Obituary: Brigid Brophy

Giles Gordon
Monday 07 August 1995 23:02 BST

Brigid Antonia Brophy, writer: born 12 June 1929; co- organiser, Writers' Action Group for Public Lending Right 1972-82; married 1954 Michael Levey (Kt 1981; one daughter); died Louth, Lincolnshire 7 August 1995.

"Whatever became of Brigid Brophy?" I was her literary agent, and people increasingly asked me that question in the Eighties. They had ceased by the Nineties.

The terrible answer was that on the last day of 1979 she had to come to terms with living with multiple sclerosis. She wrote about the experience, with almost unbearable lucidity and detail, in her coruscating collection of essays Baroque 'n' Roll (1987). This debilitating, life-sapping illness kept her more or less housebound thereafter, administered to by professional paid help, her friend the novelist Shena Mackay and, especially, by her remarkable husband, Sir Michael Levey, who took early retirement in 1987 as Director of the National Gallery to look after her.

For a decade, life must have been pretty much hell in the elegant, statue- dominated flat in Old Brompton Road. Then Michael Levey found his beloved wife a nursing home, Fir Close, in Louth, Lincolnshire, which was particularly sympathetic to patients with MS and he and his married daughter and family moved to Louth to be near her.

She was educated at St Paul's Girls' School, then awarded a Jubilee Scholarship at St Hugh's College, Oxford, where she read Classics before being sent down. Given the achievement of her 25 publications, not least of her seven idiosyncratic novels, it has to be believed that Brigid Brophy's reputation as a most distinctive and original novelist and critic would be more considerable had she not elected, in 1972, to resurrect the battle for Public Lending Right: a cause which her father John Brophy, A.P. Herbert and others had espoused a generation earlier whereby authors would be paid a pittance from central government funds each time their books were borrowed from Britain's public libraries.

The fight to put PLR on the statute book was won in 1979 and the first payments made in 1984 - almost entirely as a result of the remorseless, tireless persuasion of Brigid Brophy and her fellow strategist, and then close friend, Maureen Duffy (and the other founder members of Writers' Action Group: Lettice Cooper, Francis King and Michael Levey). It is ironic that it was the best-selling likes of Catherine Cookson and Jeffrey Archer who were then paid the annual maximum of pounds 5,000 (now pounds 6,000) and it was Brophy and her fellow campaigners whose cheques were in the low hundreds.

PLR, as Brophy never tired of pointing out, was an author's right, not a handout or accolade for literary merit (whatever that is), and if other writers' books were borrowed more than hers then it was appropriate that those authors were paid more, irrespective of whether they "needed" the money or not. Although PLR was never based on literary distinction, it was often assumed, not least by some of those who campaigned for it - the hundreds of members of Wag were mostly "serious" (i.e. underfunded) writers - that "literary" books were borrowed, "popular" books bought. The biggest surprise was how little poets received.

Brigid Brophy's achievement as patron saint of PLR is all the more remarkable in that writers rarely have the energy or commitment to do anything but write, and grumble about how inadequately they have been paid and published. She motivated and mobilised hundreds of them whilst, for a decade, withholding her labour as book author. She had, in certain quarters (no doubt including Whitehall) the reputation of being "difficult". No one who knew this deeply shy, courteous woman well (she raised the level of the thank-you letter to a minor art form) ever found her difficult, and no author was more sensitive, considerate and professional in her dealings with her literary agent; or with her publishers. But woe betide the "editor" who tried to rewrite her fastidious, logical, exact prose, change a colon to a semi- colon (or vice versa), or try to spell "show" other than "shew", slavish Shavian that Brophy was.

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 (her radical Mozart the Dramatist: a new view of Mozart, his opera and his age, 1964, was reissued in a new edition in 1989); aficionado of the English National Opera (but not of the Royal Opera House); 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.

You crossed swords, or pens, with her at your peril, as, during the PLR campaign in 1975, civil servants and ministers found, not least Hugh Jenkins, Lord (as he then wasn't) Jenkins of Putney, Labour Minister for the Arts, when Brophy led a large, much-publicised demonstration to his offices in Belgrave Square, the writers frustrated at the extent to which Jenkins was having wool pulled over his eyes by civil servants who seemed to disapprove of the proposed legislation.

