Brophy, Brigid (1929–1995)

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Brophy, Brigid (1929–1995)

British novelist, critic and playwright, who was one of the most entertaining, acute and witty critics of the 1960s and 1970s. Born Brigid Antonia Brophy in London, England, on June 12, 1929; died in Louth, Lincolnshire, on August 7, 1995; daughter of John Brophy and Charis Grundy Brophy; educated at St. Paul's Girls' School; awarded Jubilee Scholarship and studied classics at St. Hugh's College, Oxford; married Sir Michael Levey (author and former director of the National Gallery, London), 1954; children: one daughter, Katharine.


Cheltenham Literary Festival Prize for first novel (1954); fellow of Royal Society of Literature (1973).

Selected publications:

Hackenfeller's Ape (Hart-Davis, 1953); The Finishing Touch (Secker and Warburg, 1963); Mozart the Dramatist (Harcourt, 1964); Don't Never Forget (Cape, 1966); (with Michael Levey and Charles Osborne) Fifty Works of Literature We Could Do Without (Rapp and Carroll, 1967); Beardsley and His World (Harmony Books, 1976); Baroque 'n' Roll (David and Charles, 1987).

Brigid Brophy grew up in a literary household. Her mother Charis Brophy , a strong feminist, was a teacher, nurse, and prison visitor, and her father John Brophy was a prolific novelist and critic. His best-known novel, Waterfront (1934), set on the Mersey River in Liverpool, was turned into a film, as were two other novels. He was chief fiction critic of the Daily Telegraph and, during World War II, edited John O'London's Weekly. His daughter began writing at a precociously early age, mainly poetry and drama, but gave it up when she found that "there was no great market for blank verse dramas on the Middle Ages." Her father was more percipient, and in 1940 he wrote: "I have a daughter, ten years old, who excels me in everything, even in writing." Brophy and her father were very different: "We never agreed what is good art or bad art, yet we were at one in our preoccupation with the problem."

Though of Irish parents, John Brophy was born in Liverpool. Even so, Brigid Brophy described him at the time of his marriage as an Irishman of "poetic temperament, luminous purity and Sinn Fein politics." She was very aware of her Irish background. By nativity, schooling and economics, she acknowledged, she was English but "my exact sociological situation is too complex to allow me to make the simple assertion that I am English." She prided herself on her Irish rationality but confessed that the geography and history of Ireland "hold my imagination in a melancholy magic spell." Dublin and Limerick "are cities beautiful to me not only with some of the most superb and most neglected architecture in Europe but with a compelling litany, a whole folklore, of tragic and heroic associations." She could not sit through Yeats' Cathleen Ni Houlihan without crying, but this was not because she was Irish but because the history of Ireland was so sad. She belonged by upbringing to a highly specialized class "those who are reared as Irish in England." However, she detested the narrow nationalism and religious intolerance she saw in Ireland and resented the banning of her books by Irish censorship. She was, she concluded, "an awkwardly rational third generation immigrant."

Brophy's classical education contributed precision and clarity to already formidable gifts. Her novels and critical writings reflected a polymathic range of interests: animal rights, atheism, feminism, opera, pacifism, psychoanalysis, and vegetarianism. Her originality was apparent in her first novel, Hackenfeller's Ape, which she considered "probably the best I shall ever write," and which dealt with the predicament of a zoologist who sets an ape free from London Zoo because it will be used in a scientific experiment. The theme was an unusual one for the time, but Brophy, a lifelong anti-vivisectionist, had no patience with the cozy anthropomorphism of some animal lovers. "The whole case for behaving decently to animals," she wrote in 1965, "rests on the fact that we are the superior species."

Between 1962 and 1964, Brophy published four novels of which two, Flesh and The Finishing Touch, are considered among her best. Flesh is the story of a young Jewish couple, second generation London Jews, reacting against the social and sexual mores of their parents. The Finishing Touch, more controversial, was described by Brophy as a "lesbian fantasy," the story of a young English girl at a French finishing school run by two English lesbians. Lesbianism was also a theme in her 1978 novel Palace WithoutChairs, while, in 1969, her experimental novel In Transit was an exploration of transsexuality and gender identity. She spoke out strongly against all forms of sexual prejudice, particularly homophobia, at a time when homosexual activity was still illegal in Britain. This prejudice, she argued constantly, led to sexual hypocrisy at the highest levels and to the blackmail of innocent people. Her forthright views on sex led to her being described as the "arch priestess of the permissive society."

In the 1960s and 1970s, Brophy had a high profile on television, radio, and in the press, yet there were contradictions in this. She was a private person and her nervousness was sometimes evident in her media appearances. She also admitted that she hated writing and was impossible to live with when doing so. Some critics thought she should have stuck to "serious writing," which she countered by saying that her journalism was serious writing. She was one of the most entertaining, acute and witty critics of the 1960s and 1970s, fearless in tackling controversial subjects and with a mischievous gift for pricking pomposity. Her 1966 collection of essays and reviews, Don't Never Forget, discusses subjects as diverse as the rights of animals, the immorality of marriage, the British sense of humor, and Fanny Hill. There is a prescient essay on women in which she observed that the invisible barriers restricting women (such as dictates about what constituted "womanly" behavior) were as powerful as the formerly visible ones and that the emancipation of both sexes was necessary, not just women's. The collection also contains an affectionate portrait of her mother whom she compares, tongue-in-cheek, to Lady Macbeth ("I have differed from my mother on every fundamental issue and agreed with her on every practical one"), and a scathing indictment of British sexual hypocrisy in the essay "The Nation in the Iron Mask." This was a talk written for BBC Radio in 1963 at the height of the John Profumo-Christine Keeler political and sexual scandal then paralyzing the British establishment. Brophy described the scandal as "the most dazzling free entertainment laid before the British public since the trial of Oscar Wilde" and commented that the British public "comported itself as a dotty old imperial dowager saying 'Hush dear, not in front of the servants.'" The talk was too iconoclastic for BBC tastes and was never broadcast.

