Brigid Brophy

Brigid Antonia Brophy (married name Brigid Levey, later Lady Levey), (12 June 1929  7 August 1995), was a British author, literary critic and polemicist. She was an important and influential campaigner for social reforms, including homosexual parity, due payment for authors, and animal rights. Brophy appeared quite frequently on television and in the newspapers, thus becoming prominent both in literary circles and on the wider cultural scene, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, when her reputation as an intellectual woman meant she was both revered and feared. Her oeuvre of both fiction and non-fiction displays the impressive range of Brophy's erudition and interests. Her work is suffused with her distinctive stylish crispness and verve. Brophy's achievements include igniting contemporary debate about animal rights, and the establishment of the Public Lending Right by which writers in the UK receive a payment each time their book is borrowed from a public library.

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


Born in London to the writer John Brophy and his teacher wife Charis, Brigid Brophy's education was fragmented by her wartime attendance at many different schools, including St Paul's Girls' School, in London's Brook Green. A precocious child, her literary talents were kindled by her father, who encouraged her to read the authors he admired, including George Bernard Shaw, John Milton and Evelyn Waugh. Brophy gained a scholarship to Oxford, aged fifteen. She studied classics at St Hugh's College, however, she did not gain a degree: the authorities asked her not to return after her fourth term. (This caused Brophy such severe upset that afterwards she only vaguely referred to the reasons behind it, citing frowned-upon sexual activity and drunkenness.) After a period of psychological turmoil, Brophy worked as a shorthand-typist and shared a rented flat with a friend from Oxford, near London Zoo.

At a party Brophy met art historian Michael Levey (afterwards Director of the British National Gallery, 1973–87, and knighted in 1981) and they married in 1954. They had one daughter, Katharine (Kate) Levey, in 1957. Humanists Brophy and Levey scorned traditional attitudes to sexuality and matrimony; thus each partner was free to enjoy outside relationships. This unconventional set-up was extremely happy. For some years Brophy had a complex amorous liaison with Iris Murdoch, and later a stable love partnership with writer Maureen Duffy. When that was suddenly ended by Duffy in 1979, Brophy suffered an enormous emotional crisis which she believed played a part in her developing difficulty in walking. It was some time before her symptoms were diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. In 1987 Levey resigned from his demanding role as Director of the nation's art gallery in order to better care for Brophy. An indefatigable worker, she continued to write even while essentially bedridden, for as long as she could. However, suffering increasing debilitation and needing full-time care, Brophy unwillingly left London in 1991. She moved into a nursing home in Lincolnshire, in the town where her husband and daughter by then lived. Levey visited his wife daily until her death in 1995.


In 1953 Brophy became a published author with the issue of her volume of short stories, The Crown Princess, (1953). It was critically admired, yet she subsequently disowned the book. In the same year, the first of her seven novels, Hackenfeller's Ape, (1953) appeared. Poignantly, the stimulus for the novel was Brophy's living within earshot of the roar of caged lions in London Zoo; from childhood Brophy had been sympathetic to the plight of non-human animals. The plot involves the plan to send a captive ape into space as a scientific experiment and the attempt to foil such an abhorrent event. Hackenfeller's Ape was commended for its original topic as well as style, and was awarded first prize at the Cheltenham Literary Festival; the attendant publicity established Brophy as a novelist.

It is noteworthy that Brophy's fictional works defy categorisation; each of the novels takes a new subject and is conveyed in its own style.

The King of A Rainy Country (1956), follows Susan and her not-quite-boyfriend Neale in their quest for a girl Susan had loved at school. The novel is elegiac, funny, and allusive, and is considered the nearest Brophy came to autobiography. Flesh (1962), charts the course of the initially- diffident Marcus, whose mature impulses amusingly lead him to bodily excess. The Finishing Touch (1963) is a light piece, playing on the aerated, wispy dialogue of Ronald Firbank, an undervalued writer Brophy much admired. The novel portrays Anthony Blunt, an art historian known to Levey, in the guise of a headmistress of a finishing school. With characteristic firmness of judgement Brophy recognised her next novel, The Snow Ball (1964), as a masterpiece: Set at a sumptuous costume ball in on New Year's Eve in the 1960s, the novel is sparked by Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni, which Brophy adored. It is a sophisticated account of seduction, fusing witty conversation and glorious observation. In Transit (1969), takes place in an airport lounge, where the protagonist is trying to discover his/her sex. Brophy plays with narrative consciousness and puns galore in what is essentially a literary consideration of gender and sex. This novel is considered Brophy's most radical in form, leading to her being hailed a postmodern writer. Brophy's last novel, Palace Without Chairs, (1978) is set in an imaginary kingdom where some enlightened members of the ruling royal family subvert the expectations laid upon them by their position, rebelling in ways to which Brophy is clearly sympathetic.

