finicking" female? That review was in the Spectator, 1966.
I may have read it, yes; it doesn't sound unfamiliar.
I ask because, in In Transit, there are those constant flagellation scenes where "he" is flagellating or whipping "her." And I was wondering if, perhaps, you were parodying Raven's comment at that point.
Not consciously, but I recognize it; obviously, I've read it. So you could be right.
I wondered if you were, perhaps, parodying his views entirely, parodying the idea that the male is the dominant type. It wouldn't necessarily be that you would have read his review, but I thought you might be splitting yourself into the "he" and the "she," with the masochistic writer being beaten by this ascendant, logical type?
It would be amusing! But I don't think that I would sufficiently accept that the male is the logical one, the female illogical and subservient.
Of course, I meant that the split would be a parody, because you've said in your essays that women are men's equals.
Well, it may be an unconscious parody; you may well be right, but I was certainly not aware of it.
Hunter Davies conducted a personal interview with you in your home in March, 1974, and from that I gathered several facts about your life, about your relationship with your husband, and so forth. My question is, superficially, Flesh and The Snow Ball seem to be based on your experiences: the lovers' meeting each other at a New Year's Eve party in The Snow Ball; Marcus' sense of being lost, then "finding himself" in marriage in Flesh, and so on. You have said that you once worked for a firm which sold pornographic books, as does Susan in The King of a Rainy Country. Did you ever guide a tour of Americans through the Continent, as does Susan?
No, the guided tour was pure fiction. I once worked for a firm which sold "remaindered" books, some of which were pornographic, but it wasn't exactly a pornographic book-seller, as it were. The whole of Flesh is pure fiction. Marcus bears no resemblance whatever to my husband, and I trust I bear none to Marcus' wife.
The meeting at a New Year's Eve party in The Snow Ball was a case of entirely unconscious autobiography, because that was a very grand party in fancy dress, and part of the point of the book was that these were two not-rich people, in among rich people. The party where I, in fact, met my husband, was very far from grand, and nobody was in fancy dress, and so on. But obviously, there was an element of autobiography in it; it was entirely unconscious until a man that we both knew remarked on it to me one evening, and I said "My God!" So I was actually unaware of that.
Their meeting at a New Year's Eve party is convenient from a classical point of view; New Year's Eve marks the changing of the year, the time of upheaval, and so forth, so I can see why, structurally, you'd want to do it that way.
Yes, it had many determinants, and my relationship to my husband has not been so fleeting and unhappy as that relationship was, thank God.
Fordie, in the story of the same name, is womanish (he wears a shawl and is termed "dear mother"); the professor in Hackenfeller's Ape sings the Countess' song; the narrator of In Transit is confused about his or her sexual identity; and the choral pitches in In Transit are such that males sing soprano, women bass. Could you please comment on your purpose in merging, reversing, or reworking sexual stereotypes so frequently? for blending male and female stereotypic characteristics?
Yes, first, a simple Freudian recognition of the basic bisexuality of everybody. Second, a conscious desire to counteract the mythology of literary criticism at the moment, which so often cries that only women can write about women, and only men can write about men. One constantly reads that there are no good parts for women in the theater, because there aren't enough women dramatists. The point is, that Hedda Gabler and Cleopatra were not created by women dramatists. I have a feeling that this is not only a mistaken approach to sex, but also a mistaken mythology of basic mental differences between the sexes, which I don't accept exists. I feel that that mythology is a denial of imagination, which I think one has to counter.
The whole purpose of fiction is that the writer (and thereby the reader) is transported into some form of life which is absolutely different from his own; and to be transported, if one is female, to a male character, and vice versa, is a terribly light transposition: this is a very small flight, compared to what the imagination can do. Consequently, I feel a certain obligation to insist on the mental interchangeability of the sexes, as well as believing that this is basically true.
Yes, Virginia Woolf's conception of androgyny. You don't like her novels, though, do you, as a rule?
No, I don't, I'm afraid. I wish I could; I think she was ever-so-right about ever-so-many things, but she just doesn't, for me, take off as a novelist.
In a 1965 essay, "The Unmentionable Subject,"you said that the subject on which you had written and about which you had thought the most, was art; second, human and animal rights; and third, sex. Since then, has the order changed at all?
No, all that has happened is that the first has slightly blended in my life with the second, in that the last three years of my life have very largely been given to a struggle for authors' rights.
With Maureen Duffy and the Writers' Action Group?
Yes. We are still very deeply engaged in a campaign for Public Lending Right, and we are also engaged in a trade union for writers, and in generally insisting on authors' rights, so this, I would say, is a practical merging of the first and the second. A trade union for writers is not a very sexy occasion, so to that extent, the third has had to recede.
I see the first and the third as part of each other, actually; in In Transit, sex and art are interwoven; the book continually weaves in the pornographic "sub-art" form.
Yes. Would you say that human rights are involved for or against pornography?
Human rights would be for pornography.
At times you have expressed a fascination with "American" as a language. Yet you have also said that the American language is "licking the brains out of [your] native civilisation." Would you elaborate, please?
I think the threat to the English language from the southern section of the United States has slightly receded. There was a time, which obviously began during the war, when, I think, there was a genuine danger that English-English was going to be replaced by United States-English. You will note how pedantically I call it "United States-English," not "American-English," which shows a simple, Gore Vidal-like objection to United States imperialism. I have always wanted to make some public reference to Castro as the American president, to show that he's an American too.
I think that the danger to our language from United States-English is probably now past, but there's a whole spectrum of bureaucratese which issues from the European economic community, which is not a language at all; it's not the idiom of any of the countries in Europe: this is the new danger.
We call it "duckspeak."
"Duckspeak." I don't know, I think ducks are perhaps more articulate. At least, I don't think they make their noises in order to obscure thought.
If you were thinking about commenting on Castro as an American president, and if you were going to step into that arena, I was wondering why you have never said much about the political situation in Ireland. In the article, "Am I an Irishwoman?"you do discuss the Irishman's feeling of being a second-class citizen, his feeling about taking on English, which is not quite his own language, and yet not being an Irishman; yet I wonder why you have never commented on the situation in Northern Ireland in an article?
I have commented on it, in fiction, actually, though in a very disguised way, in a book called The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl.
Since I wrote that essay about being quasi-Irish, I have, emotionally, withdrawn totally from Ireland, and I was amused to notice that certain self-reproaches still happen about this. The last twenty-third of April we of the Writers' Action Group staged a demonstration of writers outside the Ministry of the Arts, in Belgrave Square, demanding PLR [Public Lending Right]. We chose to do this on the twenty-third of April because it's both the putative birthday of Shakespeare and St. George's Day, and St. George is the patron saint of England. We asked two actors to dress up as St. George and the dragon; we took a bunch of red roses (red roses for England) to the Minister of the Arts, and said, "Would you please rescue English literature?" The speakers at this rally each wore a red rose, for England, on St. George's Day. And as I stood on the platform, a sudden terrible arrow went through me: "You are not English; you shouldn't be wearing a red rose; St. George's Day is nothing to you; you were brought up to celebrate St. Patrick's Day." And I was very amused that this feeling could still, from one's childhood, reach out and affect me.
Juliet Mitchell, in Psychoanalysis and Feminism, discusses Freud's using the Zeus-Kronos-Uranus myth to "supplement the Oedipal legend" in Freud's "recreation of man's phylogenetic and ontogenetic history." In Black Ship to Hell you discuss the Diana Triformis myth. The three women in The King of a Rainy Country—Cynthia, Helena, and Susan—seem to embody the Diana trinity, and Neale and Susan both seem to be working through Oedipal conflicts. Could you please comment on your reasons for using a mythical framework or pattern for The King of a Rainy Country?
I think the reasons are practical. One has only the furniture of one's own mind, and I am, as I say, a classical scholar (or I was) and a Freudian; given that each layer of furniture is reinforced by the other, I had no alternative. I don't think that it is very insisted-on; but you were absolutely right to detect it.
Part of my question concerns the fact that some writers have criticized Freud for not analyzing sufficiently women's myths. Were you trying to add on to the body of Freudian myth-analysis by presenting, in novel form, a working-out of the women's part of the Zeus-Kronos-Uranus myth? There are very few characters in that novel. There's Neale, of course, yet he's actually another facet of Susan (this is my impression); he says he has her past; they have pasts in common; both are looking for a mother. Then there's Philip, and he seems to be a mere appendage to Helena.
Yes, he's not there. I think that this effect may be the result of, in me, the egotism of youth. Or, if I were lucky, it might be an attempt to actually depict the egotism of youth. It is a first-person novel; it's the only one that contains any consciously, deliberately, autobiographical material. It was probably a rather belated attempt on my part to outgrow that material and distance it. Whether it was consciously an attempt to add an Electra side to the Oedipus, I don't know. However, whether it was conscious or unconscious, you were right in detecting that that's what it does.
You describe the style, the idiom, of The Finishing Touch as "superficially Firbankian." Yet the content and plot, to me, seem to owe something also to Colette, specifically Claudine at School. Would you agree?
Certainly, I think the plot does, and the atmosphere. This is another interesting example of how hard it is for people to believe that one's work is entirely nonautobiographical. The number of people, starting with the publisher of the book, who asked which finishing school I had been at, you would hardly believe.
The publisher was terribly worried, because he took it for an absolutely straightforward account of the finishing school I had been at; he was terribly worried about libel. I assured him I had never been at a finishing school in my life, and had no idea, even, what they were like. He found this very hard to believe, and indeed sent somebody to the South of France to search for finishing schools that might take an action against him.
Yes, it might well owe a lot to Colette, and to the Claudine books in particular, which I am curiously fond of, absurd as they are, in a way. They contain, I think, some of her most directly autobiographical, in an emotional sense, material.
But when you wrote the book you weren't consciously saying, "Claudine at School depicts events when the two headmistresses were young; let's see what happens when they're a bit older and when the weaker one has the upper hand." In other words, you weren't consciously reworking Colette's material and taking the book one step further, from a different perspective?
I don't think so, because what I consciously had in mind was a real-life situation which concerned an educational institution in London (which I will not name), but a very much higher educational institution than the one in the book, in London, which had a male director and a female vice-director who was terribly gone on him. He was extremely elegant and fey, and as queer as a coot. And this extremely tweedy, down-to-earth lady, his deputy, was romantically so absolutely besotted by him, that this situation had for a long time amused Michael and me very much. This was, as it were, the germ of the book. Michael caught chicken pox from our daughter, had to stay at home for three weeks, and was very bored. He felt terribly ill for the first twenty-four hours, and then felt better, but he couldn't go out, for fear of infecting people. So I produced something to amuse him.
But, of course, in the process you changed the characters from a woman and a man to two women. I think that makes quite a difference to the reader.
Yes. It would have been very hard to create a scandal from a woman and a man; therefore it had to be changed.
You have criticized Simone de Beauvoir for her pedantry, for being a plodder, for her deficient style and content—specifically, for missing Freud's point. Are there any feminists, other than de Beauvoir, that you do admire or favor?
What is a feminist? I mean, there are many women writers that I admire, and I certainly admire any woman who gets on with the job as though she were not a woman. I may have a very slight dislike for, and contempt for, women who make a profession out of being women, as indeed I have for Frenchmen living in England who make a profession out of being Frenchmen, or anything of that kind. I am a feminist, of course, but there is no sense in which I would accept that women are anything but the total equals of men. Perhaps I have the feeling that, if one has no subject matter except feminism, then one is trading on nothing, as though one were to make a career out of proclaiming that grass is green.
You don't think, then, that Greer's The Female Eunuch, which you seem not to mind, in"Everybody's Lib,"has any validity for the women or men who haven't had their "consciousnesses raised," as the cliché has it?
This is always a difficult matter: should one pick out these things that need liberation? Something in me half-believes that it is better to exemplify than to preach. No, this is unfair, perhaps. But the world has Jane Austen and George Eliot, two minds which will demonstrate to anybody who is open to demonstration that a female mind is not necessarily inferior to a male mind. I basically think that the point of Women's Lib is better made by having more Jane Austens and George Eliots, and high-powered civil servants and so on, than by constantly reiterating a truism when you have nothing else to say. There are a number of reputations which are open to the question, "Suppose you'd been born a man?" Would we ever have heard of them? Suppose she or he had been born heterosexual; would we ever have heard of heard or him? And this can beg the very question that they're trying to preach.
Still, I'm not sure about this one; I may be being unfair. And indeed, I think one has to say that feminism, and indeed Gay Lib, have done things that were not done simply by people simply living their lives and being talented. Therefore I am being unfair, though it may turn out that the journalists' fashion for Women's Lib—and, to some extent, for Gay Lib—may suddenly pass, leaving us exactly where we were before. Journalists are incredibly without memory, and without historical sense. For example, when Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon, they announced that this was the first black person who'd ever won Wimbledon; this was not true.
Yes, I read your letter to the Times the other day.
I made a feminist point about it in the Times, which was unfair, but I wanted them to print it. In fact, the real point to be made is against journalists, because journalists have only just heard of black power; this is an "in" thing. And they believe it has happened only in the past three years. (Journalists' memories never go back beyond three years.) This is untrue, because, in fact, when Althea Gibson won Wimbledon, it was an enormous feat; it was very much greeted by black people as being a great victory for them. And of course there was a movement for the liberation of black people 'way back in 1956. It's just that, as I say, journalists believe that black power, Women's Lib, Gay Lib, are entirely new phenomena! and this strange absence of historical sense in journalists could mean that, when they suddenly start thinking of Women's Lib as old hat, we will find that it hasn't advanced things, socially.
In your essay, "The Importance of Mozart's Operas,"you say that, in Don Giovanni, Mozart produced "one of the world's imperfect masterpieces … an eternal enigma," as a result of using, unconsciously, autobiographical material. In Transit is, for me, somewhat of an enigma. I can pick out some of the elements: pornography, musical tempos, confusion about oneself in relation to others, plus a parody of detective fiction, but the pattern or design is unclear. Could you please explain your intent and, if possible, comment on the autobiographical material, the circumstances that pushed you into writing it? In an essay you say that it depicts the "impulse to fiction," but I have no idea of how the pattern works.
The pattern is about disintegration of accepted routines. We "intellectually structure our world" (I'm sorry about the jargon) by certain received truths which we think to be true, in various moods. So when the "I" character in In Transit deliberately decides to miss the plane for which she or he has a ticket, the timetable is disrupted, and this is the first disintegration of the rulebook.
In Transit is about a series of disintegrations of rulebooks, including the sexual stereotypes, ending with the question of whether Aristotelian logic might disintegrate, whether we are mistaken in thinking that a thing cannot be both X and not-X, whether we are mistaken in thinking that the syllogistic argument is valid. There are a good many passages referring to Aristotelian logic in the book. And then, going from the logical proposition to the sentence, the book poses the question of whether the accepted Western sentence structure (subject-verb-object) is also disintegrating. When I say that these rules are disintegrating, I mean that what is being questioned is, do they reflect any necessary truths, or are they entirely arbitrary?
The structure of the book, to express these disintegrations or questionings, is the first instance of my trying to write in symphonic form. Everything else I have written (and I think this would probably be true, even if I write an article of 2000 words) is structured on the concerto, in three movements, with a one, two, one-A structure within each movement. In Transit is an attempt to write in four movements, and with a more complicated development of each theme within each movement. I don't know that it succeeds.
The symphonic structure I had in mind was Brahms's. I don't know; some days I think he was a very great composer, and other days I think he was just a windy old Victorian. But he certainly is a composer who affects me very strongly, whether for good or for bad. And he also is a composer whom one sees as having had the ability to create disintegration: sometimes he builds toward an orchestral climax, and what is structurally a climax, but you have the impression that it's also about falling apart. It's lost faith, and he's questioning, "Is this a tune? Is it the same as the other tune, or is it different?" I feel he was full of self-doubt, and that is why he was my model for the structure of In Transit.
Weren't you more or less trying to create that same sort of disintegration of rhythm in The Snow Ball, where most of the descriptions start out as neutral, if not positive (I am thinking of the cherubs all over the house), and gradually, within the passage, the description becomes quite negative—or was that not your intent?
