BORN: 1929, London, England
DIED: 1995, Louth, Lincolnshire, England
GENRE: Novels, essays, short stories, drama
The King of a Rainy Country (1956)
The Finishing Touch (1963)
In Transit (1969)
Brigid Brophy. Brophy, Brigid, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.
Brigid Brophy, who died in 1995 after a long struggle against multiple sclerosis, lived one of the most interesting, emblematic careers among writers of her generation. She was an ‘‘enfant terrible’’ of the 1960s, a fearless controversial figure, a tireless champion of a broader sphere of human and animal rights, and a campaigner for the dignity and prosperity of the writer’s profession. Brophy produced a varied and extensive body of work. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, Ronald Firbank’s literary style, and George Bernard Shaw’s aesthetics, Brophy’s writings express unconventional and controversial opinions about modern relationships, religious education in schools, and gender issues. Her work often incorporates elements of farce, word play, and witty social satire. After early and extravagant fame, she later lapsed into obscurity. By the time of her death, Brophy’s work was mostly out of print.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Irish Influences. Born June 12, 1929, the only daughter of Irish novelist John Brophy, Brigid Antonia Brophy spent her childhood in London but frequently visited Ireland and was raised on Irish ideas. She was a precocious reader and, she maintained, a hereditary writer. As a child, she began writing poetic dramas and read works by Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Ronald Firbank. Reportedly, she read James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (1939) at the age of nine. She learned English and Latin from her mother and the beginnings of her tools as a writer from her father. She remained devoted to both parents all through their lives but said, ten years after her father’s death, that she had been closer to him because they had more in common.
Brophy began her education at St. Paul’s Girls’ School and later attended four terms at Oxford University, where she excelled as a scholar but was expelled for disciplinary problems. After Oxford, she took a variety of clerical jobs, writing in her spare time. Her first collection of stories, The Crown Princess, and Other Stories, appeared in 1953, receiving some admiring reviews. Later that year she published her first novel, Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953), which won the Cheltenham Literary Festival first prize for a first novel. The book, which deals with animal rights, among other topics, reflected and fostered an interest in animal rights among intellectuals at Oxford. This led to the formation of the Oxford Group, which aimed to establish animal rights and promote the idea of humane treatment of animals in mainstream culture. Brophy was instrumental in the actions of the Oxford Group, and an article she wrote on the subject of animal rights for the Sunday Times in 1965 is often cited as one of the first major works of journalism on the topic.
Literary Success and a Daunting Diagnosis. From there, she went on to publish several novels, a number of short stories, and nonfiction books ranging from collections of journalistic essays to biographies. 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; the two positions reflected well her lifelong commitments to both art and activism in various forms. 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.
Until 1979, Brophy remained a public figure; she broadcast regularly on television and radio, wrote copiously for periodicals, and appeared at literary festivals. Most of her novels appeared in the 1960s; her campaigns on behalf of writers occupied more of her time in the 1970s. She published four books after the onset of her illness, including Baroque ’n’ Roll (1987), a collection of essays that recount her struggles with the debilitating disease. Eventually Brophy was moved into a London nursing home. She died on August 7, 1995.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Brophy's famous contemporaries include:
Vaclav Havel (1936—): Renowned playwright and author, Havel was both the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the independent Czech Republic.
W. G. Sebald (1944-2001): Sebald has been hailed by many as the greatest German writer of the postwar period. His novels are known for their lucid but surreal shifts in perspective and style, for the way they attempt to come to terms with history and memory by approaching them from a variety of angles.
Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982): After Joseph Stalin, Brezhnev was the longest-serving general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
John Arden (1930-1973): Arden, an English playwright, is associated with the social realist drama of the 1950s. He later turned to experimental theater and improvisation.
Paul Bowles (1910-1999): American composer, novelist, and travel writer, Bowles has been celebrated for his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, which was successfully adapted to film in 1990 by Italian director and Academy Award-winner Bernardo Bertolucci.
Works in Literary Context
Brophy took on the role of novelist, essayist, critic, and advocate for writers and social causes. She reflected all of what was odd and endearing about the 1960s, writing about feminism, pacifism, atheism, vegetarianism, and animal rights, among other things. Brophy had much to speak out on in that turbulent era, and she expressed her controversial opinions on everything from marriage to the Vietnam War in a witty, direct way. According to critic Leslie Dock, Brophy’s fiction incorporates musical patterns and shifting tempos, a use of language meant to mirror cinematic or photographic effects, and architectural images that enrich the narrative texture.
An Untimely (Post-)Modernist? In the Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 1995), Steven Moore attributes the unjust neglect of Brophy’s work to her being ‘‘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 she published the definitive novel about gender confusion (In Transit) long before there was a critical context for the topic.’’ Critics are unable to place her as modernist, realist, or postmodernist, although In Transit: An Heroicyclic Novel, at least, possesses features ‘‘today associated with modernism/postmodernism: tones that run from deadpan black humor to specious seriousness to mock learnedness, typographical unconventionalities, metafictional asides, fractured plots and subplots and juxtaposed set pieces, diagrams and puzzles, puns and portmanteau words, genre parodies and conflations, intertextuality and Barthesian bliss, camp and kitsch.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Brophy's style is part of a trend in literature that seeks to get at human truths through the experience of confusion. Other works that ask us to press against and beyond the boundaries of our own understanding include:
Absalom, Absalom! (1936), a novel by William Faulkner. Although definitively a product of the modernist moment in history, this class tragedy of the American Deep South heralds the arrival of literary postmodernism.
