Brigid Brophy: In Praise of the Mad Bomber of English Literature

Originally published as an Afterword to The Coelacanth Press‘ republication of Brophy’s 1956 novel The King of a Rainy Country.

Of the American author Ambroise Bierce, Brigid Brophy wrote: ‘His own life can be read as a fable: propounding the problem of a man born into the wrong time and place.’ The same has often been said of Brophy herself. At first glance, Brophy’s own story is that of a refugee from E.M. Forster’s “little society” washed up in the Welfare State. A Bloomsbury bohemian of an earlier generation at a time of sit ins, Black Panthers and free love. An old-fashioned Fabian reformist in an era convinced that another world was possible. A classicist, a logician and a scholar of Latin and Ancient Greek who had little truck with the long front of culture. Her bent was for the recondite and her prose was excessively purple; for Brophy, philistinism was the scourge of the twentieth century.

She was an outspoken champion of the unpopular cause, the due-a-revival, the neglected, the misfit and the misunderstood, all of which earned her the title of ‘Britain’s foremost literary shrew’. Her myriad political commitments – pro-human, animal, women’s, gay and writer’s rights and the teaching of Ancient Greek in schools, anti-vivisection, religious education, marriage and censorship, amongst many others – were perceived as mere Aunt Sallies by the purportedly permissive society complacent about its own right-on-ness. She was, writes Arthur Calder Marshall, ‘filled with the moral fervour of the liberated atheist, vegetarian feminist of sixty years ago attacking the Christian, social and philistine absurdities of that time’.

But Brophy was no fusty, buttoned-up establishmentarian, despite the flat in South Ken, the clipped R.P., and the title – following her husband’s knighthood in 1981 she was officially known as Lady Levey. And this square-peg public intellectual was a very prominent one. In a 1967 edition of ITV’s light entertainment programme, Good Evening, Brigid Brophy rounds out a panel including a pre-Avengers Diana Rigg, Ready Steady Go! presenter, Cathy McGowan, singer Georgia Brown and the actress Adrienne Posta. Host Jonathan King, gawkily supine on a tiger skin rug, quizzes these famous ‘career girls’ on their attitudes to love and marriage. The panel are game enough, responding to King’s tiresome goading of the ‘modern woman’ with mock incredulousness. A chain-smoking B.B. declares herself ‘always very chivalrous to men’, makes an obscene innuendo and announces that her ideal man would be the then poet laureate, C. Day Lewis, ‘not for the poetry but for the sheer sexiness.’

Perhaps a better analogue than Bierce is Brophy’s own creation, Och, the anarchic heroine of her 1969 novel, In Transit, who declares: ‘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.’ Brophy might have gone up to Oxford, but she was swiftly sent back down again for excessive carousing. She was happily, but openly and bisexually, married. Although an unapologetic highbrow, she vehemently denounced the middle-class custodians of culture who enforce standards of good taste – she was a devotee of the camp and the curlicued, the grotesque and the downright vulgar.

Despite all of this, Brophy’s most transgressive act seems to have been that being of a woman who was too clever by half. By refusing to wear her intellect lightly she became an object of that Great British distrust of intellectualism. Critics often voiced their suspicion that her verbal dexterity belied an eristic temperament, that her ‘quiz show erudition’ – some quiz show – was mere window dressing for her predilection for being right. The trouble is, she so very often was. Her thoroughgoing critique of the moral hypocrisies and antiquated norms of the sixties blows the whistle on a mythic decade that was certainly not as right on as all that. As it turns out, this backdated bluestocking was remarkably prescient. She was an early adapter to second-wave feminism, alongside figures like Germaine Greer and Sheila Rowbotham. Her manifesto, “The Rights of Animals”, published in the Sunday Times in 1965, is generally credited with kick-starting the animal rights movement.

But perhaps less fully acknowledged is contemporary literary scholarship’s debt to Brophy. Her lifelong obsession with the baroque, dismissed at the time as a rarefied fancy – ‘a mere whiff of the rococo makes her head spin’, commented Ian Hamilton – in fact foretold the re-emergence of baroque style in postmodern thought, seen in the works of theory heavyweights like Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Brophy’s Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without (1967), written with Michael Levey and Charles Osborne, was a curmudgeonly and iconoclastic broadside aimed at the sacred cows of British writing. It met with enraged reviews from a literary establishment that remained very much the fiefdom of F.R. Leavis and his great tradition. Anthony Burgess’ review of ‘this deplorable little work’ expressed grave distress that ‘this is what British literary criticism should have come to’. However, Brophy et al.’s tongue-in-cheek attempt to topple the reputations of classic works by puncturing the pieties of book culture, together with her one-woman rehabilitation of the marginalised (Ronald Fairbank, Aubrey Beardsley) and reinvention of the familiar (Mozart), anticipated the canon debates and reclamation projects of the 1980s and 1990s.

Prancing Novelist, Brophy’s rangy, magpie-minded defence of fiction published in 1973, makes an important distinction between the novel form and the literary-historical genre of realism which bears reiterating in the present day, when fiction remains lashed to the quotidian. Advocates of the arts, struggling to articulate their intrinsic value against swingeing public sectors cuts, have tended to rely upon a weak defence that positions art primarily as a metaphysical guide to the good life. They might be better advised to adopt Brophy’s staunch dictum about the absolute goodness of good art: ‘It will not get away with pretending it can render society a direct quid pro quo by serving as a short-cut to the production of better-informed… citizens or even better citizens.’ And Brophy’s campaign for the Public Lending Right and her Writer’s Action Group – which sought to secure a living wage for writers, or, as she put it , ‘justice in the shape of dinners for practitioners’ – provides food for thought in an open source age when writer’s meagre livelihoods look more precarious than ever.

The legacies of Brophy’s fictions are less easily evinced. Although the raucously Rabelaisian texty text, In Transit, has enjoyed a kind of cult afterlife, Brophy’s earlier, less explicitly experimental works – including Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953), Flesh (1962), The Snow Ball (1964) and King of a Rainy Country, amongst several others – tend to be viewed as mannerist period pieces. These a priori thought experiments are awkwardly situated, too oddball for a British book culture that likes its fictional experimentation in the vernacular if at all and yet their classicist restraint – what Brophy would call their “designedness” – disqualifies them from being bestowed the dubious honour of freewheeling avant garde. These volumes from the back bedroom of British literary culture certainly deserve an airing.