Yes, this is true, but I didn't attempt, in The Snow Ball, to disintegrate the actual structures of thought. I only disintegrated one person's thought, with a few persons peripheral to her emotional structures. That was the main fact, the fact that people die, which, I would agree, is the ultimate in disintegration. But in The Snow Ball there is not the disintegration of an actual intellectual world, as distinct from one person's world.
Yes, it seems to me that in The Snow Ball the furnishings were disintegrating. One character makes the comment that the antique furniture probably looked better two hundred years ago.
I think this disintegration is there; my fear about civilization is that, if we can no longer make beautiful furniture—and, more to the point, beautiful buildings—which we hardly can, nowadays, the few beautiful ones that we haven't knocked down are not going to last us very much longer.
In Prancing Novelist you maintain that, today, private incomes are drying up in Western countries, thus decreasing the chances of a great artist's having income sufficient to support himself or herself. The answer is, you say, "greater generosity, spreading the money more widely." Given England's economic situation, how would you propose this be done?
Firstly, obviously, by paying authors for the lending of their books in public libraries, which is more important in this country than in any other Western country, for the simple reason that we have a larger public library service than anybody else. Not even proportionately to our population, but absolutely, we have a larger one. Therefore the loss to authors is even greater in this country than anywhere else. By adding four million pounds to the central government's budget per year, you could spread the money around perfectly justly to authors whose books are borrowed. Some of them are authors who also sell well, but a lot of them are not, because 73 percent of all adult borrowing in British public libraries is borrowing of fiction, but the number of novelists who are best sellers, and make a lot of money from sales, is very small. Therefore there are a great number of novelists who make very little money, but are heavily borrowed. To pay a Public Lending Right to them, would make an enormous difference, especially for fiction, but not only for fiction.
That is the first method. The other method is an increase in state patronage; of all the money spent on the arts in this country, only 1 percent goes to literature. So an increase in state patronage to writers would make quite a lot of difference.
Would it extend to dead writers? Sometimes a writer doesn't make any money during her or his lifetime; would it extend to a widower or widow?
This is our intention, that it shouldn't extend for the full fifty years after death of the copyright period, because if you are, as this country is, short of money, it is perfectly legitimate to say, should we support grandchildren or ninth cousins? But we certainly intend, the writers intend, or the government intends, that it should be applicable to widowers and widows and to children under twenty-one.
Are there any works of yours which, now, you wish you hadn't published?
Yes. My first book, a volume of short stories, The Crown Princess, which I do not mention in any reference books, and have to that extent suppressed. I would like the opportunity to rewrite and improve them all, but no, I'm not positively ashamed of any of them, except that.
I think it was a book written by a little girl trying to be good, producing what was expected, and the only story I would except is the one called "The Late Afternoon of a Faun," which was, as I said earlier, the earliest story in it, and which is the only one, it seems to me, to have anything. The others seem to me manufactured, written for a certain middlebrow market, to be life imposed on me, not me on life.
You describe your father as a "middlebrow novelist"; would you say you are high, middle, or lowbrow, as a novelist?
I would say that I try to write to the top of my intellectual ability, and I try never to baffle readers deliberately, because that is simply pretentiousness. But if, when I have put it as clearly as I can, it baffles them or puts them off, that is too bad; it isn't they that will suffer, it is I, because they won't buy my books. To that extent, I suppose one has, using the word I don't very much like, to say "highbrow."
Are you working on a novel right now?
No, alas. In intervals I've been bludgeoning the British government. I'm rewriting a book about Aubrey Beardsley, whom I've already written about. It's taking a rather long time, partly to write, and partly because there's quite a lot of new material, new facts. I've discovered the true version of previously wrongly accepted facts, which is nice, but I wish I had more leisure to do it in.
I am also about to publish my first excursion into writing for children. There are two stories which are to be published in a volume in the spring of 1976 and which will at the same time be read on BBC television. They are for children, but not, I hope, exclusively for children. They concern a very nasty and self-regarding character called Pussy Owl.
Do you save your manuscripts or give them to the British Museum?
The British Museum has not made me an offer. I keep them in a plastic box underneath the bed, which prevents them from cluttering the place up. It also prevents Maureen Duffy's dog, who spends a lot of time here (because Maureen is here a great deal of the time, running Writers' Action Group with me), from getting under the bed, which used to be her chief delight during the days that she spent here. She got under once, and couldn't get out again; she and I had quite a half-an-hour's struggle. She scrabbled at my manuscripts, I scrabbled at her; eventually we got her out.
What do you think of Norman Mailer?
It is always very necessary to protest masculinity in the United States. There has always to be a figure: there was Hemingway, and now there is Norman Mailer, whose very name is so very amusing in that connection. I think this is something which is missing from English literary life, unless one says that the thirties tradition of cricket and poets is an assertion of the same thing, which it may be.
What about the nonliterary life? Do you think that English men are more advanced in terms of treating women as equals, than are American men?
I haven't been in the United States for a long time, though, obviously, I have met a lot of people from the United States over here. I think—very slightly, yes. If one goes about one's own affairs or business in this country, I don't think that most men will particularly notice that one is a woman. Obviously, they notice, but I think they got over the fact of this a long time ago, and I don't think these descriptions apply in the United States, although I may be wrong.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604
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 Westminster School of Art.
As Brigid Brophy points out in this excellent book [Beardsley and His World], Burne-Jones had "recognised the existence but not the nature of Beardsley's genius", this being to "create drawings which were completed pictures in themselves". At the moment when he rejected the advice that his future lay in painting and stressed instead the "importance of outline", Beardsley had less than seven years to live, and he seems to have understood this as well. "I shall not live longer than did Keats", he proclaimed, and reinforcing both the truth of, and the reason for, this prophecy is the moving painting by Sickert, which is reproduced here, of Beardsley leaving Hampstead Church in 1894 after attending the ceremonial unveiling of a bust of Keats. Elegantly dressed, gaunt, and appallingly thin, Beardsley seems to be dragging himself away from the gravestones. It is a picture, as Brigid Brophy says, "terrifying in the nakedness of its symbolism".
The format of the Thames and Hudson series in which Beardsley and His World is published depends for its success on a skilful blending of pictures and text, and here again this is managed superbly. There are photographs of Beardsley at various moments in his life, and of his relatives, homes, and lodgings, and examples of his work from the juvenile "Kate Greenaway" sketches; through the drawings published in The Studio, The Yellow Book, and The Savoy, to the highly ornate illustrations for an edition of Volpone on which Beardsley was working when he died. Among the less familiar drawings are those illustrating Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and, just as sinister in every respect, there is a welcome reproduction of one of Beardsley's two surrealistic oil paintings.
The only curious omissions are the openly erotic illustrations of Lysistrata. Curious because one of them was reproduced in Brigid Brophy's earlier study of Beardsley, Black and White (1968). It is described here, in almost the same words, as a picture "aching with an explicit sexual frustration that was probably Beardsley's own", but without the drawing itself. It is tempting to ask why? Brigid Brophy is so insistent, and perceptive, on the generally erotic nature of Beardsley's art (especially phallic tassels and erections, which she finds everywhere) that the absence of the gigantic "aching" phalluses from Lysistrata seems almost wilful or imposed.
In Black and White Brigid Brophy largely restricted herself to a critical examination of Beardsley's work: here, a far stronger emphasis is given to his life. Brighton, where Beardsley was born and spent many of his early years, is discussed as a major formative influence upon his imagination; the misleading reminiscences and exaggerated claims of his mother, Ellen Beardsley, are firmly corrected; some basic biographical facts are established for the first time; and throughout, there are illuminating conjectures on the relationship between Beardsley's brief, intense life, and the amazing emergence and fruition of his genius. Beardsley and His World is an exceptionally attractive book and, at today's prices, a real bargain.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221
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 moral fable in a pretty and entertaining guise: poetic descriptions of animals, landscape, and the weather relieve a steady flow of wit and humour, and passionate convictions lie beneath.
The plot is ten-little-nigger-boys: the whole royal family (except for one member) is gradually eliminated. The dropping out and dying does not seem unduly sad when it starts, and gets blackly funnier by accumulation. All the same, there is an undertone of sadness: "tout passe, tout lasse, tout casse", as one of the characters observes. The story begins with Ulrich hastening home from his mistress, Clara, to the bedside of his dying father. The king gets better: the person who dies is the charmer Sempronius, shot during the thanksgiving celebrations for the royal recovery by a lunatic who mistakes him for the crown prince. The crown prince, meanwhile, renounces his right of succession and goes into exile. That gets rid of him, and Balthasar succeeds him as heir to the throne and Clara's lover: her affair with Ulrich is over.
The king falls dangerously ill a second time, but again it is others who die. Balthasar is accidentally killed in the Brophyan pursuit of rescuing a wounded bird from a cliff top; Clara topples after; the queen, a gentle, dotty intellectual, dies unexpectedly and painlessly during her siesta; and her death frees the slightly autistic Urban to do what he has always longed to do—commit suicide; and he does it with glee. The king recovers a second time. Heather is now the heir apparent. She has always been unsympathetic towards her father, and it turns out she was right: he is revealed as a pious, selfish fraud: even his illnesses were at least partly sham. Nevertheless, a third bout carries him off: Heather promptly renounces the throne and thunders off to England accompanied by the young English governess—once her lover and now her friend. The book ends cheerfully with Heather embarking on a new lesbian affair in London, while the governess catches the tube home to her family, and a military dictatorship takes over in Evarchia.
The chairs of the title are the subject of a sub-plot. There are not enough chairs in the palace and none at all in the royal nursery. The archdukes have to take it in turn to sit on the old rocking-horse until it finally and symbolically gives way under Heather's colossal weight. Balthasar decides to ask for chairs, and what follows is a lampoon on red tape and officialdom: a committee is set up to consider the whole matter, right down to the possible definitions of a chair, because, as the comptroller of the royal household says to the exasperated Balthasar, "his Highness wouldn't want to endorse sloppy thinking". News of the committee leaks into the press and a columnist attacks the archduke and the whole institution of royalty:
Not content with living at public expense in the lap of luxury, Archduke B. is trying, it seems, to get the whole interior of the Winter Palace made over…. The country's foreign exchange problems evidently don't weigh with the man who's always had everything. Prince Charming, did I hear you say? Or was it Prince Greedy?
This kind of satire is not new, but it is funny if it is good and good if it is funny, and Brigid Brophy's is both. Among her targets are Iron Curtain espionage, the security services, communism in capitalist countries, trade unions, strikes, court-room procedure, and public holidays with the time they waste. She also rides her familiar hobby horses with style: animals' rights, homosexuals' rights, writers' rights (PLR), language rights (i.e. the right of languages to be properly spoken and written), vegetarianism, atheism, and so on. She is not at all savage this time: a Shavian good temper prevails.
Her favourite device is to lead the reader up a garden path which appears to be bordered with clichés, and then to clobber him when he bends down to enjoy their scent. For instance, the opening scene with the lonely figure of Ulrich riding through the snow is full of potential pathos: if his father dies, as one assumes he will, Ulrich will be forced to give up Clara. But it is not really sad at all: not because the king recovers, but because Ulrich is no longer in love.
Love, especially romantic love, and conventional ideas of honour are among the values that get devalued: Ulrich explains to Heather that if he renounces the throne he will have to marry Clara, otherwise it would be dishonourable. "Your concept of honour is ludicrous", says Heather. "It's so punitive…. Is it an act of honour to put [Clara] in the role of the person who makes you miserable?" Ulrich agrees, but is unhappy because "to pass from one seeming true love to another was to devalue them all, since it was to admit that one's love had been founded on illusion". The anti-idealist Heather has accepted that long ago. She is the one with the motto "tout passe, tout lasse, etc." This crucial conversation comes about halfway through the book and is the first indication that Heather may turn out to be its heroine (which she does). Up till then she has seemed the least attractive of the royal children: hoydenish, insensitive, and crude. Could it be a wicked self-caricature? Certainly Heather's seem to be the author's.
All the chief characters have enough attributes and idiosyncrasies ingeniously and unexpectedly assembled to make them engaging; they are not totally real, but that would be than you could expect in an allegorical comedy of this kind. They also have—a very difficult thing to bring off—a lot of charm. It comes from the way they talk. In Heather's case the charm is only unveiled by degrees, because her transformation from ugly duckling to swan—or rather, from what would, by conventional standards, be an ugly duckling, but is, in the Brophy scale of values, a swan from the beginning—has to come as a surprise.
What is the scale of values? Aesthetic and intellectual fastidiousness come quite high up, love nowhere much, reason, friendship, compassion, and tenderness right at the top; "the passionate affection" between Heather and the governess, for instance, or the bond between Ulrich and his mother. As these two wait to open a court ball together, they look embarrassed. "But as a matter of fact, Ulrich and the queen were seldom so conscious of the tenderness between them as when each felt compassion towards the other's public embarrassments." Brigid Brophy used to be a bit Voltairean in her Weltanschauung and attack; now her sensibility seems mellower and her views more akin to Montaigne's.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894
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. I'm thinking of a tradition that begins with Pope's Rape of the Lock and extends through Thomas Love Peacock, Oscar Wilde, Ronald Firbank and Henry Green and that ends, implausibly enough, in America with W. M. Spackman and his splendid, recently published An Armful of Warm Girl. The distinguishing characteristics of the style of sublime silliness are its atmosphere of innocent romance and gorgeous effects, its tight design and economy of expression played off against an almost total absence of content. There is also, usually, a coiled, edgy quality to the writing, as though the author were trying to transcribe a humor that eludes language.
Brigid Brophy is an intelligent admirer of the tradition and has written an enormous biography of Ronald Firbank, Prancing Novelist. Her new novel, Palace Without Chairs, exhibits the stigmata of her devotion. She has adopted many of Firbank's mannerisms, including: his scraps of unassigned dialogue overheard at parties; his use of droll place names and proper names; his affectionate regard for elegant Art Deco natives; his insertion of shockingly mondaine slang into stuffy contexts; his raillery against the church (Firbank is the inventor of Catholic Camp); his appreciation of the teasing and sumptuous amorality of nature; his deadpan reports of human sexual ambiguity; even his habit of composing one-sentence paragraphs. Like Firbank, Miss Brophy throws seemingly ordinary words into unsettling italics or between insinuating quotation marks until the familiar begins to seem alien. And like Firbank she observes the ways in which the serious moments are invariably undermined by trivial, irrelevant thoughts.
In fact, Palace Without Chairs can be read as a homage to Firbank's 1923 novella, The Flower Beneath the Foot. Both books are set in fairytale kingdoms that maintain pretensions to power and culture but have actually gone to seed. In both books the tutor to the royal children is a bogus Englishwoman (in Firbank she is a Cockney teaching her charges to drop their h's; in Brophy, a woman who speaks English well enough but learned it not in England, as she claims, but in her native Beirut and Alexandria). In both books the ludicrousness of protocol is lampooned, and in both the anachronism inherent in modern monarchy is sent up. In both there are alfresco scenes of lesbian love. And in both the plot meanders quirkily along, stopping often for attractive but gratuitous tableaux.
These resemblances, however, do not detract from the originality of Miss Brophy's fable. Her story is quite her own. The long-suffering King of Evarchia is ailing, and the officials are concerned about the succession. The Crown Prince renounces his claim to the throne. The son next in line is assassinated by a madman. Soon the other sons meet grotesque ends and the heir becomes an amiable lesbian daughter. But she, too, refuses her historic role—and the kingdom is seized by an unappetizing military dictator. A full fleet of secondary characters—Communists, gossip columnists, minor nobility—are skillfully traffic-directed down the narrative lanes.
Interesting as all this may sound, the book doesn't work. The style of silliness is not suited to Miss Brophy's true concerns. Disguised by the ornaments of her technique are her passionately held convictions against the double-talk of Communism, the cruelty of most people toward animals, the eerie heartlessness of fascism, and society's mistreatment of writers. In themselves, of course, these convictions are laudable, but they are not well served by whimsy. What has happened is that the style belittles the content and the content torpedoes the style. I am not saying that these are illegitimate subjects for fiction, much less for comic fiction. What I am asserting is that Brigid Brophy's fey mannerisms betray her message and her message sinks her showy technique; what should be all restless chatoyancy becomes a fixed light blinking code.
