Brigid Brophy

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Brigid Brophy
Brigid Brophy 562717.jpg
BornBrigid Antonia Brophy
(1929-06-12)12 June 1929
Ealing, England
Died7 August 1995(1995-08-07) (aged 66)
Louth, Lincolnshire, England
SpouseMichael Levey

Brigid Antonia Brophy, Lady Levey (12 June 1929 – 7 August 1995) was a British writer and campaigner for social reforms, including the rights of authors and animal rights. Among her novels was Hackenfeller's Ape (1953); among her critical studies were Mozart the Dramatist (1964, revised 1990) and Prancing Novelist: A Defence of Fiction ... In Praise of Ronald Firbank (1973). In the Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Novelists since 1960, S. J. Newman described her as "one of the oddest, most brilliant, and most enduring of [the] 1960s symptoms."

Brophy was a feminist and pacifist who expressed controversial opinions on marriage, the Vietnam War, religious education in schools, sex, and pornography.[1][2]

She married art historian Michael Levey in 1954. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1983.[1]


Brigid Antonia Brophy was born on 12 June 1929, in Ealing in London. She was the child of novelist John Brophy and Charis Brophy (née Grundy), a teacher. Her easy-going father, to whom she felt close, was a lapsed protestant, while her mother was a devout member of the Church of England.[3] Brophy wrote that she and her father were "natural, logical and happy atheists".[3] A bookish and intelligent girl, as a child she read works by William Shakespeare, John Milton, George Bernard Shaw, Evelyn Waugh and Ronald Firbank.[3]

During World War II she was moved 12 times from one school to another.[3] Her longest period of attendance during the war was at The Abbey School, Reading, between May 1941 and July 1943. She then attended St Paul's Girls' School in London. In 1947 she gained a scholarship to Oxford University (St Hugh's College). There Brophy showed exceptional promise as a Classical scholar; however, after completing only four terms she was asked not to return. Brophy was vague about the precise nature of the "indiscretions" which led to her being, in effect, sent down.[4] It seems likely she was drunk in Chapel, and had advocated the virtues of lesbianism.[4] In an interview in 1975, Brophy declined to discuss what led to her expulsion, saying: "I shall never describe it, because I won't risk reliving the distress I suffered".[4] Post-Oxford, Brophy lived in London, working part-time as a secretary and writing short stories that she submitted to various literary journals.[4]

In 1953, when she was 25, her book of short stories, The Crown Princess, was published.[4] Brophy wrote of Theresa, the heroine of the title story that: "She was a moated castle, a royal castle, with a draw-bridge, and ramparts, and there was nothing inside...She had no self. She had no character".[5] She later sought to prevent mention of this book. The same year saw first novel, Hackenfeller's Ape, which took first prize at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Hackenfeller's Ape, with its advocacy of animal rights, brought Brophy to widespread attention.[4] It is the a story of a scientist who studies an ape couple, Percy and Edwina, in London Zoo.[5] There is scheme to send one ape into space, and a counter-plan to prevent it. In 1954 Brophy married art historian Michael Levey (afterwards director of the British National Gallery, 1973–87, and knighted in 1981) and the couple had one daughter, Kate (b. 1957).[6] Her marriage was very happy even though Brophy wrote of the "immorality of marriage" and said British society had "imposed monogamy on those who have not chosen it". After homosexuality was legalised in Britain in 1967, Brophy was one of the first to demand gay marriage, at the time a controversial stance to take. Brophy's daughter says her mother had female lovers, including at one point Iris Murdoch, who was also a lifelong friend of Brophy.[7]

In 1956, Brophy published her most-nearly autobiographical novel, King of a Rainy Country, a roman à clef which fictionalises a failed relationship she had had.[4] While she once said: "I do not dislike or despise autobiographical novelists...I cannot, however be one of them",[4] Brophy admitted that Susan, the heroine of King of a Rainy Country was a "cut down version" and "stunted self-portrait" of herself. That novel concerned the ambiguous relationship of two young bohemian intellectuals.