Brophy's irrepressible imagination was not only fertile but versatile. Pussy Owl, (1976) is a book for children in which Brophy presents her invented 'Superbeast', the narcissistic, stomping progeny of Edward Lear's Owl and Pussycat. The BBC television devoted an episode of Jackanory to Pussy Owl.

Brophy thought of herself as a playwright. Her performed and published plays are a play for radio, The Waste Disposal Unit, (broadcast in 1964) and her theatre farce, The Burglar, (opening in Brighton, transferring to London's West End in 1967). The Burglar had a short run; it was a singular and stinging flop. Brophy's archive contains several unpublished plays.


(currently awaiting completion)

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. She was eloquent and forthright in her views: she agitated for homosexual equality, for vegetarianism, prison reform and humanism, in an era when such ideas were regarded as cranky or dangerous. She argued the case against the Vietnam war, against sexual repression, marriage, and vivisection, and asserted that compulsory religious education in state schools was unjustifiable.

Brigid Brophy was also a literary critic of exceptional repute, and a writer of substantial works of non-fiction. Among her critical studies were Mozart the Dramatist (1964, revised 1990) and Prancing Novelist: A Defence of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography in Praise of Ronald Firbank, which appeared in 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 had a depressive episode when young, "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".[1] She was a devoted Freudian, utilising his theories to explore man's destructive impulse, in her wide-ranging study, Black Ship to Hell (1962).

Brophy revered the operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and many of her works pay him tribute either directly or implicitly. 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.

In 1967, she set off a firestorm of controversy when she co-wrote, with her husband and Charles Osborne, Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without. The book was widely attacked by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Reviewing Fifty Works, novelist Anthony Burgess 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".[2]

In 1968, Brigid Brophy wrote a stage play, The Burglar, an amusing attack on bourgeois sexual manners.[2] The play met with hostile reviews when it premiered, described as an "instant and virtually unanimous critical cannonade".[2] The play closed three weeks after it opened in London's West End in the spring of 1968.[2] 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.[2]

Brophy's last novel, published in 1978, is Palace Without Chairs; it concerns the heirs to the throne of a fictional European nation that resembles Ruritania. In a review, critic Chris Hopkins praised Brophy for drawing "...upon aspects of modernism in unexpected ways (given its comic aspects and apparent genre)" noting she displayed "great interest in language itself...and the capacity and incapacity of language to render the self".[3]

Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey, Maureen Duffy and two others formed the Writers Action Group to fight for a small payment for authors each time their work was borrowed from a public library, known as Public Lending Right. Many years earlier, her father had proposed the notion of the "Brophy penny", to improve authors' pay, (but he envisaged different funding format). In 1979, following seven years of arduous campaigning, Brigid Brophy's group succeeded in getting the Public Lending Right Bill through parliament, despite protracted delays and rebuffs.

In 2015, a Brophy conference was held at the University of Northampton, organised by Richard Canning, who co-edited with Gerri Kimber the Edinburgh University Press 2020 collection of essays, 'Brigid Brophy, Avant-Garde Writer, Critic, Activist' .



  • 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)
  • Cruelty to Animals (London Review of Books, 1981)
  • 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


  • Stenger, Karl (2002). "Brigid Brophy". In Vicki K. Janik; Del Ivan Janik; Emmanuel Sampath Nelson (eds.). Modern British Women Writers: An A-to-Z Guide. Westport: Greenwood Publishing. pp. 47–55.
  • Webb, William "English literature" pages 474–476 from Encyclopedia Britannia Yearbook 1970, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
  • Levey, Kate "Mr and Mrs Michael Levey" p142-159 Contemporary Women's Writing Volume12, Number 2, Special Issue: Brigid Brophy, July 2018, Oxford University Press


  1. Stenger 2002, p. 48.
  2. Stenger 2002, p. 49.
  3. Stenger 2002, p. 53.

Further reading

  • The Review of Contemporary Fiction; 15:3 (1995 Fall), issue devoted to Brigid Brophy, Robert Creeley, Osman Lines
  • The King of a Rainy Country by Brigid Brophy – published in 2012 by The Coelacanth Press The King of a Rainy Country
  • The Snow Ball, reissued in 2020 by Faber
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