Worse, Miss Brophy's writing, looked at line by line, does not compare well with her mentor's. In Firbank every sentence is shapely, terse and surprising, whereas Miss Brophy is quite capable of writing: "Almost every village contained some recently built but already tumble-down structure, its grandiose nameplate surviving intact, as if to exacerbate the sore, though its roof had probably fallen in and its walls had succumbed to an invasion of bougainvillea and wild hydrangeas, that had been set up, on mainland capital and initiative, as a co-operative, intended to provide the Islanders with employment and incentive, and that had failed." Obviously she has no ear and only an impressionistic sense of grammar.
Brigid Brophy would, in my opinion, be better served by the straightforward, sometimes lackluster but always dignified manner of, say, Doris Lessing, whose prose merely delivers her thoughts. Silliness, it seems, is the province not of philosophers but of inspired artists.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733
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 pushed as far as it will decently go. Shaw, Wilde, Mozart, Jane Austen, Purcell, Firbank, the vegetarian cause, the art of lawn tennis, the baroque in its multitude of forms. She is, of course, not an English humorist but a member of that Celtic school in which, as she points out, Shaw and Wilde were briefly (and uneasily) linked. She is an Irish wit, and also a remorseless moralist.
Baroque 'n' Roll gathers up various essays: offering new insights into Edwin Drood and As You Like It, praising Freud and Navratilova, making us appallingly sensible of the pain we cause to our fellow-creatures, fish. The title essay, last in the book, is a six-part demonstration or definition (like Marvell's Definition of Love) of what she means by baroque. The essay itself is an example of the formal movements it attempts to define. It opens with the assertion that "form is constant throughout the arts" and examines the order and irregularities of poetry (Marvell, metaphysical verse, Milton), sculpture (Bernini), painting (a marvellous disquisition on Titian's Actaeon paintings and their possible influence on Shakespeare), music (Purcell and Dryden) and architecture. "A structure can be transposed from one art into another", Brophy says, and argues that Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress" resembles an Aristotelian syllogism, that English explores relationships through metaphor and Greek through the modulations of its very syntax. (Tennis, too, is a baroque form: it has its geometry, its orderly sequence of rules and scores, its asymmetrical, dissimilar, extravagant gestures. John McEnroe is, "if not an angel at least a baroque putto".)
Perhaps the centre of this complex construction is the Bernini sculpture of Saint Teresa, ecstatically and ambivalently pierced by the angel. "Baroque", Brophy tells us, "is an open, sometimes an explosive embrace of contradictions and oppositions, intellectual and of feeling". She goes on:
In sculpture, as often in architecture, the quintessential substance of the baroque is marble, a material likely, like some types of cheese, to be veined by a countercolour. When it is pure white, it can, at the working of a master, simulate the various softnesses of hair, lace and flesh, and yet it remains hard and cold. A natural rendering of the baroque ambivalence, it renders flesh at once more desirable and in the clutch of rigor mortis.
Which brings us to Brophy's account of the invasion of her own life by the progressive disabling of multiple sclerosis. These autobiographical pages have a matter-of-fact authority and a kind of nakedness not found elsewhere in the book. They are also wholly gripping as narrative: her situation is terrible, and yet she makes us curious about the detail of her experience, the nature of the insensitivity of doctors, and of the unnatural numbness in her legs, which "does not preclude pain or even the further numbness of cold but makes one inhabit a surrealist world". The illness is susceptible to her baroque vision; she considers its metaphorical relation to an earlier experience of emotional violence, and notices its elements of absurdity—arresting us with the vision, imagined through other eyes, of "that eccentric Lady Levey, crawling across the hall". She has the right, in her position, to tell us that no other creature should suffer in the process of finding a cure. "It is not my personal stake that makes my anti-vivisectionist argument correct", she points out, but claims "the authority of a person with a personal stake in the matter."
All writers in this country are in debt to Brigid Brophy for her pertinacity, pugnacity and vision in the battle for Public Lending Right. There is nobody like her, no one who sees the world quite in her original way. Baroque 'n' Roll is, despite the fearful events of the "case-historical fragment", a celebration of life and thought.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2142
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 sensations, and Parfit finds in himself only a quantity of experiences. Death is that much easier to accept, because it is simply a matter of there being 'no future experiences which will be related in certain ways to these present experiences', and personal self-interest easily becomes 'rational altruism'.
Such conclusions have been reached, though less consciously, ever since churches and parties were invented; and, further back still, the Parfit state is the natural life of the tribe. The Japanese, with their concept of amae, still live it: for them, the idea of personal identity is virtually meaningless. Most religions, secular or spiritual, tend to go along with this, though Christianity, by a remarkable balancing act, stresses that love does the trick: by losing yourself in it, you find yourself. Perhaps this is because the Christian religion is based on a story, a work of art, a novel subject to many interpretations. Could it be that personal identity is only discovered by means of stories and novels, and that this is why philosophers, who seldom or never read them, have been unable to find it?
We read therefore we are. The idea is suggested to me by Brigid Brophy's essays [in Baroque 'n' Roll], which constitute one of the strongest proofs of personal identity I have ever come across. If a real person is not here, where is a person to be found? She writes therefore she is, and to receive such an impression, so clearly, is very uncommon indeed. The style is the man is not the kind of observation that would fit into the Parfit thesis, and can indeed appear fatally ambiguous. Mozart has style, and Shakespeare has style, but where is Mozart, where is Shakespeare? The same applies to much great art, and perhaps particularly to the baroque art to which Brigid Brophy is so greatly drawn. With their amiable curlicue pun for a title, the linked essays on baroque which conclude her book are as fascinating as they are informed, and every sentence creates the author, on the one hand, while illuminating the spirit of baroque, on the other. The combination is rare, in every sense, and reveals what all its most devoted clients know by instinct: that art is both communal and personal; that it tells us we are individuals at the same time that it transcends individuality. Art encourages us to become ourselves while reminding us it is something else.
The paradox is brilliantly explored in Brigid Brophy's reflections on a picture story of Titian and Shakespeare. The play on personality here, and its metamorphosis, is shown to be literally enchanting. Titian's Venus and Adonis, painted by him with the Danae as a pair of poesie for Philip II of Spain, was sent to England in preparation for his marriage with Mary Tudor. Could Shakespeare have later seen engravings of it? Very possibly. More significant still, however, is the probability that he knew, either by report or in engraving, of Titian's two superb Diana paintings, also done for Philip—The Trial of Callisto, and Diana surprised by Actaeon—now on loan from the Duke of Sutherland to the National Gallery of Scotland.
Brigid Brophy engagingly observes that Titian 'had several times before been on the verge of inventing the baroque, most notably in Bacchus's great joyful and athletic leap from his chariot in the Bacchus and Ariadne in the National Gallery'. She is sure that the two Diana paintings show Titian's final accomplishment of the style 'as an idiom for the visual arts', and specifically as a means of representing the architecture of bodies or of buildings, exploding in dramatic collapse or subjected to the slow processes of time. There is certainly something both explosive and exceptionally deliberative about Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, as if the poet were following out, and almost too conscientiously in terms of verbal syntax, what is essentially a pictorial style. But Titian's Dianas, in conjunction with Ovid, may have offered a challenge to Shakespeare in terms of the goddess's personality. According to Ovid, poor Callisto was betrayed by the very sexual tastes which Diana, 'a kind of lesbian gym-teacher', encouraged in her following, for cunning Jupiter had disguised himself as Diana when he made his advances to her.
Jealous Juno turned Callisto into a bear and her son by Jupiter hunted her when he grew up, but the father of the gods forestalled matricide by turning mother and son into constellations, the Great and Little Bear. Yet perhaps Diana herself did not get away with it? At the beginning of the passage in Metamorphoses where Actaeon blunders onto the bathing scene (a scene, as Brigid Brophy points out, which Titian represents as a stage, with players and properties), Ovid gives Diana one of her rarer titles, Titania—a reference to her Titan-born ancestry. In Shakespeare's Titania Diana reappears as a different personality, the cruel gym mistress changed into a sulky spouse, jealous of her husband's amours. Shakespeare knew well what metamorphoses occur in daily life, and how unexpected and incongruous fates lie in wait for touch-me-not persons. Diana-Titania falls helplessly in love with a comic version of the very young man whom she had cruelly enchanted with the stag's head and horns. Bully Bottom, monster of the comic baroque, becomes the creature she dotes upon.
Thus the baroque acts both to fantasise the personal and explore, in the most searchingly realistic way, the human personality. How could the Church have permitted the Cornaro chapel, in Santa Maria della Vittoria at Rome, to have become metamorphosed in the 1650s 'into a silent opera house permanently displaying a spectacle which, in a symbolism too transparent to be refused or refuted by the most non- or anti-Freudian, consists of sexual intercourse'? The answer, as Brigid Brophy says, is that the baroque literary imagination had an extraordinary power of penetrating religion with the humanly personal, just as it could penetrate mythology with the psychological. The literary imagination not only gives no offence but can only be understood in terms of its own intuitive underlife. In our depersonalised age a statue—no doubt non-representational—representing a figure in rapture being penetrated by another figure, could only mean one thing. Parfit man, that assemblage of experiences, can only experience one thing at a time, because he has no personality in which to conjoin them.
Personality, in other words, can move simultaneously in many dimensions, and baroque does the same. On the vaulted ceiling of the Cornaro chapel the painted figures of angels disport themselves in clouds composed of plaster. Quoting Howard Hibbard's Penguin book on Bernini, Brigid Brophy remarks that the appearançe is exactly as if one of them had descended to the altar and there become a three-dimensional marble figure who, holding his lance 'as fastidiously as a fork at a buffet supper', thrusts it into a rapturous St. Teresa. 'Bernini's baroque lack of fear of the literal import of religious imagery' raises the question of St. Teresa's own realisation of the matter. Her description of the moment of bliss is just as explicit as Bernini's tableau, and confirms the suspicion that sexual awareness is born in the head and in literature, not in physical experience. 'In disguise from both herself and the church St. Teresa's autobiography was not the pattern of saintliness it passed for, but a classic account of the pattern of the developing literary imagination.' Forbidden by her father to read novels, and later by a father confessor to read anything but Latin, Teresa took to conversing with God, who, in a delphic observation she did not understand when he first made it, promised her 'a living book'. From then on, she began to experience rapturous visions, and indeed made a book. Her visions, as Brigid Brophy shrewdly says, were the result 'not of sexual but of literary frustration'. Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre were to come out from under her cloak in time, as Dostoevsky says that Russian literature came from under Gogol's overcoat.
The section on baroque is a little—indeed not so little—masterpiece, packed with insights and concluding with the happy suggestion that the song from Purcell and Dryden's King Arthur, or the British Worthy: A Dramatick Opera would be the most acceptable substitute for our present National Anthem.
Fairest Isle, all Isles Excelling, Seat of Pleasures, and of Loves; Venus, here, will chuse her Dwelling, And forsake her Cyprian Groves.
Of course the government of Cyprus might be less than pleased by the change. And Brigid Brophy may not know that the Church of England has in some degree adopted her suggestion: 'Love divine, all love excelling', composed by a Victorian bishop to Purcell's tune, is one of its most spirited hymns. As a personal critic, in the best sense, she would be content to share a patriotic baroque fantasia with a cheerful ecclesiastical song of praise. No lover of the baroque would grudge St. Teresa her visions, her belief, and her glorious sense of divinity; as well as the literary imagination that went with them. The baroque personality, like the Irish bird, can easily be in two places at once.
The shorter pieces in this book are equally fascinating. There is Mozart as a letter-writer, and Mozart with Da Ponte and with Jane Austen; an essay 'In Praise of Ms Navratilova', and another doing the same for Lodge and Shakespeare. These 'Reflections and Reviews', some of which appeared in the London Review of Books, include a brilliant piece on Murasaki and Fanny Burney, and an analysis of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and its conclusion by Leon Garfield, coming up with the intriguing suggestion that Dickens—who can tell what the unconscious of that great novelist may have got up to?—made John Jasper more in love with Edwin than he is with Rosa. I also much enjoyed the essay on Lady Morgan, known as 'Glorvina' and author of The Wild Irish Girl (the title is ironic—the girl was an animated and cultivated bluestocking), and its guess that Jane Austen, who thought poorly of the novel, may have had Glorvina in mind when she created Mary Crawford a few years later in Mansfield Park. Byron thought Glorvina 'fearless', which Mary Crawford certainly is. Mary, like Glorvina, is a notable harp performer and full of charm, even of 'warmth', qualities much in vogue in Regency circles and associated with Tom Moore and the fashion for Irishness—sedulously cultivated by Lady Morgan—as for Scotchness. Jane Austen was impressed by neither Glorvina nor Robert Burns, championing instead that model of quiet English moral sobriety Fanny Price.
Brigid Brophy's funniest piece is on fish, that silent persecuted majority, whom even hostesses who are delighted to provide a vegetarian meal ('Oh, by the way, you do eat fish don't you?') persist in regarding as a vegetable. A member and strong supporter of the Labour Party, Brigid Brophy none the less cannot help being amused, and indignant, at a section of its campaign document, 'The New Hope for Britain', which assures us that 'Labour will also provide for wider use of the countryside for recreational purposes, such as angling.' 'What has destruction to do with any form of creation, including recreation?' she pertinently observes. The matter of foxes and fishes (coarse fishes, that is) is, of course, one of divisiveness. It may seem natural and proper to take it from the fox killers and give it to the fish killers, although the ordinary working person on the canal bank is surrounded by almost as much elaborate and expensive equipment as the class enemy on horseback. But in politics style is all.
The most moving essay is the 'Fragment of Autobiography' which opens the collection. To observe one's symptoms—in this case, the advance of multiple sclerosis—and one's medical experiences for the benefit of others is a service rarely performed. Brigid Brophy does it with humour and stoicism, and in addition performs the almost impossible feat of thanking her husband and friends for all they have done for her, without seeming to be going through the routine motions. That is as much a personal triumph as is her always creative criticism.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5239
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 envision gender identities as transiently assumed roles, "costumes of the mind." An Anglo-Irish iconoclast with decidedly modernist affiliations, Brophy operates in the tradition of Woolf and Joyce, particularly in using parody to unsettle inherited notions of gender. But her 1969 novel places a distinctive emphasis on connections between gender and language, which Brophy reinforces by exploiting conventions of allegory. In Transit thus concentrates its actions in a single symbolic setting, an international airport, which distills the highly mixed, transient quality of modern culture. As a representative citizen of such a culture, the novel's dubious Everyman (or woman) is barraged by languages and surrounded by gaudy images of social unrest: a student revolution, a lesbian putsch, an assault by parachuting nuns—each aimed at the Control Tower of masculine authority. This environment of intense linguistic and social conflict seems fraught with occupational hazards, especially apparent in the dual disease or paired afflictions which utterly undo Brophy's protagonist: "linguistic leprosy," a deterioration of the character's language, and gender-amnesia, the ultimate identity crisis.
By suggesting that individual identity is tied to language, and by presenting both in an unstable condition, In Transit draws attention to a juncture between feminist studies of gender and Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of language. Like Bakhtin, Brophy emphasizes that human consciousness is a social phenomenon, constituted by widely shared, ideologically charged discourses. Yet by concentrating on the social nature of gender identity, her novel also anticipates a major focus of the seventies and eighties feminist scholarship. Feminism and dialogism meet and illuminate each other in Brophy's text.
Devices of modernist fiction facilitate this mutual exchange between feminism and Bakhtin, by making language, as Brophy's narrative itself proclaims, "one of the hero(in)es immolated throughout these pages." This ritualized sacrifice takes place in the novel's exuberantly fantastic, allegorical plot, as Language plays the part of the female victim relished by pornography. Yet the mutilation of language also occurs in portmanteau words, multilingual puns, stylistic parodies, and a disjunctive narrative structure, shifting from an initial first-person narrative to various third-person accounts mixed with "authorial" digressions. Paying explicit tribute to Joyce ("the old pun gent himself"), Brophy's self-consciously modernist narrative graphically renders the mutability of language which Bakhtin stresses, while also highlighting the problematics of gender explored by contemporary feminists. The following discussion will therefore approach Bakhtin's theory of language through parallels in Brophy, while moving toward connections In Transit makes among language, gender, and the novel itself as an art form. Brophy's synthesis of these three areas suggest extensions of Bakhtin's ideas in two directions he has been criticized for not considering: modernist fiction and feminist issues.
