The heterogeneity of Brophy’s fictional work makes it impossible to categorise. Ever inventive, Brophy followed her literary instincts, and each time produced a different type of gem.
The Crown Princess (1953), was Brophy’s first publication. It is a collection of stories which Brigid later said she wished suppressed. Perhaps they amount to very slightly ‘underpowered’ or under-developed Brophy, in her judgement. I note the early style of signature in my copy, and also the reference, on the back flap, to her father’s popularity among readers. It was rather a shock to John to be sidelined at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, where to his pride -and chagrin- his daughter received accolades for Hackenfeller’s Ape.
Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953): Brigid Brophy’s debut novel was awarded first prize at the Cheltenham Literary Festival of 1954, with Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net taking second place. It was at the award ceremony that Brigid and Iris first met; they were mutually attracted and a friendship developed shortly after. Later, they were lovers, but their relationship wasn’t easy; it really justified the description ‘it’s complicated’. In her early twenties Brigid lived near London Zoo, where she used to hear the lions roaring at night. Hackenfeller’s Ape is set in a zoo where the relationship of a pair of apes is being studied; one of them is destined to be sent into space. The novel revolves round a signature Brophy trope: our treatment of our fellow animals. There are paradoxes and dilemmas woven into the novel’s pacy plot.
When someone asks about the best place to start with Brigid Brophy’s fiction, I usually advise them to begin with The King of a Rainy Country (1956). Dedicated to ‘Michael Levey my husband’ this is Brophy’s most autobiographical novel. In her Afterword to the Virago edition, (1990, with the surreal cover, below) my mother makes explicit the elements of her life she drew on for the book, while making it clear that The King of a Rainy Country is indeed fiction. The experiences of Susan and her not-quite-boyfriend, Neale are depicted in this early Brophy story that is strikingly funny, as well as charming and witty. The shape echoes Mozart’s opera, Figaro, with changes of mood mirroring the mutating affections of its characters. Right from the start there is an elegiac sigh in the writing that presages the poignancy of the last section. In this work, Brophy writes with an immediacy that makes the book both memorable and readily accessible.
Flesh (1962), is dedicated to Iris Murdoch as ‘I.M’. With a nod to the Pygmalion myth, Brophy’s reticent Marcus is in effect sculpted by Nancy into a fully sexual being, a role in which he luxuriates. The novel is slim (Marcus at the end is not), and is packed with Brophyian observation. Marcus has many of my father Michael’s mannerisms, which gives this novel a special resonance for me; I imagine there is more autobiography herein than others might recognise. Flesh was initially received by some with distaste since Brophy depicts sexual intercourse without demur. The sex in it is tame by today’s standards, however, I learned from Iris Murdoch’s letters that Brigid felt a shade shy about her parents reading this novel. My mother sent Iris Murdoch a copy of Flesh in a silver wrapping. When Iris opened it, she saw Brigid had adapted the cover to read, ‘Flash, a novel by Brigitte Bardot’.
The Finishing Touch (1963) is set in a girls’ finishing school on the French Riviera, run by Miss Mount and Miss Braid. This is a brief, airy novel, an amusing 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- America’. 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, first published in 1964, is justly considered a masterpiece. I am thrilled that Faber is issuing a new edition in November 2020, with a foreword by Eley Williams. Brophy set the sensual novel at a costume party in a striking London house. Black and white are used contrapuntally throughout, in a design as beautifully wrought as a Beardsley drawing. The Snow Ball was a triumph when Brigid Brophy completed it, as she commented in a letter to a friend in 1962: 'I'm still shaking from the impact, like a leaf after a thunder shower'. What makes The Snow Ball scintillate is its wit and panache; Mozart, sex and death are sublimely interlaced in this wonderful story.
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.
Although she said she thought of herself as a playwright, Brigid was knocked sideways by the poor reception of The Burglar. In the residual Brophy archive I have her unpublished plays, Libretto, Tamburlaine Smith, Love Now- Die Later, and A Hero to His Valet. (The Lilly Library, Indiana has a copy of this, too). They are undated, and they are very good indeed.
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, published in 1973, is described as ‘A novel and some fables’. It is a fascinating volume which deserves more attention. There is nothing underpowered about these short pieces, (one is the length of a not-very-long sentence) 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 G.B Shaw.
‘Well, at least’, the theologian said, ‘we need no longer take your psychoanalytical convictions seriously. They turn out to be no more deeply rooted than in your personal vanity.’
‘You underestimate the depth of my personal vanity,’ Voltaire said in a melancholy tone.
‘Do you’, the psychoanalyst asked him sympathetically, ‘feel that, in addressing yourself to the conscious and reasoning faculty, you were wasting your time, because you perforce ignored the unconscious and irrational factors?’
‘It is my constant posthumous reproach to myself,’ Voltaire replied sadly.
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I inherited an incomplete Brophy story, The MacNally Papers. I presume it was never published (in full), but if you know that’s wrong, please do correct me.
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 acceptably friendly-looking creature (below, right).
In the residual BB archive I hold there is an unpublished Pussy Owl story, Pussy Owl Sings Opera, again with my mother’s illustrations.
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 fans will notice the psychological acuity she brings to Palace Without Chairs; I don’t know if it has been remarked that the title is an anagram of ‘A Place Without Charis’. Her mother, Charis, with whom she had a tricky relationship, had died in 1975. Brophy’s favoured motifs of opera, sex and death appear in this fantasy, along with her reverence for forms of animal life other than human.