Brophy had a depressive episode : "In the dark crisis of my personal life, the constituents of my personality were broken down like the constituents of a caterpillar inside the chrysalis-case".[4] She later brought out a series of novels, including Flesh (1962), The Finishing Touch (1963, described as a "lesbian fantasia"), The Snow Ball (1964) and Palace Without Chairs (1978, in which a child of royal descent survives political tumult). The Finishing Touch is set in a girls' boarding school on the French Riviera where the headmistresses are two lesbians who put the "finishing touch" to the education of the young women under their care by introducing them to the pleasures of Sapphic literature. One of Brophy's favourite writers was the gay novelist Ronald Firbank and The Finishing Touch was written in a style that paid homage to his thinly- veiled homoerotic novels.[4]

One of Brophy's principal heroes since childhood was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose operas she adored.[4] The Snow Ball, a comedy of manners set in modern London is a tribute to Don Giovanni, and many reviewers noted The Snow Ball was a masterpiece. Brophy also published Mozart the Dramatist: A New View of Mozart, His Operas and His Age; it is a Freudian psycho-analytical account of Mozart and his work.[4]

Brophy's articles together with frequent appearances on television in the 1960s–1970s created the image of her as the enfant terrible of British literature as she was outspoken in praising writers and artists she admired and producing trenchant reviews and works of literary criticism.

In 1967, she set off a firestorm of controversy when she co-wrote, with her husband and Osborne, Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without.[8] The book was widely attacked by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Typical of the response to Fifty Works was a review by novelist Anthony Burgess who wrote: "Like children, they have shown off, and the showing off has provoked attention...They're still in the nursery, cut off from the big world".[8] However, the challenge the book posed to the literary canon, and its claim that certain Victorian writers were not worth cherishing, led a number of British and American universities to change their English courses to include more modern writers.[8]

In 1968, she wrote a play The Burglar, an attack on bourgeois sexual manners.[8] The play met with hostile reviews when it premiered, described as an "instant and virtually unanimous critical cannonade".[8] The play closed three weeks after it opened in London's West End in the spring of 1968.[8] Brophy was hurt by the critical reception, and she persuasively replied to her critics when The Burglar was published later in 1968, in a crisp defense of her play.[8]

In 1969, she published an "experimental" avant-garde novel In Transit: An Heroi-Cyclic Novel. It is a Joycean tale of gender-blending and linguistic play which takes place in an airport as enormous as it is depersonalised, when nobody really belongs as everybody is in transit from one place to another. In a summary of British literature in 1969, the critic William Webb wrote that "...Brophy's strenuous variations on fashionable sexual themes" provoked boredom.[9] However, In Transit was considered to be a pioneering work of post-modernism and a feminist surrealist fantasia.

Brophy also wrote several non-fiction books and essays, including Black Ship to Hell (1962; an impressively wide Freudian study of man's destructive impulse), Mozart the Dramatist (1964) and (with her husband and Charles Osborne) Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without (1967). Her detailed study of Ronald Firbank, Prancing Novelist A Defence of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography in Praise of Ronald Firbank, appeared in 1973.

Brophy's 1978 baroque novel Palace Without Chairs concerns the heirs to the throne of a fictional European nation that resembles Ruritania. In a review of Palace Without Chairs, the critic Chris Hopkins praised Brophy for drawing "...upon aspects of modernism in unexpected ways (given its comic aspects and apparent genre)" as she displayed "great interest in language itself...and the capacity and incapacity of language to render the self".[10]

She was an active campaigner for social reform, belonging to the Labour Party, and The National Anti-Vivisection Society, among others. With her husband and Maureen Duffy and two others she formed the Writers Action Group to fight for fair payment for authors' Public Lending Right. The cause continued her father's notion of the "Brophy penny", in a revised format. In 1979 the campaign succeeded in getting the Public Lending Right Bill through parliament after protracted delays. From 1987 her husband, Michael Levey, looked after her during her illness, resigning his position as director of the National Gallery to do so.[6] She died on 7 August 1995, aged 66, at Louth in Lincolnshire.[11][12]