A path into Bakhtin's theory can be charted through qualities he ascribes to language—as dialogic, ideological, "heteroglot," and anti-systematic. These qualities take startling, wacky forms as In Transit defamiliarizes this subject which literally becomes one of the text's "hero(in)es."
Brophy embodies her concept of language in an allegorical dream-quest undertaken by the novel's initial first-person narrator and protagonist, later identified as Evelyn Hilary O'Rooley (nicknamed "Pat"). The plot springs from the protagonist-narrator's decision to forego flight and remain "in transit," in the unrooted, culturally mixed state which the narrator presents as the twentieth-century frame of mind. Encompassed by a Babel-like confusion of tongues, the narrator dramatizes how languages pervade the subjective consciousness. These languages are, first of all, the national tongues which mix and collide within the narrator's perceptions and punning thoughts. Yet the airport's environment of many languages seems itself symbolic of proliferating forms of discourse which the narrator ingests—magazines, TV, postcards, signs, as well as various literary forms. (For example, the airport's public address system broadcasts a wildly camp, gender-inverted Italian opera, appropriately named for the airline, Alitalia.) A hodgepodge of voices, the first-person narrative conveys a psyche so permeated by social discourses that it seems, as Bakhtin says, a "borderline" phenomenon, merging self and society and so having "extraterritoriality status." In both Bakhtin and Brophy this metaphor of extraterritoriality (of being in transit, between states) reflects a notion of language as the constituting element of a radically social psyche.
Peculiar features of Brophy's protagonist-narrator further fill out her novel's Bakhtinian conception of language. The decision "to live in in-transit" marks one such peculiarity. This move is apparently motivated by egalitarian "internationalism," a radical linguistic politics summed up in the narrator's citizenship oath: "I adopt the international airport idiom for my native." Pat O'Rooley seems predisposed to this "ideological gesture," having been transported as a child from Ireland to England and hence deprived of a "native language." "Extraterritoriality" is George Steiner's term for this condition, a lack of "at-homeness" in any national tongue which he sees as characteristic of multilingual artists like Nabokov and Beckett. Bakhtin finds a similar "linguistic consciousness" endemic to multilingual cultures, where contact with alternative languages breeds a disease with any one formulation. An emblematic citizen of the twentieth century, Brophy's deracinated narrator seems to embody Bakhtin's idea and, indeed, claims that in the airport (an internationally mixed, modern culture) "no one is native. We are all in transients."
Along with acute awareness of languages and their limits, the first-person narrative reveals a second eccentricity in Brophy's protagonist: obsessive concern with locating and addressing various interlocutors. This obsession is articulated in the novel's opening paragraphs, as the narrator focuses not on Barthes's characteristic question, "Who is speaking?" (S/Z), but on the question of the addressee of the narrative discourse:
Ce qui m'étonnait c'était qu'it was my French that disintegrated first.
Thus I expounded my affliction, an instant after I noticed its onset. My words went, of course, unvoiced …
Obviously, it wasn't myself I was informing I had contracted linguistic leprosy. I'd already known for a good split second.
I was addressing the imaginary interlocutor who is entertained, I surmise, by all self-conscious beings—short of, possibly, the dumb and, probably, infants (in the radical sense of the word).
If we take the protagonist-narrator as a representative figure, then the novel suggests that inner speech as well as spoken discourse is always directed to someone, even if the interlocutor is ultimately imagined, a projection. In Transit plays up this idea when the narrator briefly takes the p.a. system as an interlocutor:
The phantom faces of the interlocutor are less troubling than the question of where he is. I am beset by an insidious compulsion to locate him …
The problem was the more acute because I was alone in a concourse of people. After a moment I noticed that my situation had driven me to think my thoughts to the public-address system, which had, for the last hour, been addressing me—inter aliens—with commands (couched as requests), admonitions (a tumble of negative subjunctives) and simple brief loud-hails, not one of which had I elected to act on.
Brophy's extremely other-oriented protagonist closely resembles Dostoevsky's narrator in "Notes from Underground," as analyzed by Bakhtin: "The discourse of the underground Man is entirely a discourse-address. To speak, for him means to address someone." Both apparent monologuists are actually dialoguists, revealing one of the ways in which all discourse is "dialogic": "every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates."
Dostoevsky's Underground Man begins his narrative in this way: "I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased. However, I don't know beans about my disease, and I am not sure what is bothering me" (Dostoevsky's ellipsis). Similarly, In Transit immediately confronts us with a diseased narrator, but in this case the sickness is one of language, "linguistic leprosy," the third oddity of Brophy's peculiar Everyone. The narrator thus complains of foreign tongues atrophying and "fall[ing] off," like the fingers and toes which can be lost through leprosy. Yet the narrative mixes and compares Greek, Latin, Gaelic, Italian, and French, commenting on the "idiomsyncrasy" of each. Gripped by "compunsion," Brophy's intensely multilingual protagonist-narrator playfully illustrates the "crossing" of languages which Bakhtin sees as fundamental to their evolution. Exaggerating this condition of languages within the narrator's consciousness, In Transit dramatizes how language itself is "in transit"—ever in a process of change as languages mix, mutate, "die."
I see this idea fleshed out in Brophy's comic Story of Oc—that is, "O" with a "c" or "ch" added. Providing a great example of female parody-pornography, the narrative incorporates substantial excerpts of a porno-novel, purchased by Pat from the airport bookstall and entitled, "L'HISTOIRE DE LA LANGUE D'OC" (which is translated, "THE STORY OF OC'S TONGUE"). As a student at a girls' school of pleasure, the bondage fanatic Oc undergoes various exquisite tortures, during which she finally dies. Along the way, in an offhand reference, the narrative reminds us that the langue d'oc was the language of Southern France, replaced by the northern langue d'öil (the alternative terms referring to each area's pronunciation of the word for "yes"). In Brophy's kinky allegory, the porn-heroine Oc represents the specific, transient language—subject to a process of mutilation and death which parallels the narrator's linguistic leprosy. The novel then makes this parallel explicit when the first-person narrator goes through a scene of linguistic torture, a dismemberment of the narrative's language, which is sandwiched between the final binding of Och and the announcement of her death.
The parallel stories of Oc and Pat foreground the radically transient status of language and of human consciousness, while also pointing toward ties between changes in each. As a masochist whose name recalls inter-language conflict, the mutable Oc/Och illuminates Bakhtin's notion of language as "a continuous process of becoming," a dynamic struggle of tongues. On one level, this conflict occurs between "centripetal" and "centrifugal" tendencies in language. Hence, groups and institutions seeking political and ideological centralization posit a "correct," unifying language, which is constantly undermined by heterogeneous social usage (or "heteroglossia"), the ceaseless stratification of any national language by countless social groups, each of which has a "language" of its own, with meanings and inflections reflecting the group's world view. As each word is imbued with values and associations, fraught with conflicting connotations acquired in the course of "its socially charged life," the word itself "exists in continuous generation and change." Bakhtin's "anti-linguistics," as Susan Stewart calls it, thus presents language as antisystematic, "ideologically saturated," and ever in transit.
Matching Brophy's paired transients, Oc and Pat, Bakhtin sees human consciousness as strongly tied to the shifting languages (and ideologies) of society: "Language lights up the inner personality and its consciousness; language creates them … Personality is itself generated through language." Brophy joins Bakhtin in stressing that the subjective consciousness is formed in a responsive, dialogic relationship with the words and world views of others. To see how In Transit brings out the implications of this position for current gender theory, we need to consider the ultimate peculiarity of Brophy's protagonist, the uncertain gender of Evelyn Hilary O'Rooley. By studying this final trait in some detail, we can see how the novel ties the formation of gender identity to a larger process of linguistic and cultural change.
Following Pat's decision to put off departure and stay in the Transit Lounge, the narrative discourse is filled with enthusiastic apostrophes, elaborating the benefits and egalitarian politics of choosing a nonstatic, nondefined state of becoming. But while Pat O'Rooley gaily rejects "arbitrary" categories, like those of nation and class, which artificially limit human self-definition, the state of in-transience also seems to entail loss of gender distinctions: in other words, the narrator can no longer remember whether he or she is male or female.
From this point, the novel's fragmented, zany plot highlights Pat's romance-quest in search of a fixed sense of gender identity. While virtually the whole of In Transit can be seen as a series of parodic discourses, some of the most marked and swiftly changing parodies occur after the onset of Pat's gender-amnesia. Pursuing Pat in his/her shifting sense of gender, the narrative indicates each shift with a new parody. Two examples can suggest how each parodied discourse is imbued with conceptions of masculinity or femininity which Pat tries on and is tested by—romance adventures in which the styles Pat takes on are tested notions of gender.
When first convinced of being female, Patricia descends into the airport's basement, a "lesbian underworld" of female porters, and then is whisked onto the panel of a television game show, WHAT'S MY KINK? Addressed as a man, under the intense glare of public attention, Pat faces the moment when the cameras will focus on him? her? with an accession to the language of popular adventure stories:
Time ponderously raced: a count-down of seconds passed at fever-speed and yet in the detail of slow-motion. This was an experience of time with enlarged pores.
When the moment came, would he/she be able to utter a syllable?
It was a clenching pressure of dread, in which a soul might crack: and he publicly exposed … A countdown of seconds, it was, until the very second when this individual, Pat, should have one second to make or mar: and if it was a second of shame, there was no revoking it, ever.
Given the implicit macho of this passage, it is hardly surprising that at the crucial (reiterated, expanded) second, "Pat resolved to be Patrick" and "coolly and decisively" fires his winning answer.
In a later sequence, when Pat decides she is instead a lesbian, her choice of an exclusively female self-definition is reflected by the narrative, which mimics the super-"feminine" genre of popular romance. A woman of quiet dignity, pop-romance heroine Patricia is approached and wooed by an aristocratic stranger, an aging Byronic roué equipped with military bearing and a face distinguished by a duelling scar. Queenly Patricia rejects this self-confessed "Don Juan," yet as she accompanies him to his departure gate her fears of his possible death in flight are expressed in a sentimental, metaphor-enriched style which presumably expresses her chastely "feminine" sense of self (that is, as a lesbian). This wacky parody undermines, even as it exposes, assumptions about men and women which saturate the gush of popular romance, with its darkly attractive, sexualized males and vascillatingly attracted, sentimental females. The sexual ideology implicit here—one of absolute differences between the sexes—is exploded by the scene's camp termination:
"Kiss my hand," she said, letting fall the separate words like queen's pearls or tears.
"My dear," he said, letting the tones of a roué cynic curl the edges of his words like autumn-leaf mustachios tobacco-cured in an irony against himself, "I know we are said not to live in a permissive society. But I would not risk exposing you to the comment and disapproval which, I very strongly suspect, would ensue were a middle-aged man to be seen, in so public a place as this, to kiss the hand, be it never so beautiful, of a boy."
This scene exemplifies a pattern of the novel's gender adventures, since from this encounter "Patricia" (now in quotes, a gay male) spins off to try out another distinct, yet finally inadequate, conception of his masculinity (or "her" femininity). In this unsettling of the protagonist's gender identity, Pat's story resembles Joyce's Nighttown episode in Ulysses, which takes Bloom through fantasized metamorphoses of himself, as he experiences the ambiguities of his gender, the multiformity of his desires. And Pat's quest also recalls another fantasy-shaped underworld descent, that of Lewis Carroll's Alice. Changing sex as often as Alice changes size, Pat undergoes a series of Wonderland transformations, which can be explained as fantasies and which mainly differ from Alice's similar dream-quest for self-definition in that Pat, unlike Alice, does not become a queen (of either sex). Trying on numerous styles of manliness or femininity—like that of Slim, the sleazy detective, or Oruleus, the Spenserian knight—Pat seems impelled by the limits of each gender-conception and each parodied discourse to move on to another style, another conception, in a never completed process. Hence, at the novel's close, Patricia's and Patrick's simultaneous but contrasting deaths are depicted in adjacent columns, a vast improvement on John Fowles's double-ending of The French Lieutenant's Woman in that it exhibits even more clearly the ambiguous, indeed contradictory, nature of the protagonist.
Commenting on this aspect of In Transit, David Lodge suggests that contradiction is a primary structural principle of postmodern novels, which often focus on "sexually ambivalent" characters or other central, unresolved paradoxes. While Lodge's perspective is illuminating, his brief analysis seems to miss a crucial effect of Brophy's unresolved representations of gender. Rather than simply presenting a metaphysical paradox (Pat is and is not male, is and is not female), her parodies draw attention to the process of self-definition through language, and more specifically, through widely shared discourses. By shifting styles with every fleeting notion of Pat's gender, the narrative implies that Pat O'Rooley can only become "feminine" or "masculine" through transient cultural conceptions, expressed in specific, often contradictory, texts or discourses. The problem of gender becomes a matter of cultural change and social (rather than metaphysical) contradiction. Brophy's androgynous protagonist then represents something more than a Freudian-based conception, indicating the ubiquity of human sexual desire and the ability of people to identify with models of either sex (psychoanalytic tenets which In Transit flaunts with much glee). Going further, much like Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Brophy's novel ties notions of masculinity and femininity to specific periods and discourses, implying that the individual's sense of his or her gender—and of what constitutes femininity or masculinity—will alter along with broader shifts in intellectual and literary fashion.
While clearly linked to other modernist explorations of gender, Brophy's novel also intersects with more recent feminist studies from diverse disciplinary perspectives. Since the early seventies, anthropologists have increasingly focused on "meanings" or "interpretations" of sexuality and gender which they trace to highly specific factors of society and culture. Linguistics further specifies the role of language in the social formation of gender identity. Sally McConnell-Ginet explains this thrust of linguistics: "The major challenge that feminist scholarship on language poses is to explain how there could be any interaction at all between language and an individual's thought, on the one hand, and the social and cultural contexts in which language is used, on the other." In meeting this challenge, feminist inquiry has spurred linguistics itself toward what can be seen as a Bakhtinian view of language, turning from emphasis on universal structures toward study of conflicting, and possibly liberating, language use: "Indeterminacy and multiple meanings are not the exception but important features of linguistic systems that underlie the role of language in changing society, culture, and personal consciousness."
The role of ideologically charged language in shaping both social institutions and individual consciousness has especially been central to feminist studies of gender influenced by French historian Michel Foucault. Rosalind Coward, for example, stresses the value of Foucault's History of Sexuality in showing how sexuality and identity are "discursively constructed." Offering more resistance to Foucault (by way of Bakhtin), historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg details the place of nineteenth-century women's writing on prostitution and gender. Foucault lies behind Smith-Rosenberg's notion that "[w]e construct our sense of self out of words" which are themselves "cultural constructs." Yet she agrees with other feminist historians who "challenge Foucault's understanding of the constraining force of 'discourse.'" Wishing to complicate his model by accounting for women's transformations of dominant discourses, Smith-Rosenberg uses Bakhtin's idea that society's languages tend toward diversity and disruption as well as unification and hegemony. Film theorist Teresa de Lauretis makes a similar move in her assertion that "the construction of gender" takes place not only in the media, schools, and courts, but also "in avant-garde artistic practices and radical theories," including feminism. Hence this construction is "also affected by its deconstruction" through competing, alternative discourses.
Repeatedly approaching gender as "construct," "interpretation," "discourse," or "representation," contemporary feminist scholarship suggests both the constructing role and the disruptive possibilities of language. Feminist inquiry can further benefit from connections Bakhtin makes between the heterogeneity of language and specific literary forms: the novel, carnivalesque discourse, and parody. American scholars have widely admired and discussed Bakhtin's view that the novel's multiplicity of discourses and styles presents a dialogue between ways of conceiving the world, an aesthetic representation of the many-voiced, "dialogic" nature of language itself, which undermines any singular, monologic "truth." "Centrifugal" dialogism opposes "centripetal" monologism in literature as well as in language, as Bakhtin finds the epic and poetry tending toward a restrictive, unified viewpoint while the novel heroically promotes creative diversity.