The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), a novel by Thomas Pynchon. This postmodernist novel has the undisputed virtue of brevity; it has a fast-moving plot and is open to several interpretations.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759), a novel by Laurence Sterne. This classic British novel includes long narratives and is filled with many twists and inversions.
Works in Critical Context
Throughout her career, Brophy was one of the most controversial writers in England, promoting her views in books and articles 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. Chris Hopkins has argued that this is in part because Brophy’s work resists standard literary classifications and categories like realism, modernism, and postmodernism. He has also concluded, however, 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.’’
Black Ship to Hell. Black Ship to Hell, published in 1962, is an ambitious exploration of the dynamics of hate. Often maddeningly mechanical in its application of Freudian theory to life, it is still an intellectual tour de force. It was fiercely attacked by reviewers, but Peter Porter summed it up accurately in The Listener. ‘‘Miss Brophy has found a new way of being creative. She disguises her book as a critical work; it seems to me a loving fiction of opinion.’’
In Transit. Brophy’s avant-garde work In Transit: An Heroicycle Novel was a difficult book for some reviewers to characterize. In S. J. Newman’s opinion, ‘‘though subtitled ‘an heroicycle novel,’ In Transit is less a novel than a cross between a neurotic essay in criticism and a farcical nightmare. ... The book is best described as an anti-antinovel... [and] the protagonist ...is nothing more than a voice.’’ Though some reviewers could not discern a plot, those who did explain that a young girl, Patricia, is waiting at an airport, ‘‘a sort of Kennedy Terminal of the psyche,’’ described Elizabeth Hardwick in Vogue, when a sudden amnesia sets in. The girl’s identity fades; indeed, she cannot remember her name or her gender. The remainder of the story describes the girl’s struggle for personal redefinition.
According to Robert Phelps in Life magazine, In Transit brings to the forefront the concept of the multifaceted individual: ‘‘At his innermost center, ...[a person] is many things, many appetites, all genders. ...In his soul, he is as polymorphous as the angels. ...Patricia’s breakdown is actually a break-through: her tough little ego is fighting for its birthright, and on the last page of In Transit, she has died, been reborn, and is about to assume a more spacious selfhood.’’ Guy Davenport, in National Review, was less enthused, writing, ‘‘It is not at all clear just what’s going on by way of action.’’ Davenport, like others, found that In Transit's experimental style leads to confusion. But what he, with many reviewers, may well have neglected is the way in which such confusion is mimetic. That is, in provoking an almost paralyzing confusion in readers, Brophy asks us to identify all the more with her gender-troubled protagonist.
Responses to Literature
1. Research the origins of the animal rights movement and Brophy’s involvement. What is the relationship between Brophy’s writing and the animal rights movement? How does her involvement in this movement relate to the themes that are present throughout her literary production?
2. Discuss the theme of identity and gender confusion in In Transit. What is the significance of the airport setting in this novel?
3. In what ways do Brophy’s experimental approaches to fiction enhance and detract from your ability to comprehend her themes and positions? Choose one particular novel and imagine how its meaning would be shifted if it were presented in a ‘‘straightforward’’ fashion. Structure your thoughts in the form of an analytical essay, with a clear, arguable thesis.
4. Research the literary movement of naturalism. In a class discussion, explain why Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country has been identified as belonging to this tradition.
Axelrod, Mark. ‘‘Mozart, Moonshots, and Monkey Business in Brigid Brophy’s Hackenfeller’s Ape.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Fall 1995): 18-22.
Blackmer, Corinne E. ‘‘The Finishing Touch and the Tradition of Homoerotic Girls’ School Fictions.’’ Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Fall 1995): 32-39.
Hoepffner, Bernard. ‘‘Translating In Transit: Writing—by Proxy.’’ Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Fall 1995): 54-61.
Hopkins, Chris. ‘‘The Neglect of Brigid Brophy.’’ Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Fall 1995): 12-17.
Horvath, Brooke. ‘‘Brigid Brophy’s It’s-All-Right-I’m-Only-Dying Comedy of Modern Manners: Notes on In Transit.'' Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Fall 1995): 46-53.
Lee, Patricia. “Communication Breakdown and the ‘Twin Genius' of Brophy's In Transit.'' Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Fall 1995): 62-67.
Maack, Annegret. ‘‘Concordia Discors: Brigid Brophy’s In Transit.’’ Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Fall 1995): 40-45.
Moore, Steven. ‘‘Brigid Brophy: An Introduction and Checklist.’’ Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Fall 1995): 7-11.
Parker, Peter. ‘‘‘Aggressive, Witty & Unrelenting’: Brigid Brophy and Ronald Firbank.'' Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Fall 1995): 68-78.
Smith, Patricia. ‘‘Desperately Seeking Susan[na]: Closeted Quests and Mozartean Gender Bending in Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (1995): 23-31.