To watch Brigid Brophy arguing with Lord Goodman, when he was chairman of the Arts Council and she a member of the advisory literature panel in 1969, as to whether the then avant-garde literary quarterly Ambit should continue to receive grant-in-aid in spite of its publishing a story which Goodman asserted advocated the consumption of illegal substances, was one of the intellectual treats of the year.

Her greatest literary disappointment, I believe, was that Michael Holroyd, not she, was appointed by the Society of Authors to write George Bernard Shaw's biography. It was typical of Brophy, a being without personal animosity, not to realise that the then secretarial regime at the society was deeply hurt by her persuading the (screenwriters') Writers' Guild to embrace the members of the Writers' Action Group and to set up a division to represent book authors, and that the guild, fervently led by Lord (Ted) Willis, should fight strenuously for PLR.

The guild was a writers' union, affiliated to the TUC, and thus had political teeth; the society was a typically British, genteel, middle-class mutual admiration association. Brophy was never, at any time, part of a literary clique. To her the writer's responsibility was to the mind and to language.

Oddly, as her books never sold particularly well, her novels were much admired by publishers, the best of them being regularly reissued. In 1990 Cardinal republished her finest novel, the perfectly Mozartian The Snow Ball, in which the protagonists attend a ball dressed as characters from Don Giovanni with unexpected results. First published by Fred Warburg in 1964 (he had more time for Brophy than she had for him in that she couldn't understand why the most perspicacious publishers tended to be so conceited), it then had a life as a Corgi paperback, before being reissued in 1979 in a handsome edition, hardback and soft, by Allison & Busby, together with new editions of her wickedly witty first novel, Hackenfeller's Ape (1953), concerning the relationship between an ape at London Zoo and a professor observing the animal's mating ritual (it won the Cheltenham Festival's prize for a first novel in 1954), and Flesh (1963), also reissued by Cardinal in 1990, in which, by the end of the book, the husband, previously suffering from the Firbankian complaint of hyperaesthesia, proclaims, "I have become a Rubens woman."

In 1987 the Gay Men's Press (Brophy no doubt enjoyed the irony of being published by a house which announced the sex of its authors in its name), brought out a new edition of her waspish jeu d'esprit The Finishing Touch (1963), about a girls' finishing school dominated by a headmistress who makes Miss Jean Brodie seem backward. In a new introduction, Brophy revealed that the headmistress was modelled on the sometime Director of the Courtauld Institute, one Anthony Blunt.

Her other novels are The King of a Rainy Country (1956), reissued in 1990 as a Modern Classic by Virago; In Transit (1969), set in the hermetic world of an airport departure lounge, linguistically her most demanding; and Palace without Chairs (1978), published the year before disease struck her down. This last novel, which many consider her best, is a Shavian dialogue about the nature of democracy posing as a Ruritanian entertainment, less baroque than sceptical.

Her non-fiction is as ambitious as her fiction. Black Ship to Hell (1962) comprises nearly 500 footnoted pages of stylish, rigorous psychoanalysis: "The theme of the book is man as a destructive and, more particularly, a self-destructive animal: a theme whose urgency is obvious at a time when he is threatening to commit suicide as a species." In the mid-1980s, Brophy prepared a revised text for publishers.

There were two books (Black and White in 1968; Beardsley and His World in 1976) on "the most intensely and electrically erotic artist in the world", and, in 1973, the gargantuan Prancing Novelist: a defence of fiction in the form of a critical biography in praise of Ronald Firbank, the length of the defence equal to the entirety of Firbank's slim, almost anorexic fiction, including his only play.

Other books include the once infamous Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without (1967), co-authored with Michael Levey and Charles Osborne; two collections of short stories; and essays - The Rights of Animals (1965), The Longford Threat to Freedom (1972), and a Fabian pamphlet, Religious Education in State Schools (1967). A Guide to Public Lending Right (1983), although by now out-of-date in certain respects, sold steadily until its publisher let it go out of print.

For anyone who has not read Brigid Brophy, the 1989 original paperback collection Reads is a typically invigorating miscellany. It contains essays on the rights of animals, Fabritius's Goldfinch, Lisbon, Genet and Sartre, Ellen Terry, Louisa M. Alcott, Miss J. Austen, Mozart of course and "The Menace of Nature" - an urban soul, Brigid Brophy was not enamoured of the countryside. The mind and prose are as alive, original and combative as ever.

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