How can the novel's many-voiced dialogism contribute to the construction (and deconstruction) of gender? In Transit illuminates this question by combining conceptions of language and the novel which, like Bakhtin's, highlight the decentralizing tendencies of each. The antisystematic nature of language especially emerges in exchanges between "Och" and a linguistics professor, who act out the "centrifugal" and "centripetal" roles that Bakhtin ascribes to language and modern linguistics (a recurring theme of "Discourse in the Novel" and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language). While the highly rational linguist resists radical changes, Och is essentially anarchic, as she suggests in the following comments:
"To be absolutely frank, what I should most like to resemble is a small but powerful and concentrated bomb. My ambition is to explode and shatter the rules …"
"And yet for all my creative energy I feel impotent," Och sadly said.
"I can't find anyone who will teach me the rules. So how can I make sure of breaking them?"
The kind of bomb Och wishes to emulate does, however, explode, starting an avalanche of printed matter from the airport bookstand, during which Linguistics tries (with dubious success) to teach Language its rules:
O'Rooley and the professor at once linked themselves into a protective canopy over Och; and so it was about their two heads alone that a gently, scarcely more than ticklingly absurd world began to cave in. A soft fall of newsprint bombed them, a structural collapse not violent but slipshod.
The professor was most heavily struck by blunders of form, especially the formula "he was x, y and had a z."
"Well, tell me the rule, then," Och implored, tugging from underneath at the professor's raincoat.
"'X, y and z,'" the professor began to explain, "can legitimately be thus strung together only if you suspend them from one verb …"
She was cut off by a large fall of things this big and persons not that bad … "It should be 'so big' or 'thus big' or 'as big as this,'" she was panting when she was almost done for by the editorial of the Evening Standard of 6 June, 1968, which spoke of "every mass media."
Though O'Rooley joins the professor in trying to shield language from "error," he suggests that they may be "swimming against the grain of the living language." Within Pat's livingly mixed "Irishidiomism," Brophy incorporates one of Bakhtin's favorite phrases, "living" language. This intersection between the views and even phrases of Brophy and Bakhtin points to their mutual conception of language as a dynamic, conflictive process rather than a restrictive, internalized system. For both, the rule-bound system is overwhelmed by anarchic usages, which include (in Brophy's zany scene) William Faulkner's novels—a final onslaught of deviance which is fatal to the system-protecting linguist.
Brophy's allegory aligns the syntactically deviant, experimental novel—here represented by Faulkner—with the "erring," centrifugal impulses of language itself. It is not surprising, then, that In Transit renders this dynamism of language not only in the comic explosion of printed "errors," but also in its own narrative discourse. Increasingly fragmented by parodies, interpolated texts, diagrams, and "authorial" digressions, the modernistic narrative graphically conveys an "in transit" protagonist, dissolving into a series of voices and possible selves.
Yet In Transit also explicitly considers how fiction might contribute to this dynamic condition of both self and language. Just as Bakhtin foregrounds the novel's dialogic potential through contrasts with epic and poetry, so Brophy juxtaposes Pat O'Rooley's reader-response evaluations of several literary forms. Where the dialogic-monologic polarity serves as Bakhtin's touchstone, erotic pleasure functions in In Transit, as in Barthes's Pleasure of the Text, to assess various experience of reading. Calling upon erotic analogues, Brophy's protagonist thus finds that the unsatisfying characterization within mystery novels leads the reader into "lust-hunting-down the characters who are increasingly not there," yielding an experience similar to that of pornography, a "literary masturbation."
Distinctive characterization results in Pat's greater pleasure from Alitalia, Brophy's parodic representative of the "furthest-fetched of all forms of fiction": "Sweet monster opera, I am in your whirlpool kiss. You have sucked me deep into your contralto throat, drawn me down into identification with your characters by your sheer liquid expressiveness of their emotions." Printed in dual columns (Italian text, English translation), with "transvocites" (Frank Kermode's term for the work's male sopranos and female baritone), this parody-opera stresses the implausible characters audiences can be led to identify with, the fictions of identity to which readers are drawn. Yet because of the opera's tonality (because its hero Orestes is "bereaved in tune"), the narrator can be whirled and pulled to extremes, and still be left reassured—self-assured and reinforced. Alitalia is not, in other words, one of those musical compositions the narrator earlier defends: "Not that it's unfairplay to play on our expectations of key and, instead of playing in key, dispense with it. The object is to unstring us: one of the psycho-tortures self-inflicted, by way of pleasure, in masophisticated societies." Instead of masochistic "psycho-torture," Alitalia produces a self-complacent "euphoria" in Pat O'Rooley. Brophy's screwy opera thus illustrates, oddly enough, Barthes's tame "text of pleasure": "the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading." By implicitly opposing her tonal opera with music that "unstring[s] us," Brophy matches Barthes's greater admiration for the "text of bliss," "the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts …, unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language."
In Transit forthrightly discusses and pursues such discomforting effects through a series of "interludes," entitled variantly "Interludibrium," "Interlugubre," "INTERLEWD," "INTERLOO." In these digressions, the reader is directly addressed by an authorial first-person narrator, who signs one such "Open-Letter" with the initials "(p.p.B.B.)" over "E.H.(P.)O'R.," a playful identification of Brophy with her "HERO," as Leslie A. Dock observes, noting the anagram formed by the protagonist's initials. Foregrounding techniques and ambiguities of the narrative's "machinery," these ludic addresses seek to unstring both reader and writer by calling into question the status of each. Hence in one such interjection (just after the onset of Pat's gender-amnesia), the authorial narrator asserts that "relations between us are by no means so straightforward" as some may assume:
Suppose for the sake of argument that I am a fictitious character or at least one who appears so to you. I have invited from you a certain temporary identification. I am prepared to be taken over, possessed, by you. In your own eyes, I don't doubt, you are a very real part of the real world. But please remember that, to me it is you who are the fictitious—the, indeed, entirely notional—character. To be engulfed by you into an identification must be like being nibbled at, ticklingly, by a void. I have to summon my weightiest resources of gravity to take you seriously. I don't even know, for example, what sex you are.
Through its interludes, In Transit presents the novel itself as a dialogue between writer and reader (Kermode calls Brophy's work "a phenomenological fantasia"). Yet this dialogue takes place "inter aliens"—between mutually unknown, hence mutually "fictitious," participants. The protagonist-narrator's weird interlocution with the public address system thus becomes a model for the dialogic text, illuminating Bakhtin's ideas by dramatizing how the reader's and writer's interlocutor is always a fiction. Further, these interludes teasingly flaunt uncertainties of gender identity by reinforcing ties between "Brigid Brophy," as a fictitious character in her own novel, and Patricia-Patrick, potential selves the author explores and (in their simultaneous deaths) abandons, with the summary comment "Explicit fiction." If this inconclusive ending leaves "Brigid Brophy's" gender both fictitious and unresolved, a similar effect is achieved by the authorial narrator's final address to the reader as "both of You," imputing an analogous androgyny, or at least ambiguity, to the reader. This last authorial address is then followed by the word "FIN," inscribed on the fin of a fish. Foreclosing closure with a typical verbal-ideographic pun, the novel invites the reader to pursue the implications of "both of You" toward an ambiguous, unfixed gender identity, a fictitious, multiple self which each individual authors as "Brophy" has, dialogically, in response to the words of others, the discourses of society.
Bakhtin emphasizes the novel's devices for representing an unsettled dialogue between ideas and voices, along with a many-voiced, "dialogic" consciousness. In Transit conveys this dialogism and multiplicity by drawing on specific devices of modernist fiction. As the narrative disintegrates into a multitude of texts, set apart by point of view, style, spacing, typography, and inserted diagrams, the novel fully exploits possibilities of the printed word for rendering distinct languages and viewpoints. Hence, it is appropriate that, besides language, Brophy's other proclaimed "unsung, unstrung heroine" is "Miss Print." Yet through the ambiguity of this pun, In Transit sings (or is it unsings?) both the printed text and its tendency toward error, exemplified by L'histoire de la Langue d'Oc, the sole novel lengthily examined within Brophy's novel. Filled with misprints and ambiguous cases of possible error, Oc is made even more unstable when Pat detaches one of its pages, causing the loss of a paired page that apparently would have been critical in his/her "sexegesis." The repeated direction "Déchirez" then reiterates the entropic, tear-out status of the material text, countering any notion that written language affords an escape from transience or an exegetical key to gender.
In Transit highlights the mutability of texts, languages, conceptions of gender, and individual identities. In Brophy's allegory of interacting transients, language appears as a disruptive element, not a prison-house; rather than determining gender identity, it offers a surplus of conflicting meanings for femininity and masculinity. This conception of language—a meeting ground between Bakhtin and feminism—spawns the parodies of Brophy's novel. As they juxtapose numerous "official" and popular versions of woman and man, these parodies convey a carnivalesque stance toward the "social construction of gender," as a limited, highly conflictual, shifting process. Dramatizing how gender is socially determined and indeterminate, historically situated and fluid, In Transit richly illustrates the novel's power in promoting an open-ended "sexegesis."
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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 1979, her efforts resulted in a law that for the first time allowed authors to receive royalty payments from the British Government every time their books were checked out of a public library.
But Miss Brophy also campaigned—even from her sickbed—for the rights of women, of prisoners and of animals. She was a vice president of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, and no animal escaped her sympathy. She even became active in an anti-angling campaign; and at one point sent a letter to the fishing correspondent of The Daily Telegraph in which she compared anglers to "thugs who beat up old-age pensioners for fun" and quoted Lord Byron's remark that fishing was "the stupidest of pretended sports."
Brigid Antonia Brophy was born in 1929 in London, the only daughter of the Anglo-Irish novelist John Brophy. She was educated at St. Paul's Girls' School and later at Oxford, where she excelled as a scholar but was soon expelled because of drunken, raucous behavior. She was acting, she later wrote, in the belief that I had more to learn by pursuing my personal life than from textual emendation, with the result that the authorities could put up with me for only just over a year.
"I came down at the age of 19 without a degree and with a consequent sense of nudity which I have never quite overcome."
In 1954, before she was even 30, she burst onto the literary scene when her novel Hackenfeller's Ape, about an ape at the London Zoo and its increasingly close relationship to the professor observing its mating habits, won the Cheltenham Literary Festival First Prize for a first novel. Her novels are known for their imagination and acerbic wit, and include The Snow Ball, in which the characters attend a ball dressed as figures from Don Giovanni;Flesh, which she described as "an almost distressingly cold-blooded little story," and In Transit, set, claustrophobically, in an airport transit lounge.
But she also developed a reputation as a sharp thinker and fierce intellectual who liked a good fight, and her nonfiction books tended to have provocative, often mischievous points of view. In 1967 for instance, she was one of the authors of Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without, an attack on a number of classic books including Jane Eyre, which was likened by the authors to "gobbling a jar-full of school-girl stick-jaw." She also championed the writing of Ronald Firbank in Prancing Novelist (1973), subtitled A Defense of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography in Praise of Ronald Firbank.
Miss Brophy, who spoke freely in her early years about her bisexuality and often referred to marriage as "an immoral institution," nonetheless married in 1954. Her husband, the art historian Michael Levey, shared her delight in literature and the arts. He became director of the National Gallery in 1973 and was knighted eight years later.
In a tribute to Miss Brophy in The Independent on Tuesday, her literary agent, Giles Gordon, described her as a "deeply shy, courteous woman" who wrote delightful thank you letters and kept to rigorous standards in her work. "Woe betide the 'editor' who tried to rewrite her fastidious, logical, exact prose, change a colon to a semi-color (or viceversa), or try to spell 'show' other than 'shew,' slavish Shavian that Brophy was," Mr. Gordon wrote.
In 1979, Miss Brophy's physical problem was diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, which steadily worsened until she was housebound and had to use a wheelchair. She remained at home, looked after by paid companions, friends, and her husband, who in 1987 quit his job to help care for her. But she continued to work with all the energy her illness would allow. In 1987 she published Baroque 'n' Roll, a collection of essays in which she outlined, with lucidity and detail, the debilitating toll her condition had taken on her. Eventually, her condition deteriorated so badly that she had to move into the nursing home where she died.
She is survived by her husband and a daughter, Kate.
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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 the reasons for this neglect are understandable: she didn't publish a novel after 1978, and a debilitating struggle with multiple sclerosis over the last fifteen years of her life sharply curtailed her writing career. Also, she was cursed for being too far ahead of her time: in her 1953 novel Hackenfeller's Ape she was writing about animal rights long before the cause became popular, and in 1969 wrote the definitive novel about gender confusion (In Transit) long before there was a critical context for the topic. But any informed reckoning of twentieth-century literature must take Brophy's work into account: not only her nine books of fiction, but a career's worth of sharp, intelligent essays (most gathered into three collections), books on Mozart, Freud, and Beardsley, and a 600-page tour de force "defence of fiction in the form of a critical biography of Ronald Firbank," Prancing Novelist.
Her literary career began early. Born in 1929, she was reading authors like Firbank at the age of five (as she reports in an excellent interview with Leslie Dock in Contemporary Literature) and from age six onwards was writing verse dramas. When she was fifteen she wrote an early version of "The Late Afternoon of a Faun," which appeared in her first book, The Crown Princess and Other Stories, published in 1953 when she was twenty-four. Later that same year she published her first novel, Hackenfeller's Ape, which won the Cheltenham Literary Festival prize for best first novel. Brophy later dismissed The Crown Princess as too mainstream—I think it's better than that—but Hackenfeller's Ape, as Mark Axelrod shows in his essay, demonstrated her ability at an early stage to integrate a variety of themes and concerns (Mozart, original sin, vivisection) in a form owing as much to music as to literature. (Baroque architecture would become an additional model for her novels.) Mozart and musical (specifically operatic) form dominates many of her early works: her charming second novel, The King of a Rainy Country (1956), relies heavily on Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (as Patricia Juliana Smith notes in her insightful essay in [Review of Contemporary Literature]) just as her dazzling fifth novel, The Snow Ball (1964), relies on his Don Giovanni. (In the same year she published her nonfiction study Mozart the Dramatist, widely hailed as one of the best books on his operas, and recently reprinted both in Britain and the U.S.)
Brophy's third novel, Flesh (1962), is an unusual novel about the effect of marriage on an awkward, unsociable man that plays against the Pygmalion theme. Dedicated to Iris Murdoch, this story of north London Jews was her first popular success. It was followed by her fourth and most elliptical book of fiction, The Finishing Touch (1963), a wickedly clever novella—half Firbank, half Colette—about a lesbian-run girls' finishing school on the French Riviera. Corinne E. Blackmer explores its literary heritage in detail in [Review of Contemporary Literature] and correctly praises it as "an important milestone in the history of lesbian and, more broadly, antihomophobic literature."
Brophy was in her element in the iconoclastic sixties. She became notorious for her views on vegetarianism, sexual freedom, animal rights, writers' rights (she played a major role in Britain's current Public Lending Right, by which authors are paid a royalty whenever their books are checked out of libraries), women's rights, pornography (pro), and educational reform (contra religion in school, pro Greek), promoting her views on television and radio as well as in print. The same year she published Flesh (1962) she published a long nonfiction work entitled Black Ship to Hell, a rigorous Freudian reading of the dynamics of hate, compared by the London Telegraph to Norman O. Brown's Life against Death. The best of her essays and reviews were published in book form in 1966 under the title Don't Never Forget, and have lost none of their bite, wit, and lightly worn erudition thirty years later. With her husband Michael Levey and friend Charles Osborne she collaborated on the cheeky Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without (1967), and the following year she wrote the first of two books on the 1890s artist Aubrey Beardsley. Also in 1968 she published a book version of her 1967 play, The Burglar, with a long, Shavian introduction (she has written other, unproduced, plays).
The decade came to an explosive climax in 1969 with her masterpiece, In Transit. Several essays [in Review of Contemporary Literature] deal with this extraordinary novel, and several more would be needed to encompass its achievement. As the ambiguously named narrator sits in an international airport waiting for a connecting flight, he/she suffers a kind of gender amnesia and goes through a series of comic attempts to discover his/her sex. The novel is a riot of multilingual puns, parodies, opera allusions, typographical high jinks (one thinks of roughly contemporary books like William H. Gass's Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife and Christine Brooke-Rose's Thru), and should be a locus classicus for today's gender critics and advocates of experimental fiction.