  • The Crown Princess and Other Stories (1953)
  • Hackenfeller's Ape (1953, reprinted 1991)
  • The King of a Rainy Country (1956, reprinted 1990, 2012)
  • Flesh (1962)
  • The Finishing Touch (1963, revised 1987)
  • The Snow Ball (1964)
  • The Burglar (play, first produced in London at Vaudeville Theatre, 22 February 1967, and published 1968)
  • In Transit: An Heroi-Cyclic Novel (1969, reprinted 2002)
  • The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl: A Novel and Some Fables (1973)
  • Pussy Owl: Superbeast (1976), for children, illustrated by Hilary Hayton
  • Palace Without Chairs: A Baroque Novel (1978)


  • Black Ship to Hell (1962)
  • Mozart the Dramatist: A New View of Mozart, His Operas and His Age (1964) (revised 1990)
  • Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (1966)
  • (With husband, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne) Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without (1967)
  • Religious Education in State Schools (1967)
  • Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (1968)
  • The Rights of Animals (1969. Animal Defence and Anti-Vivisection Society)
  • The Longford Threat to Freedom (1972)
  • Prancing Novelist: A Defence of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography in Praise of Ronald Firbank (1973)
  • Beardsley and His World (1976)
  • The Prince and the Wild Geese, pictures by Gregoire Gagarin (Hamish Hamilton, 1983)
  • A Guide to Public Lending Right (1983)
  • Baroque 'n' Roll and Other Essays (1987)
  • Reads: A Collection of Essays (1989)


  • Best Short Plays of the World Theatre, 1958–1967, 1968
  • Animals, Men and Morals, edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris (1971)
  • The Genius of Shaw, edited by Michael Holroyd (1979)
  • Animal Rights: A Symposium, edited by D. Paterson and R. D. Ryder (1979)
  • Shakespeare Stories, edited by Giles Gordon (1982)

A collection of Brophy's manuscripts is housed in Lilly Library at Indiana University at Bloomington.

See also[edit]


  • Stenger, Karl "Brigid Brophy" pages 47–55 from Modern British Women Writers: An A-to-Z Guide edited by Vicki K. Janik; Del Ivan Janik & Emmanuel Sampath Nelson, Westport: Greenwood Publishing, 2002.
  • Webb, William "English literature" pages 474–476 from Encyclopedia Britannia Yearbook 1970, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.


  1. ^ a b {{cite news|title=Sir Michael Levey|work=The Telegraph|author=Martin Pope|date=29 December 2008|quote=Brigid Brophy was an outspoken campaigner on issues as diverse as humanism, animal rights, homosexual rights. A 1965 Sunday Times article by Brophy is credited by psychologist Richard D. Ryder with having triggered the formation of the animal rights movement in England.
  2. ^ Richard Ryder (2000). Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes Towards Speciesism. Berg. p. 5. ISBN 1-85973-330-1. The moral basis for animal liberation has been given much attention by modern philosophers since the publication of the well-known novelist Brigid Brophy's major article entitled 'The Rights of Animals' in the Sunday Times in 1965.
  3. ^ a b c d Stenger 2002, p. 47.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Stenger 2002, p. 48.
  5. ^ a b Stenger 2002, p. 50.
  6. ^ a b Grimes, William (2 January 2009). "Sir Michael Levey, Art Historian and a Director of the British National Gallery, Is Dead at 81". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2 August 2020.
  7. ^ "BROPHY'S FICTION". brigidbrophy.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Stenger 2002, p. 49.
  9. ^ Webb 1970, p. 475.
  10. ^ Stenger 2002, p. 53.
  11. ^ "Obituary: Brigid Brophy". The Independent. 8 August 1995. Retrieved 3 August 2020.
  12. ^ Sarah Lyall (9 August 1995). "Brigid Brophy Is Dead at 66; Novelist, Critic and Crusader". The New York Times.

Further reading[edit]

  • The Review of Contemporary Fiction; 15:3 (1995 Fall), issue devoted to Brigid Brophy, Robert Creeley, Osman Lines
  • Discovering Brigid Brophy [1][dead link]
  • The King of a Rainy Country by Brigid Brophy – published in 2012 by The Coelacanth Press The King of a Rainy Country

External links[edit]