June 13, 2012

Brigid Brophy: space in the minivan?


In a time when e-readers are marketed like minivans—mine can carry more than yours—it feels good to rediscover Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne’s Fifty Works of English (and American) Literature We Could Do Without.

Brophy, who was born today in 1929 and died August 5, 1995, was a novelist, critic, and campaigner for many causes, including gay rights, vegetarianism, animal rights, and, in the book world, the Public Lending Right, under which authors would be paid a small amount every time their books were checked out from a library. Brophy, Levey, and Osborne swing a vigorous scythe in Fifty Works, with assessments like:

On Pickwick Papers: “Pickwick Papers appears to have been written in a series of jerkily spasmodic bouts of inane euphoria.”

On Mark Twain: “It is a vision which can be achieved only by that ruthless dishonesty which is the birthright of every sentimentalist.”

On Aldous Huxley: “He writes in the half clinical, half with-genteel-attention-averted manner of someone obliged to clean the lavatory.”

Brophy, who would have been 83 today, was born and raised in London, the only daughter of the Anglo-Irish novelist John Brophy. As a child, she wrote verse dramas and was apparently, according to an interview she gave to Contemporary Literature in 1976, bathed by T.E. Lawrence. She attended Oxford but was soon expelled for drunken, raucous behavior. She was acting, she later wrote, “in the belief that I had more to learn by pursuing my personal life than from textual emendation, with the result that the authorities could put up with me for only just over a year.”

She then took clerical jobs and began to write, publishing her first book, the short story collection, The Crown Princess, in 1953. Over the course of her life, she wrote nine novels, a play, a children’s book, and many works of nonfiction, including the wonderfully titled Prancing Novelist: A Defence of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography in Praise of Ronald Firbank. She was an admirer of Shaw and Mozart, and wrote on the latter the vivid and acclaimed study, Mozart the Dramatist: The Value of his Operas to Him, to his Age and to Us. You can get a sense of what her writing on Mozart is like from the very first sentences of a review of hers for the London Review of Book, on a collection of Mozart’s letters: “Mozart the letter-writer, like Mozart the composer of virtually every form and species of music, is the supreme non-bore.”

Giles Gordon, her literary agent, described her thus:

“Atheist, vegetarian, socialist; novelist and short-story writer; humanist; biographer; playwright (‘The Burglar’ had a brief West End run in 1967); Freudian promoter of animal rights; children’s author (the adventures of Pussy Owl, only progeny of Edward Lear’s pair); tennis fanatic (not least Navratilova) and, on television, football fancier; most loyal of friends; reverer of Jane Austen; lover of Italy; Mozart adorer; disliker of “Shakespeare in performance”; smoker of cigarettes in a chic holder and painter of her fingernails purple; mother, grandmother, wife; feminist; lover of men and women; Brigid Brophy was above all an intellectual, which British (although she was Irish) authors aren’t supposed to be. We mistrust logical, rational thought in our writers, finding it easier to live with instinct, intuition. Brophy was ever the Aristotelian logician.”

A supreme non-bore indeed.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.