The next few years were spent researching and writing her massive book on Firbank, which was met largely by uncomprehending reviews, most questioning the wisdom of using Firbank, of all people, on whom to erect a theory of creative fiction. Once again, Brophy was years ahead of the pack, for only now in the nineties is Firbank becoming recognized for the subversively innovative writer he is. In 1973 she also published her second collection of short fiction, The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl; it's a lively if somewhat miscellaneous collection, some of the pieces a mere page, the title fable novella-length. Then in 1978 she published her final novel, Palace without Chairs, an oddly muted fairy tale set in an imaginary Eastern European socialist monarchy, somewhat in the vein of Firbank's Flower beneath the Foot. After that, Brophy wrote very little; two collections of her essays were published in the 1980s, supplementing (and in some cases reprinting) those in her 1966 collection Don't Never Forget. She died on 7 August 1995, a few weeks before this issue went to press.
The neglect of this brilliant woman's work and contributions to contemporary aesthetics is scandalous, and I hope the essays in this issue begin a long-running critical engagement with her body of work. In the afterward to Reads, Brophy says she took the title of her first essay collection from Mozart's attempt at English in a friend's album—"Don't never forget your faithfull friend"—because "I consider it vital that human beings never should forget Mozart." Those human beings who study contemporary literature never should forget Brophy.
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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 are perhaps specific reasons in this case—reasons that are paradoxically also very much part of what is interesting about Brophy's work. A main reason for this neglect seems to be that her work is not easily categorized or characterized. Though uniqueness, originality, and creativity are recognized as distinct literary qualities, it is nevertheless essential for readers to be able to place those qualities within some kind of framework. Association of an author with a particular kind of novel or a particular kind of writing is, for example, a helpful starting point for reading a text by an author and a shorthand way of keeping in mind what an author/author's books are like.
Simple as such kinds of categorization may seem, they are central to the ways in which literary texts are, or are not, kept in circulation. This is as true of the academy as outside it, and although the selection of material read in literature departments ("the canon") may sometimes seem to bear an odd relation to the selection of a wider reading public (even a "literary" one), there is a relationship there that can affect which authors remain in print. This is particularly critical in the transition for an author from being a contemporary novelist (reviewed in newspapers and widely circulated literary journals) to being an academically read author (which can in turn help to keep him or her alive as a "public" writer).
Brigid Brophy has not, I think, retained her position as an author still being widely read, and she has not made a transition into the academy (either in England or the U.S.). This transition is, of course, one for which there is tremendous competition: there are always too many authors (particularly recent ones) and too few opportunities to study a complete range. Selection is made by means of the ways in which literature courses are organized around particular topics. Thus most university literature departments will have some general courses on "Twentieth-Century Literature" and a variety of more narrowly defined courses on "The Modernists" or "Writing between the World Wars" or "Contemporary Writing" and so on. In either case the processes of selection make it hard for an author like Brophy to be included. Her writing is not clearly associated with a specific period (her work has not particularly been seen as representing the sixties, for example), nor is it associated with a specific novelistic genre or kind of writing. In this her work is not unique—other British women novelists, such as Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, and Muriel Spark, do not occupy clearly defined niches either—but Brophy is more neglected, and the variety and sheer oddness of her work may play a role in this, together with features of academic literary study itself.
None of the obvious critical labels seems helpful; terms such as modernism, realism, and post modernism can each be helpful up to a point, but none seems easily attached to all of her work. Part of the problem is that the first and last of these terms tend to suggest not only stylistic matters but also particular periods. Brophy seems too late for modernism and too early for postmodernism. That would seem to leave the long-enduring and central novelistic tradition of realism, but, as I shall argue, that too is helpful only up to a point (besides the fact that realism as a contemporary mode is generally not privileged in the academy and thus gives little force to a claim for Brophy's significance). A major part of this failure of Brophy's fiction to be characterized or canonized stems indeed from the way in which twentieth-century literature has been "periodized" or fitted into a historical framework. Up to the seventies, modernism (particularly Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf, and Hemingway) dominated literature courses. In the eighties contemporary literature began to be studied, especially new women writers, and by the middle of the decade, notions of the postmodern novel became widespread. None of these focuses helped Brophy much: she fitted none of them very exactly.
What I wish to do then is to introduce some of the variety of Brophy's work in order first to show some of the reasons for its lack of obvious classification and, more important, to suggest why it is of interest. Having said that Brophy's novels are not classified as postmodern, it should nevertheless be said that part of their variety does come from their being written after modernism (and several decades of reaction to modernism) and hence from a sense of a large vocabulary of possible novelistic kinds. Though this is part of a definition of postmodernism, most of Brophy's novels are not only not considered postmodern but are indeed not postmodern, for she does not usually foreground the mixing of this vocabulary within a single novel but draws variously and creatively on different tendencies in the novelistic tradition in different books. I will illustrate this variety and its interest in three Brophy novels written between the early sixties and the late seventies.
Flesh: A Novel of Indolent Passion (1962) looks initially as if it is a reasonably traditional (in terms of its technique), realist novel. The inside cover of the second edition (Corgi Books, 1965) certainly draws attention to content more than style, though with some suggestion that the novel is not a simple one: "this brilliant enigmatic novel tells the story of a contemporary Pygmalion and Galatea." The "enigmatic" here implies that some things in the novel are not easily explained, while the description of it as a rewriting suggests a ready-made model for interpreting the story. In fact, apposite as the Pygmalion model is, the question of interpretation is exactly one of the features of the novel that prevents it from being traditional in any straight-forward sense.
For though there are many clues in the narrative that seem to provide ways of thematizing the story, there never is any clear sense given of how to read it. Thus the issue of the weight of the male Galatea figure, Marcus, is signaled as important (he is painfully thin before Nancy cultivates and marries him but becomes suddenly and deliberately obese at a certain point in their marriage), yet the text never establishes a clear attitude towards it. It is not, of course, that traditional novels make everything clear, but the building up of clues that are never pushed into an interpretation easily available to the reader does seem a distinctive and perhaps particularly modern quality.
This effect principally depends on the novel's use of narration and characterization. Jennifer Plastow in an entry on Brophy in A Dictionary of British Women Writers (1989) writes that one of the later novels "fulfils the observational function of earlier fiction without distancing the reader." This is a very useful comment on the curious relationship created among characters, narrators, and readers in Flesh (and other Brophy novels). The narrator of Flesh mixes total knowledge of characters with great detachment and neutrality:
Nancy quite accepted the responsibility. But to Marcus's surprise she said that, on thinking it over, she had decided the job was not right for him, and that he should wait for one that was. Marcus had expected her to take the brisk therapeutic line that in a case as bad as his any job was better than no job. Now that she did not, but at the same time did not dismiss him as hopeless, he felt cherished.
The way in which the omniscient narrator here can move in and out of different minds is nothing new, but what is new is that the omniscience really is equally applied. There are no subtexts (except those the narrator identifies the characters as already knowing about themselves) and no suggestion that one of the two minds being described is more sympathetic, superior, more central, or more authentic. This is not an isolated effect but is sustained throughout the novel. We can enter into characters' minds but on a basis of strict equality. We therefore cannot engage very closely with any one character nor discriminate between characters. Hence at the end of the novel, we cannot readily interpret the significance of the events of which we (apparently) know so much. While the book cover may claim that Nancy "comes to regard her creation with some alarm," it is not actually clear at the end of the novel that this is the story of a reversal of roles or attitudes. Certainly, our attitudes toward the two main characters seem to have undergone no reversal, because they have remained static in terms of emotional commitment to them. Equality of treatment is maintained right to the end: "Perhaps her body was too nice to be pained. Anyway, he was too nice, and too lazy, to pain her."
The overall effect of this is perplexing—and for that reason worthy of more attention. If realism is (at least partly) defined as the creation of a recognizable world shared by character, narrator, and reader, then this novel could be described as realist: nothing inexplicable happens, and we therefore all share a common understanding of emotions and events. However, in a more fundamental sense of share we share nothing with the world of the characters and the novel: we understand the sequence of the characters' experiences, but we do not have any illusion of sharing the experience itself. Yet neither are we invited—or tempted—to judge in a completely external fashion.
Palace without Chairs: A Baroque Novel (1978) shares some of these features (an omniscient and neutral but less distanced narrator), while working in a very different genre. It is the story of the royal family of Evarchia, particularly Prince Ulrich, and of the end of monarchical rule in Evarchia. As the names may suggest, the novel is based on a Ruritanian fantasy type of novel. More specifically, it is clearly influenced by the playful novels of Ronald Firbank (about whom Brophy wrote a study called Prancing Novelist, published in 1973). This does not sound a very promising subgenre for serious novelistic achievement, but in many ways the novel writes against the reader's expectations of the genre while also using them. Thus Jennifer Plastow has used this novel as an example of the way in which Brophy's later fiction is "more substantial and developed" than her earlier.
The novel is undoubtedly comic to a degree, particularly in its use of odd juxtapositions and jumps: between reader expectations of the genre and its actual characterization, between formal and colloquial language, between a sense of the modern and the traditional in Evarchia itself. However, surprisingly, these unexpected features are not merely comic: it does matter what happens to these characters, and the events in Evarchia are made serious for the reader (paradoxically, it is easier to sympathize with the problems of the Evarchian royal family, eccentric as these problems sometimes are, than with the much more familiar ones of the characters of Flesh).
The first feature one notices about the novel is that these fantasy characters have complex consciousnesses:
He could overcome Clara's objections by the simplest (so it seemed as his mind sketched it) of acts, the renunciation of his inheritance. And if he embraced his true love after his affection had in fact ceased, the abnegation of the rest of his life was no more than the perpetual martyrdom he owed to all the other true loves he had slid past among the stones….
A nostalgia took him for his own feelings as they had been before his father's illness, when love, lust and honour had all (or so it seemed to him now) been plaited into a single silken bond.
Though there is an ironic-comic element to this complexity (that is, we may suspect that the complexity merely dresses up simpler desires), this does not fully explain the complexity, which remains instead as partly a sign of real complication and nuances of feeling in the character. Just as Flesh seems to be a novel that pushes realist devices in an unusual direction, it could be said that Palace without Chairs draws on aspects of modernism in unexpected ways (given its comic aspects and apparent genre). While the characters in Flesh know themselves completely, the characters here, though highly self-conscious, have a much more provisional sense of themselves: they continually try to explain themselves to themselves viá a series of complicated but never finished attempts.
As in some kinds of modernism (that of Virginia Woolf, for example), there is a great interest in language itself in the novel and the capacity or incapacity of language accurately to render the self. Ulrich's reflection on an attempted letter to his (ex)beloved Clara may refer not only to his own sense of how hard it is to express himself but also to the distinctive style of the novel:
his exposition became repetitive, self-contradictory and full of inverted constructions he could see no way of wrenching to a syntactical conclusion. Eventually, there was no letter and not even a draft. They had disappeared into their own maze of arrows and loops signifying insertions and transpositions.
The novel, indeed, again like Flesh, comes to no very clearly thematized conclusion. While the several royal deaths suggest tragedy, Ulrich and his lesbian sister Heather (the only survivors of the family in fact) may find escape from the entrapment of their roles in Evarchia (though exactly what they have escaped to is not clear).
Finally, Brophy's In Transit (1970) offers yet another kind of fiction. Here the model is clearly James Joyce (perhaps with a touch of Samuel Beckett), but the text has games of its own to play, in particular with gender. For while In Transit is as interested as any Joyce text in multilingual punning, its most striking feature is that its first-person narrator has no idea of her own identity. The speaking I knows that it is in an airport (a suitable symbol of the dislocations of modernity) and hence "in transit" and seems to have a capacity for generating language, but that is all. Thus the voice has a great consciousness of the culture embodied in language, but no knowledge of how it relates to the discourses it refers to so promiscuously. The novel opens:
Ce qui m'étonnait c'était qu'it was my French that disintegrated first.
Thus I expounded my affliction, an instant after I noticed its onset. My words went, of course, unvoiced. A comic-strippist would balloon them under the heading THINKS—a pretty convention, but a convention just the same. For instance, is the "THINKS" part of the thought, implying the thinker is aware of thinking?
Moreover—and this is a much more important omission—comic strips don't shew whom the thoughts are thought to….
Consciousness: a nigger minstrel show in which you are forever grabbing a disembodied buttonhole and gabbling "Pardon me, Mister Interlocutor."
The self-consciousness within the narrating voice of the problems of stream of consciousness narration is striking and an index of the novel's obsession with narration and language. Indeed, this metafictive quality (an awareness of fiction as an issue to be explicitly emphasized within the fiction itself) and the simultaneous self-awareness and fragmentation of the narrator over numerous different kinds of discourse take this novel towards postmodernism in a more obvious sense than that suggested earlier as applicable to Brophy. So too does the sense that, as Margeret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale says, "Context is all." The I's sense of itself switches startlingly as it suspects it is one gender or another and as it fits into language in different ways, none of which seems definitive ("unmanned Patricia reeled out of earshot").
Jennifer Plastow comments that a nonfiction work by Brigid Brophy called Black Ship to Hell (1962) has a "'feminine' refusal to acknowledge conventional boundaries." This seems true—in a variety of ways—of all of Brophy's oeuvre, both within individual texts and across her whole output. The fact that her work is not easy to characterize (and her characterization is an important part of the difficulty) may partly account for its neglect but can also suggest how interesting that work is and how it can challenge both academic and nonacademic readers.
Her work is an example of the fact that there is no single kind of realism or modernism or postmodernism and that such categories can be overlapped and challenged and oddly used within a single author's work (indeed within single novels). Moreover, her interest in playing with boundaries suggests that her books have much to contribute to the current interest in that feature of postmodernism, as well as to a more various history of twentieth-century literature.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3598
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 it merely "a curious sort of comedy" concerned with "the romantic temperament" and "youthfulness of spirit." Indeed, in the midfifties, long before postmodernity was consciously defined as a mode of "playful irony, parody, parataxis, self-consciousness, [and] fragmentation," Brophy's slippage-ridden text must have seemed to many readers (if not most) little more than a diverting and slightly risqué book that ultimately falls short of the mark, one that, in Rolo's words, is "as a whole … far from being a success: it is somewhat disjointed, lacking in coherence, and at times not sufficiently convincing." But I would argue that with the critical hindsight of nearly four decades we can readily perceive The King of a Rainy Country as an example of early postmodernity, a metafiction that tries on and discards a variety of conventional generic plots which, because of their deeply ingrained heterosexual narrative ideologies, offer no viable solutions or means of closure to the protagonists. Ultimately, Brophy indicates, when all other plots fail, there is always opera. And opera, not coincidentally, has long been one of the few "respectable" art forms in which women en travesti can switch their gender and make love to other women with impunity.
The tripartite structure of The King of a Rainy Country, while recalling that of the superannuated Victorian triple-decker, in fact delineates the shifts from one master narrative to another. These transitions are not only carefully manipulated on Brophy's part, but are also self-consciously metafictive on the part of her literarily aware protagonists, who, given a lack of conventional, established fictions by which to plot their own desires, attempt to "normalize" themselves, hopelessly, through conformity to available narratives. Thus Brophy begins with an offbeat courtship plot à la vie de Bohème in the novel's present, backgrounded with a homoerotic girls' school narrative. Once the protagonists push the conflicts of those modes to their logical points of climax without achieving the prerequisites for any resolution to ensue, they embark on a new plot, a picaresque travelogue qua quest narrative. When this strategy also fails in achieving the socially and narratively prescribed outcome of heterosexual consummation, the main characters, now expanded in number from two to four, attempt to enact and, ironically, come to varying levels of self-knowledge about their desires through the adoption of a plot from opera, in this case Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. Through this most self-consciously artificial mode of fictional representation, the characters are able to perform their irreconcilable forms of otherness and achieve various degrees of closure that, perhaps inevitably, fall somewhat short of absolute or even satisfactory resolution—at least to readers with conventional expectations.
