If Brigid Brophy survives in the collective memory, it’s probably as much for her tireless campaigning as for her novels.
Her commitment to causes that were worth fighting for was forged in the 1960s; feminism, pacifism, vegetarianism, Public Lending Rights, pornography, and the Vietnam War all came within her sights and rarely found a better spokesperson.
Released from her studies at Oxford for outrageous behaviour, she came down in 1948 with nothing but her intellect, and caused a splash with her first novel, Hackenfeller’s Ape, about a scientist studying a rare London Zoo monkey. I prefer her elegantly written London roman-à-clef, The King of a Rainy Country (1956), which tells the story of bisexual Susan and her “not quite” boyfriend in drizzly Tottenham Court Road. Many of her novels are out of print, although The Snow Ball, which concerns a Baroque, erotic New Year’s Eve party was reissued by Faber in 2012. The most fascinating, In Transit, has also now been reprinted.
It’s a wonderfully playful confection, set in a nameless airport lounge (“one of the rare places where twentieth-century design is happy with its own style”). Waiting for a flight, Evelyn Hillary O’Rooley suddenly loses any sense of gender, and the unsuccessful, hilarious tests she/he performs to get to the truth are filled with puns, puzzles, meta-fiction moments of awareness, and surreal situations – that include a dyke revolution at the baggage carousels. The result is an examination of language that reads as if someone crossed Virginia Woolf’s Orlando with B S Johnson or even J G Ballard, and while experimental, it is extremely entertaining. “I can’t find anyone who will teach me the rules,” complains the hero/ine. “So how can I make sure of breaking them?”
The paperback is truly cultish, known and loved by a few, not yet adopted by bandwagon-jumpers, and with wicked Alan Jones cover art. Brophy’s non-fiction added more jigsaw pieces to her psyche, with her championing of Aubrey Beardsley and (harder for modern audiences to fathom) her defence of the bizarre neurasthenic novelist Ronald Firbank (one of this column’s earliest entrants). In 1967, she flung a pot of ink in the public’s face with Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without, a bracing argument in favour of dumping everything from Hamlet to Jane Eyre, that is smashing fun now that shock and outrage have subsided.
Brophy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and wrote about her deteriorating health in Baroque ’n’ Roll. Ahead of her time during publication, she now deserves rediscovery.Reuse content