Brophy's iconoclasm was demonstrated to further effect in 1967 in a book she published with her husband Michael Levey and a friend, Charles Osborne, Fifty Works of English (and American) Literature We Could Do Without. In an "address to the reader" they asked: "Do you really like, admire and enjoy the works in question, or do you merely think you ought to?" English Literature "is choked with the implied obligation to like dull books." Some reviewers were outraged by their ruthless puncturing of great reputations, others were hugely entertained. Jane Eyre was "like gobbling a jar-full of schoolgirl stickjaw"; Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote "the poetry of a mental cripple"; To the Lighthouse was "like some beautifully painted, delicately tinted old parchment which has been made into a lampshade after a labour of several years"; of Lady Chatterley's Lover, they commented "all that removes Lady C. from the run of under-the-drier reading is … the philistinism with which it ridicules Sir Clifford for reading Racine"; on T.S. Eliot, "It may be that the means whereby T.S. Eliot prevailed upon the world to mistake him for a major poet was the simple but efficient confidence trick of deliberately entitling one or two of his verses 'Minor Poems.'"

On this evidence it is not surprising that Brophy was feared as a critic by authors who were still living. She had a merciless eye and slaughtered with gusto several sacred cows of the English literary establishment. In 1964, she wrote of Evelyn Waugh that only he could write like a baroque cherub but "a baroque cherub on a funerary urn, forever ushering in the Dies Irae." She rubbished comprehensively A.L. Rowse's William Shakespeare, which was written "in a prose half-timbered when it is not half-baked, thatched with disintegrating archaisms." She also took aim at Simone de Beauvoir whom she considered to be one of the most overrated figures in postwar French writing: "a mind capable of missing entire points, and incapable both of the precision of an artist and of the accuracy of a scholar. Not inspired enough to be slapdash, it was often slipshod. In short, a plodder."

Brophy dismissed those who attacked her as a "controversialist," a term used, as she saw it, by people who disliked making up their minds. "When I think a book a bad work of art I say so to the best of my expository prose…. I entertain far too much respect for art to be a 'respecter of persons'—a curious phrase whose meaning has nothing to do with respecting people and everything to do with kowtowing to or fearing powers and influences."

Brophy loved opera and had a particular reverence for Mozart. Her 1964 novel The Snow Ball was a modern reworking of Don Giovanni and in the same year she published Mozart the Dramatist, subtitled "A New View of Mozart, His Operas and His Age," which was strongly influenced by her interest in Freudian psychoanalysis. She later wrote the introduction to Lionel Salter's translations of The Magic Flute and The Seraglio.

Her fascination with the era of the 1890s was shown in two books on Aubrey Beardsley, Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (1968) and Beardsley and His World (1976). One of her most substantial works of nonfiction was Prancing Novelist (1973), a biography of Ronald Firbank whose influence on her own fiction was occasionally observed, notably in The Finishing Touch. She also wrote the introduction to 1966 Pantheon edition of Elizabeth Smart 's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and for the Pan Books edition of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen who was one of her favorite authors. Her excursions into drama were less successful. She wrote a radio play for the BBC in 1964 The Waste Disposal Unit, and in 1968 her only stage play The Burglar was produced in London, to a mixed critical reaction.

In the 1970s, Brophy actively took up a cause dear to her father's heart, public lending right (PLR), which would give authors a fee whenever their books were borrowed from public libraries. She and Maureen Duffy formed the Writers' Action Group in 1972 to lobby for PLR, which was eventually granted in 1979. (Brophy wrote A Guide to Public Lending Right in 1983.) She also served on other writers' organizations; the Writers' Guild of Great Britain from 1975–78 and as vice-chair of the British Copyright Council 1976–80.

A committed atheist, Brophy wrote a number of pamphlets in defense of secularism and against the role of religion in the state. She also attacked the campaign on pornography led by Lord Longford in the early 1970s, which she thought was an invitation to more oppressive censorship.

One of Brophy's last books was The Prince and the Wild Geese, a short, charming account of an abortive 19th-century romance between a young Irish girl, Julia Taaffe , and a Russian noble, Grégoire Gagarin (whose original drawings provided the illustrations). The following year, 1984, Brophy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an illness that led to increasing physical infirmity. She wrote movingly about the disease in "A Case-Historical Fragment of Autobiography," which was included in her last volume of essays Baroque 'n' Roll (1987). What she most resented about the illness, she wrote, was her dependence on other people, especially those she loved, her family and friends. It was a disgusting illness that "inflicts awareness of loss" and "is accompanied by frustration…. I have in part died in advance of the total event." But typically she also used this essay to restate her total opposition to vivisection in the search for a cure for multiple sclerosis.


Brophy, Brigid. Baroque 'n' Roll and Other Essays. London: David and Charles, 1987.

——. Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews. London: Jonathan Cape, 1966.

Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Vol. 4. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1986.

Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 25. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989.

Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Novelists since 1960. Vol. 14. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1982.

Deirdre McMahon , Dublin, Ireland, Assistant Editor, Dance Theatre Journal (London) and author of Republicans and Imperialists (Yale University Press, 1984)