Until its highly original denouement, The King of a Rainy Country chronicles the unsuccessful courtship of Susan and Neale, a young couple who are ostensibly "in love" and, without any formal declaration of intention, assume that they will eventually marry. Although both are the products of a relatively privileged educational background, they assume a Bohemian lifestyle of voluntary poverty, with Neale working as a dishwasher and Susan as the secretary to Mr. Finkelheim, a pornographer functioning under the guise of a rare book dealer, a Gentile pawning himself off in the business world as Jewish. Finkelheim's disreputable game of appearances versus reality serves not only as a reflection of the couple's own naive game of passing, but as a conduit for the subtle expression of the troubling reality behind their facade of acceptable—even, in its historical context, avantgarde—heterosexuality. For while Susan and Neale do in fact share a bed, they do not do so simultaneously. Their shared fiction that they are prevented from consummating their relationship by the exigencies of work schedules (Susan works during the day, Neale late nights and early mornings) could potentially provide the foundation for a comedy of manners and a series of jests revolving around the familiar bed trick. Yet in the context of Brophy's novel (in which the couple does contrive, despite the demands of their employment, to spend a significant amount of time together), sleeping separately in the same bed provides not the basis of endless jokes but rather a shield to deflect suspicion. When Susan balks at the idea of having any of her old school friends "snooping round our flat," Neale inquires if she is "afraid they'll think we go to bed together"; instead she fears that "they'll guess we don't." For Susan, the raised eyebrows that might result from this simulacrum of an unsanctioned and therefore daring heterosexuality are preferable to a revelation of the celibate condition that in fact attains.
Ironically, the trappings of Finkelheim's shop, where Neale regularly visits in the proprietor's absence, provide the means by which the inexplicable obstacles to consummation become clarified. Susan, while uninterested in the volumes of male nudes in stock, discovers in her perusal of a striptease picture book the likeness of her schoolmate Cynthia Bewley, the obsessional object of the girls' school narrative constantly present in Susan's memory. Homosocial school fictions, though given relatively little attention as a serious novelistic mode, have their own particular conventions and narrative expectations. Usually focused on the bildung of one particular and often troubled girl, they feature the highly emotive attachments and conflicts of adolescent female psyche in an atmosphere of ubiquitous sexual awakening. Separated from the world of men and boys, the students conduct themselves in a type of lesbian utopia, minimally aware of but generally oblivious to social disapprobation of same-sex love until discovery or intervention, usually by an authority figure, exposes the "inappropriateness" of the affection. This disruption of an Edenic situation, which generally precipitates the separation of lovers, ends, at worst, in tragic consequences. At very least, as in Susan's case, the result is one of unresolved and ongoing hurt and shame.
As the events of Susan's day-to-day life with Neale plod on, the narrative of the past surfaces in nonsequential and fragmentary fashion. As she is in Neale's presence when she discovers Cynthia's picture, some explanation of her visceral response is required. Thus it is revealed that, some years past, the adolescent Susan was enamored of the slightly older Cynthia, and, over the course of a fall term, the two entered into a close romantic friendship that culminated, on the last night before the winter break, in a passionate kiss during a performance of As You Like It. While the crossdressed Rosalind makes her speech to her "pretty little coz," Cynthia, sent with Susan into the storage space beneath the stage to retrieve, suggestively, "Hymen's crown," finds a faded silk rose among the old props and, placing the flower in Susan's lapel, suddenly kisses her friend. Before Susan can realize her desire "to kiss again," the girls are interrupted by an importuning school-mistress, leaving Susan yearning and "dissimulating in an entirely new way." Susan's complete understanding of the extent of this dissimulation must, however, be deferred; she must endure the separation of the winter break, anticipating the results of this awakening. We discover from another fragment of Susan's recollections that what subsequently transpires is not fulfillment but rather an inexplicable aloofness and alienation on the part of Cynthia, who refuses to communicate further. Subsequently, she publicly rejects and humiliates Susan and enters into a superficial attachment of dispassionate sex play with Susan's erstwhile friend Gill, leaving Susan alone without either solace or an explanation of a series of events that, because of their unspeakability, must stand unexamined.
Under more usual circumstances Neale might be expected to become jealous or suspicious of a past female love who continues to hold so strong an attraction for his presumed intended; yet he not only encourages Susan's apparent obsession but joins in it himself. He encourages Susan to find the "lost" girl, urging her to call all the Bewleys in the London telephone directory, to contact other former schoolmates for information, and to visit the art school where she was last known to model. The absent Cynthia not only becomes one more example of what Terry Castle calls the "ghosted lesbian" but also the erotic connection between Neale and Susan in lieu of a heterosexual relationship—and yet another excuse for delaying what would seem the inevitable in this relationship. Indeed, Neale, whose interest in sex and marriage seems primarily a matter of discourse, is as undefined in his orientation as Susan. This is readily apparent early in the novel when Susan returns home to discover François, a mysterious French houseguest with whom, at Neale's invitation, she is to share a room for the night. Affronted by this unwanted bedfellow, Susan balks; but François, in the course of an episode rendered almost entirely in French (contributing even further to the slippage that permeates the novel) informs her she need not fear for her virtue: "Pas impuissant, non. Pas impuissant—comment dit-on en anglais? C'est un des mots que je connais—quair." But while Neale's "quair" friend soon vanishes, in effect, from the text, this interlude, along with his interest in Finkelheim's male nudes and his distaste for the shop's "marriage manuals," indicates the extent of Neale's own dissimulation and suggests that what brings Susan and Neale together is nothing more or less than their shared latent homosexuality.
Susan and Neale could, conceivably, continue their game of deceptive appearances and shared obsessive fantasies of Cynthia interminably; but such a scenario would soon become static and, accordingly, nonnarratable, the avoidance of conflict ultimately allowing no hope of resolution. Accordingly, two events put an end to the stagnant courtship plot. A police raid of Finkelheim's shop leaves Susan bereft of employer and employment, and a missive from Gill (in response to Susan's letter at Neale's instigation) brings a newspaper clipping announcing that the aspiring actress "Cynthia Beaulieu" will be attending a film festival in Venice—along with the warning "Don't ever write to me again." Given these motivations, the pair falsify their qualifications, obtain employment as tour guides conducting American tourists from Nice to Venice, and exchange their exhausted narrative for a new one, that of the travelogue; but what is found in this journey is merely a variety of means by which heterosexuality can be postponed.
The exigencies of travel almost inevitably give rise in the picaresque to numerous and various occasions for illicit sexual encounters. If the restraints of British middle-class mores were all that had prevented carnal knowledge between Neale and Susan, surely the context of another country would allow for a release from these inhibitions. But, as we have seen, this is only the case ostensibly; and, ironically, exposure to the boorishly libidinous Americans only reinforces the pair's stereotypically English reticence, an attitude that seems to grow in proportion to the Americans' expectations. Sexual union becomes, for Susan and Neale, a highly articulated (and thus artificial) fantasy that can only occur at an optimal moment. The very real possibility of rape—which, in the minds of the young American men of the traveling party, is merely a matter of fulfilling social expectation—serves the purpose of minimizing the likelihood of this moment for Susan; yet Neale persists in seeking, presumably for no purpose other than to provoke rejection and thus continue to postpone the seeming inevitability of heterosexual consummation.
Once they have arrived in Venice and are relieved of their charges, however, there seems little excuse for deferral left. Outside the hotel lobby, as Neale badgers her with a series of tired poetic clichés, Susan reluctantly assents to the moment, distracted all the while by scene around her: "Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cotton dress move in the hotel foyer. I turned. So did Neale…. Inside the hotel, Cynthia was facing us, but not looking out: we were the direction, not the object of her gaze." Although Neale whispers "Let her go," as soon as Cynthia turns her back toward them, both burst through the door in pursuit of her. In this interrupted moment of possibility Susan and Neale find the dea ex machina Cynthia and thus in a sense fulfill their quest; but then they must face what they hoped to achieve in doing so. Conventional literary wisdom dictates that the end of the quest narrative must result in some sort of self-knowledge or completion for the seeker. Would the resolution of an earlier interrupted moment (and the apparent sexual panic that arose from it) clear the path for heterosexuality in the present? Would it offer an explanation of Neale's problematic sexuality as well? Or was the fantasy, as Neale later suggests, in itself more pleasurable than its fulfillment? As the end of this journey results, in any case, in merely one more reason to defer consummation, yet another generic plot fails the characters—and so a new one begins.
Part 3 commences with Cynthia's arrival for her reunion with Susan. Neither woman seems willing or able to face this meeting alone; just as Susan is accompanied by Neale, so Cynthia too brings a friend: the fading operatic soprano Helena Buchan. As Cynthia proves herself the stereotypical starlet, a form virtually devoid of content, Helena comes to the fore. Once known for her portrayals of the tragic Tosca and the betrayed Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Helena, who deems herself "not feminine enough," has over time settled into the role of the Countess Almaviva in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro—a woman, like Helena, for whom romantic love and marriage have proved disappointing. Accordingly, the other three assume various operatic demeanors as the plot shifts into a miscast version of Mozart's opera, a Marriage of Figaro without a Figaro to regulate (and manipulate) the excesses and foolishness of the other characters. The result is a romantic rectangle in which all parties are sexually ambivalent and thus unsure of their own desires.
Cynthia, with her childish dreams of fame and glory, has become little more than ancillary to the grand diva; as such, she functions as the page Cherubino to Helena's Countess Almaviva. Neale, for his part, becomes churlishly aggressive as the sole male in this ensemble. He would assert his "right" to dominance over the women, suggesting that Helena run away with him, in much the same manner that Count Almaviva in the opera would reassert the traditional droit du seigneur. But as he is thoroughly lacking affluence and power—and really desires an erotically tinged mother-son relationship with the diva—so does he too become Cherubino. In her critical study of Mozart's operas Brophy makes a point of explaining "Who is Cherubino, What is He?" (Mozart the Dramatist 103). But she omits one salient point about this character: while Cherubino is literally a sexually overwrought adolescent male and figuratively, according to Brophy, an eighteenth-century manifestation of Cupid (Eros), he is performed, both in Mozart's opera and historically in Beaumarchais's original play, by a woman. Thus while the staged "reality" of the opera presents a boy attempting to seduce a woman, the overriding appearance of what transpires on stage is a simulacrum of lesbianism.
But with a Countess, no Figaro or Count, and two Cherubinos, Susan's part in this opera remains vague. The adulation around the ever-present Helena not only prevents Susan from obtaining any explanation from or resolution with Cynthia—who seems to have acquired a highly selective amnesia about the past—but results in an alienation of Neale's affections. Only after Helena kindly but resolutely declines Neale's proposition can Susan assume her designated role, that of her operatic namesake Susanna, the Countess's confidante. Intuiting Susan's resentment, Helena invites her, alone, on a day trip to Padua, where the diva is to have a publicity photograph taken. While en route, they discuss the intimate details of their lives. Helena tells of her failed marriage, in which she "wasn't really the girl," "wasn't the type," and simply "gave a performance"; and, dropping all inhibition, Susan explains "about Neale. And Cynthia." Just what she explains, however, is a matter of critical interpretation; Brophy provides only a white space in lieu of direct discourse.
In the wake of this confession Brophy departs from the Mozartean plot in order to restage the novel's foundational narrative. As Helena waits for the photographer, she and Susan rummage through the studio props and find a wreath of silk roses; Helena takes one and places it in Susan's lapel, thus replacing Cynthia's rose, which Susan had preserved and Neale had since appropriated as his own. In this case, however, the photographer does not intervene, nor is there panic and dissimulation; rather, the two women acknowledge their mutual "sympathy." Subsequently, they stay the night at a local inn, where Helena pays a curious visit to Susan's room. Terry Castle calls the episode "a tender lesbian scene between diva and female fan." Indeed, the encounter is suggestive, taking place as Susan lies naked in bed and Helena speaks of her own recent nakedness, proscribed only by her need to traverse the corridor. But while no sexual act is directly represented, the symbolic resonances serve their purpose: the women exchange acknowledgments of their otherwise covert sexuality. In achieving this self-knowledge, Susan can effectively put closure to all her previous and abortive plots.
Upon her return to Venice, Susan discovers that Neale and Cynthia have mutually succumbed to their own form of sexual panic. Cynthia, having failed her much-sought screen test, and Neale, stung by Helena's rejection and seeming "conspiracy" with Susan, turn to each other. At Cynthia's demand, Neale beds her, immediately becomes engaged to her, and makes plans to go into business and assume an appropriately middle-class existence—with Cynthia as house-wife—upon their return to England. Thus in a moment with Cynthia he accomplishes what could never occur with Susan. While this final plot is a Marriage of Figaro without a Figaro, it will not lack for a wedding, the conventional ending to a comedy. He explains to Susan that he is not really in love with Cynthia, but "at the back of my mind I have the faintest feeling—as if I had, once, been in love with her." Unable or unwilling to take the risks that male homosexual existence entails (the law that sent Oscar Wilde to prison was, lest we forget, still in effect in the 1950s), Neale opts for a simulation of lesbianism instead, appropriating Susan's past so as to become her and thus write a happy ending to her earlier narrative. Yet because it lacks the self-knowledge inherent in Susan's revision of the interrupted moment, Neale's conclusion can offer little in the way of resolution or closure.
Back in England to begin a new plot, Susan places the rose from Helena in a drawer for safekeeping. Her friend Tanya, who helps her set up new housekeeping arrangements, remarks that she has "brought back" Cynthia's old rose. She replies, "No. It's a replacement." In the end, Helena—quite literally—replaces Cynthia as the lesbian ghost. Susan, having earlier declined an invitation to join Helena in her travels, finds in the older woman a conclusion rather than a continuing narrative; as Helena, unknown to Susan, is terminally ill, little in terms of continuance would be possible. Susan returns home to chart a new course for herself, only to discover that Helena has died en route to Vienna—and that a parcel from the diva awaits her: Helena's own wedding dress, a fulfillment of her promise of a gift "You may have a use for…. Or you may not. It doesn't matter if not." Countess Almaviva does, after all, oversee the preparations for Susanna's wedding to Figaro. A conventional interpretation might assert that this gesture symbolizes a mother-daughter bond between the two women, a passing-on from generation to generation. But this overlooks that the dress is itself the symbol of a failed marriage plot—and that the figure of Figaro is conspicuously absent from the opera plot of part 3. Rather, the dress is a symbol of shared knowledge and a union, metaphysical if not physical, between Helena and Susan; it is a memento mori, a reminder to keep alive the moment in Padua that has obviated the earlier painful one, a reminder of the "temporary shelter" that the marriage plot, if embarked upon falsely, provides.
Thus Brophy's opera buffa makes one last generic plot shift to opera semiseria. Susan, once more, will have to find a new plot by which to live; but it will be a plot to which the reader will not be privy and, we may assume, one for which there is not a preordained narrative convention. As for girls who want to be Cherubino, however, Brophy returns to that trope in The Snow Ball (1964) through the character of Ruth Blumenbaum. Dressed as the Mozartean page for a costume ball, Ruth intermittently obsesses about Anna K. as her potential Countess figure; but Anna K. is far too busy to notice, for she is in the throes of playing Donna Anna, pursued by—and pursuing—a suitor disguised as Don Giovanni. And that is another opera—and another novel—altogether.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3316
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 years later, Miss Antonia Mount, the headmistress in Brigid Brophy's comic masterpiece of girls' school homoeroticism The Finishing Touch (1963), negotiates the differences between the appearance of innocently platonic "romantic friendship" and the reality of lesbian sexuality, we might surmise that she has read the occlusions and absences in the tradition of her predecessors as signposts of the "love that dare not speak its name." This literary tradition of female homosocial passion and idealism in women's schools dates as far back as Scott's A Description of Millenium Hall (1762), which portrays a conventlike community of happily unmarried women preserving their independence and contentment while pursuing their love of aesthetics and learning in a pastoral Greco-Roman-style country house. Scott's work comes near the beginning of a long series of homoerotic fictions in all-women schools that include, most prominently, Colette's Claudine at School (1900), Gertrude Stein's Fernhurst (1904), Ivy Compton-Burnett's More Women than Men (1933), Christa Winsloe's The Child Manuela (1933), Dorothy Strachey's Olivia (1949), Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), and Brophy's The Finishing Touch.
