Brigid Brophy is sometimes classed as an ‘experimental’ writer, although that term is imprecise (and it may even discourage some readers). Each of Brigid Brophy’s fictional works is sui generis, there being no genre category into which to scoop them all for convenience. Her seven novels and two published plays exhibit Brophy’s richly creative mind, her sense of the comedic and her distinctive ‘voice’.
The Crown Princess (1953)
Brophy received good reviews for her first published work, a volume of short stories.
Established author Pamela Hansford- Johnson wrote in a letter to Brophy
‘I am deeply impressed by your work, which seems astonishing in its technical success, but, far more importantly, in its insight into human beings. There seems no doubt that you have a career here (…)’
Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953)
Awarded first prize at the prestigious Cheltenham Literary Festival, Brigid Brophy’s debut novel is about a plan to send an ape into space, and a counter-plan to prevent it. Without being simplistic or sentimental, the novel movingly presents in fiction the case for animal liberation, a cause little heard of at the time of its publication.
The King of a Rainy Country (1956)
Brigid Brophy declared this her most nearly autobiographical novel. The reader follows Susan and her not-quite-boyfriend, Neale, on their quest to find her schoolfriend. The novel is poignant, funny, and accessible; it makes an excellent starting place for readers wondering where to start with Brophy. Jennifer Hodgson wrote the punchy Afterword to the Coelacanth edition shown here.
With a nod to the myth of Pygmalion, Brophy’s reticent and aimless Marcus is 'carved' by sexually confident Nancy into a fully formed being. Set in respectable Jewish North London, this wittily observant and beautifully written slim novel follows Marcus’ transformation.
A quote from Marcus is on the reverse of my Brigid Brophy bookmark
The Finishing Touch (1963)
Set in a girls’ finishing school on the French Riviera run by Miss Mount and Miss Braid, this is a brief confection which can be considered a homage to Ronald Firbank. In the GMP (1987) edition, Brophy explained that Antonia Mount was inspired by Anthony Blunt, the art historian she had met in connection with her husband Michael Levey’s work. Brophy makes little of changing Blunt’s sex for this novel, noting in her introduction that in The Finishing Touch he retains not only his name, but ‘his excellent, virtually native French, and something of his adumbrated liking for sailors’.
The Waste Disposal Unit (1964)
Written for radio, this play is steeped in Brophy’s distinctive sense of humour. She described it as ‘a brief, black farce, expressing comedy of manners as comedy of linguistics’. And she added, ‘It is in- and about- American’. The play was broadcast on BBC radio in 1964 and subsequently published in The London Magazine. In 1968 it was included in Best Short Plays of the World Theatre 1958-1967 edited by Stanley Richards.
The Snow Ball (1964)
Faber’s 2020 edition of this acclaimed Brophy classic is appropriately sumptuous, and Eley Williams has written a very good Foreword. Exquisite narrative and dialogue are showily displayed as Brophy plaits together her triple themes of sex, death and Mozart. The novel scintillates from start to denouement.
The Burglar (1968)
Performed in London’s West End for the briefest of spells in 1967, this play received a critical battering. Taking the burglar in Shaw’s Heartbreak House as a springboard, Brophy’s design and dialogue expand on sexual morality and hypocrisy, in her take on a bedroom farce. Brigid’s lengthy preface to the published version of the play is highly revealing of her attitudes and beliefs; so is of importance to Brophy scholars, I hope.
In Transit (1969)
This is Brophy at her most avant-garde. Here the text is inventively presented, reflecting the work’s shifting narrative thrust. The novel takes the form of a romp through an airport with a sexually ambiguous principal character, and it’s extremely funny. There are puns galore, as part of the linguistic twists and turns Brophy takes pleasure in devising. With both gender and perspective being fluid, the reader is challenged. Brigid adored airports and planes; she even had a small model Concorde at her desk. In Transit is a clever, idiosyncratic book; Brophy goes full tilt at construction and deconstruction of linguistic reflections of consciousness. This is how the novel opens:
The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl (1973)
Described as ‘A novel and some fables’, this is a fascinating volume which deserves more attention. There is nothing underpowered about these short pieces covering a range of Brophy’s interests, among them: animal rights, conventionality, reason, and music. The novel that gives the book its title takes the form of dialogue between, among others, God, Voltaire and George Bernard Shaw.
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Pussy Owl (1976)
Brigid Brophy’s only published children’s story features the rather grumpy progeny of Edward Lear’s Owl and Pussycat. Although Brophy drew her own version of Pussy Owl (below, left) when the story was published it was with Hilary Hayton’s more friendly-looking creature (below, right).
Palace Without Chairs (1978)
Brophy's final novel is a baroque modern fairy tale. It’s a political satire suffused with sympathy for the plight of her idiosyncratic royal characters, most of whom are republicans: their problem over the royal succession is solved in dramatic style. Brophy cognoscenti will note the psychological acuity she brings to Palace Without Chairs. Her favoured motifs of opera, sex and death appear in this fantasy, along with her reverence for forms of animal life other than human.