While originary historical moments are difficult to pinpoint with accuracy—indeed, Sappho's school for girls on Lesbos may represent the beginnings in Western culture of this homoerotic pedagogical tradition—lesbian social historians such as Lillian Faderman have argued that modern lesbian identity dates from the so-called Scotch Verdict Trial of 1811, in which two teachers in an all-girls school, Miss Woods and Miss Pirie, were accused of engaging in "improper" displays of affection in front of their charges and therefore of corrupting the morals of children. After much tribulation, the two women were exonerated, in large part because the judges were more terrified of admitting the reality of female-female sexual passion than in prosecuting those involved in the supposed crime.
In the wake of this ambivalent acquittal—which was subsequently transformed into a tragic lesbian melodrama ending in suicide in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934)—an atmosphere of suspicion, arousal, and possibility clung to the institution of the girls' school. Indeed, The Finishing Touch, the title of which puns on both the act of masturbation and transformative erotic "touch" of lesbian culture transmitted to the girls in this "finishing" school, provides the comic metafictive "finish" to the tradition of girls' school fictions governed by what Martha Vicinus terms the dynamic of "distance and desire," in which self-control and academic discipline are manifestations of sublimated erotic desire for an admired teacher or older student. The Finishing Touch, which affectionately parodies and outs the lesbian desires of its literary predecessors, depends on readers' acquaintance with this tradition for much of its subtle meanings. Because the aptly named Miss Antonia Mount knows how to employ covert metaphor, textual allusion, and double entendre to transform her students into subversive readers of literature, she succeeds in transcending or "mounting" the cultural prohibitions against lesbian passion, thus ensuring the continued existence of her école—or, in the words of the early twentieth century lesbian writer Liane de Pougy, her idylle—Sapphique. Moreover, Brophy grafts the highly stylized camp aesthetics of her beloved literary forebear Ronald Firbank—who himself wrote frequently about lesbians—onto the tradition of homoerotic pedagogical fictions; thus, her finishing school becomes a doubly queer site in which learning and female bonding are linked with eros and eloquence as the students (and readers) are given charming lessons in the arts of manipulating the cultural semiotics of the (in)significance of lesbian love for their own significant pleasures.
The oblique Firbankian plot of this novella turns on the arrival of the English royal daughter, otherwise known simply as "royalty" or "H.R.H.", to the school. While Miss Mount and her closeted lesbian partner Miss Hettie Braid interpret her enrollment as a sign of the growing fame of their school and Miss Mount even anticipates that she will be made a "Dame," in the flesh H.R.H. proves both an aesthetic disappointment and a considerable pedagogical challenge. Ironically, Miss Mount's success as a teacher has depended on her talent for acculturating her students by transforming them into sophisticated interpreters of the homoerotic subtexts of the ostensibly straight world. H.R.H., whose outward deportment ironically coincides with stereotypes of female "inverts" as hommes manqués, is, in reality, completely devoid of queer sensibility. Indeed, she seems to have walked (straight) off the pages of Radclyffe Hall's sentimental medical sexologist apologia for female "inversion," The Well of Loneliness (1928). Soon after she disembarks from her British destroyer (which Miss Mount calls "The last flicker … of gunboat diplomacy"), she greets the headmistresses by saying, "'Smashing trip! Smashing to see you! Smashing …,' then, in her bumptuous manner, proceeds to smash an antique hydrangea pot. Later, she boisterously inquires after the "playing fields … For rounders," blissfully unaware that the school gardens, with their "secluded corners, sunken spots, grottoes one would never guess were there," are designed for more private lesbian erotic sports. In attempting to fill the empty brains of this royal "head" of British society, Miss Mount, who understandably feels more languidly world-weary than ever in the face of such purblind ignorance, confronts her greatest challenge in her career as a queer pedagogue.
Before the impromptu arrival of royalty, Miss Mount, with the unsuspecting assistance of Miss Braid—who seems not altogether cognizant of the lesbian nature of her own adoration of Miss Mount—had run their school on the French Riviera—which openly advertises itself in its prospectus for the "Personal attention and care of the joint head mistresses for each girl"—as a covert sapphic utopia whose international cast of students recalls the habitués of the health resort in Firbank's Valmouth. The lovely Regina Outre-Mer provides, in her role (as her name suggests) as the "Overseas Queen" of the finishing school, an enchanting French homoerotic counterpart to the bovine asexuality of English royalty. Regina, an especially promising scholar, is so enamored of Miss Mount that she tears her embossed name from a piece of the school's stationery and "wriggle[s] the die-stamped words in such a way as surreptitiously to caress them against the flesh of her bosom." La Badessa di Poggibonsi, a "secular Abbess" who inherited the title from her proto-Renaissance female forebears, walks about in a pair of stiletto sandals fastened with a "large white plastic daisy." Fraise du Bois, a nineteen-year-old registered drug addict "already well advanced down the slope pioneered by her cousin Blanche"—the latter whom readers will recognize as Tennessee Williams's fictionalized self-portrait as the heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire—provides fewer disciplinary problems than the rest of the pupils combined, "droguée," as Miss Mount observes, "as the poor creature is from dawn to dusk." The Monacan heiress Miss Jones disports herself in a bikini, while the Lebanese (read Lesbian) princess, evidently something of a dildo fancier, obligingly tosses out her "exotic" and "one or two erotic" objects in deference to the "discretion" Miss Mount asks the girls to practice in the presence of H.R.H. The aristocratic President's daughter of a "dark republic" inspires Miss Mount to conduct eroticized imaginative "experiments" with her appearance because her "bloomy skin" is a "natural show-case … for jewels." At last, the Plash sisters, Sylvie and Eugénie, whose surnames recall both the slang term for homosexual schoolgirl "crushes" (i.e., "pashes") and the dualistic character of the relentlessly fatalistic, documentary style, and (alas and at last) hopelessly heterosexual American poet Sylvia Plath, eventually prove the occasion for near tragedy.
The new discretion Miss Mount asks her pupils to display before royalty has the ironic effect of forcing consciousness of lesbianism to the surface. Before the advent of H.R.H., Miss Mount's more encoded social references to sapphic "knowledge" are evident in her dealings with the Catholic Church and reveal how readily lesbianism can slip between the cracks of traditional moral injunctions against birth control and prenuptial heterosexual sex. Miss Mount, annoyed that she must conduct her Catholic girls not only to church on Sunday mornings but also to confession on Saturday evenings, informs the parish priest that "none of her girls had anything to confess," which echoes almost verbatim the words of Una Troubridge, the lover of the British lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall, who, when asked how she and "John" reconciled their lesbianism with their Catholicism replied, "There was nothing to confess." Since the Catholic Church opposes precautionary steps and "rhythm seemed not to be in the nature of girls," Miss Mount fears that "we shall one day find ourselves trapped between the two kinds of irregularity to which girls are prone." In other words, parents might blame her for the heterosexual and homosexual irregularities of her charges, an anxiety that the Cardinal alleviates by allowing that the girls might confess only during their vacations. Nonetheless, to remain on the safe side, Miss Mount is more "insistent with the Catholic girls than the others in bidding them, if they should by chance have that capacity, satisfy themselves with the company of their own sex." Thus Catholicism, in its doctrinal incoherencies, proves (as Firbank himself well knew) quite friendly to the conversion of religious into lesbian meanings as long as the actual state of affairs is not made too explicit.
This somewhat comfortable (if enervating) state of quasi-closeted, quasi-encoded lesbian meaning, so common in earlier homoerotic girls' school fictions, is transformed by the revolutionary disequilibrium introduced into this social microcosm by royalty. Determined simultaneously to amend and expose the privileged obtuseness of H.R.H. (who seems beyond the need for intelligence) and, moreover, to pursue her erotic interest in Eugénie Plash and Regina Outre-Mer, Miss Mount decides to start one of the earlier informal course offerings in lesbian studies, "a special Literature group." It begins, appropriately enough, with the poems of Renée Vivien, an early twentieth-century expatriate American lesbian poet who wrote homoerotic verse in French inspired by Sappho. In the face of this unmistakable and explicit queer knowledge, Eugénie "pouts," Regina "blushes," the President's daughter "seem[s] not to care," and H.R.H. remains "deep-puzzled," thus confirming each of them in, respectively, their aversion, desire, indifference, or incomprehension vis-à-vis lesbian passion. The conspiratorial Plash sisters begin to deride Regina, who cannot understand why anyone would not love Miss Mount, for her worship of the headmistress and tell various mean-spirited inside jokes about the engrained block-headedness of H.R.H. and the "drinking habits" (another code for lesbian habits) of Miss Mount. In the meantime, Miss Mount, who now aches with desire for Regina, must convince her partner that she persists in these classes from her pure educational motive of vanquishing the ignorance of royalty and thus combating the "doom" of talented people, as Miss Braid herself conveniently expresses it, of being "misunderstood." Thus the class proceeds with Proust's classic of torrid lesbian desire Albertine Disparue, which, while met with blankness by H.R.H., inspires in Miss Mount an almost uncontrollable urge to kiss Regina, if only she could "rely on [royalty's] uncomprehension—of everything." Now desperate for Regina (a state she once again presents to Miss Braid as a heroic struggle against the intellectual doltishness of H.R.H.), Miss Mount decides to "force" clear understanding on her pupils by having them read Colette's Claudine à l'école. This is a potentially perilous choice for the adored authoritative teacher in her still delicate situation with Regina, for this book portrays the rambunctiously aggressive adolescent schoolgirl Claudine as a ready and willing seducer of her older teacher. Fortunately, the book makes Regina laugh, a sign that she welcomes (and will eventually act upon) the sexual component of her love for Miss Mount.
The erotic possibilities between adored teacher and desired pupil are developing beautifully according to pedagogical plan when an accidental act of nature, in collusion with the machinations of the Plash sisters, who have been looking for incontestable documentary evidence of Miss Mount's lesbianism, intervenes. H.R.H. is stung by the fatal "guêpe du midi," or the midday wasp, an occurrence which provides both the climactic turning point and the quasi-naturalized dea ex machina of the plot. Miss Mount, wishing all the while that she might thus have permission to kiss "innocently" the bosom of Regina, overcomes her considerable aversion for the person of H.R.H. and sucks the venom of the wasp bite from the "royal décolletage." Yet while Miss Mount can remove the literal poison, she cannot completely innoculate herself against the far more insidious social venom produced by the persistent obtuseness of royalty or the homophobic malice of the Plash sisters. Indeed, the sisters, who have been observing this scene of rescue from their window, furnish the local newspaper with a photograph which shows Miss Mount in the apparent act of kissing Royalty on the bosom. That Miss Mount feels no attraction for H.R.H. does not prevent the Plash sisters from interpreting her action as an attempt to curry favor in high places (and subvert British social authority) by converting royalty to lesbianism, nor does it prevent the newspaper from reprinting the photograph along with a scandalous headline: "Étrange Affection entre Professeur et Elève."
This false public outing, the result of both an idiotic failure to discern the differences between appearances and realities and the false social ambitions and snobberies introduced by royalty, is, in some measure, propelled by the convoluted dynamics of erotic jealousy that is a staple of girls' school fictions such as Olivia and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. If Miss Mount, the evident favorite among the pupils of the two officially "co-equal, co-eval, co-proprietors," has a tragic flaw (or, alternately, a redeeming grace) it is her marked preference for beautiful young women. She directs all her attention toward her attractive and talented lesbian-leaning students such as Regina Outre-Mer and Eugénie Plash, leaving her partner Miss Braid to deal with less fetching heterosexual-leaning girls such as Sylvie Plash, whom the deep-voiced Miss Braid upbraids for receiving letters from a "coarse" sailor by informing her that "men are coarse." This moralistic pedagogy (although a matter of sexual and aesthetic taste for Miss Mount and physical aversion and self-closeting for Miss Braid) fails, and, combined with the destabilizing presence of H.R.H., the subtle competition between Eugénie Plash and Regina Outre-Mer for the affection of Miss Mount, the growing conspiratorial designs of the Plash sisters, and, most important, the exposure to lesbian-themed literature (which can either infect students with or innoculate them against the poison of homophobia) leads to the infamous venom-sucking scene, in which Miss Mount comes close to losing her career by heroically saving the life of royalty.
Although an ostensibly lighthearted novel, The Finishing Touch contains an important message about the need for constant watchfulness among queers, inasmuch as the venom of homophobia and its antidote spring from similar sources and depend on how individuals respond to the power conferred on them by sexual knowledge. Indeed, the headmistresses eventually succeed in innoculating themselves against the various poisons that inevitably accompany queer life, from the comical vagaries of role playing through the politics of religion and public scandal. Through the quasi-operatic distinction between the soprano voice of Miss Mount and the baritone of Miss Braid, the two women are initially established as a prototypical femme-butch couple. But these appearances prove misleading, all the more so as Miss Braid is far more reticent to acknowledge or recognize her lesbianism than Miss Mount. In the beginning the ever solicitous and "masculine" Miss Braid spends her time anticipating the needs and alleviating the distresses of the "feminine" Miss Mount. After the arrival of H.R.H., however, their positions are reversed. Miss Mount must soothe the persistent apprehensions of Miss Braid, who fears (accurately, as it turns out) that some bizarre and unforseen catastrophe will befall H.R.H. and, therefore, them. In the end Miss Mount must once again act heroically to save the school from disrepute by seducing Commander Curl, a closeted homosexual British naval officer who has been sent to determine whether intelligence reports that the women are running a sapphic school for scandal are true. In this early exploration of the duplicities inherent in the policy of "don't ask, don't tell," Miss Mount succeeds in vanquishing her political opponents by deploying their own weapons against them. Moreover, Miss Mount uses the Commander to relieve what she refers to as "the tensions, the hysteria, the really at times too insupportable emotional fraught-ness, of these all-female institutions," which, of course, alludes to her frustrated sexual longings for Regina Outre-Mer.
As in her earlier dealings with the Catholic Church, in her confrontations with British Intelligence Miss Mount is aided in large measure by the unspeakability of lesbianism. For example, when the intelligence officers ask for background information on "this Mount woman" to determine whether she's "that kind of woman," one officer thinks this means "communist" (an accusion frequently launched at queers), and another fears he cannot "write … down" the "salient facts in memorandum form." While Miss Mount and Miss Braid lose most of their pupils, including Regina Outre-Mer and even the droguée Fraise du Bois, in the wake of the newspaper scandal, they almost immediately receive "several new applications." Although Miss Braid wonders whether the new students will be "quite the type of girl we want," Miss Mount (in yet another reversal of type) confidently replies that "they will be in some ways even more the…." Although Miss Mount trails off before substituting the word "lesbian" for "girl," her conception of the mission of her finishing school has clearly undergone a radical transformation. By forcing what Virginia Woolf termed "this very queer knowledge" to new levels of awareness, the scandal caused by the collision of social snobbery and envious malice with idealistic love and passionate desire ultimately strengthens the hand of queer education and helps to fulfill the ambition, expressed by Miss Mount near the beginning of the text, that her school might encourage lesbianism as an adult way of life rather than a mere adolescent passing phase: "We are supposed to send them away finished. Though in some cases … I prefer to think I've sent them away just begun."
Originally published in 1963, The Finishing Touch represents an important milestone in the history of lesbian and, more broadly, antihomophobic literature. Affectionately sophisticated in its treatment of its predecessors in Firbankian, French homosexual, and homoerotic girls' school fiction, Brophy's metafictional comic masterpiece in the end both accompanies and acknowledges a new and more explicit brand of lesbian bildungsroman as represented by, among others, Maureen Duffy's moving depiction of a working-class lesbian child's fight to receive an education in That's How It Was (1962), Rosemary Manning's autobiographical treatment of lesbianism, hypocrisy, and betrayal in a girls' boarding school in The Chinese Garden (1962), and Monique Witting's innovative nouveau roman of the early development of lesbian consciousness in The Opoponax (1957; trans. 1964). Unlike these fictions, The Finishing Touch is not, as Brophy herself has repeatedly pointed out, either semiautobiographical or documentary. This does not, however, lessen this book's authority or importance as an imaginative metafictive comedy of manners that reveals that the roots of homophobia rest precisely in the inability to play with language and a dour insistence on the literality of meaning, both of which, finally, prove fatal to all erotic joyousness, imaginative empathy, and creative liberty.