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. The first of her seven novels was Hackenfeller's Ape (1953), a story concerning the ethics of sending a captive ape, Percy, into space. Brophy's The Snow Ball (1964), is considered her masterpiece: set at a costume ball on New Year's Eve, it is a glittering piece which weaves together sex, death and Mozart. In Transit (1969), is her most radical fiction in form and handling, and was in the vanguard of gender-fluid literary conceptualisations. The novel is considered to be a pioneering work of post-modernism and an iconic feminist surrealist fantasia. (For a list of her books, see Writings, below.)

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."

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


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Brigid Brophy was the daughter 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. Brophy wrote that she and her father were "natural, logical and happy atheists".[2] A bookish and precocious girl, she was very young when her father introduced her to the works of William Shakespeare, John Milton, George Bernard Shaw, and Evelyn Waugh.

During World War II she moved 12 times from one school to another. Her longest period of attendance, from May 1941 to July 1943, was at The Abbey School, Reading. She then attended St Paul's Girls' School in London. In 1947 she gained a scholarship to St Hughes, Oxford University. 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 nature of the "indiscretions" which led to her being, in effect, sent down.[3] 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".[3] Post-Oxford, Brophy lived in London, working part-time as a secretary and writing short stories that she submitted to various literary journals. In 1953, when she was 25, her volume of short stories, The Crown Princess, was published. By her own admission, she later sought to prevent mention of this book. In the same year her first novel, Hackenfeller's Ape, took first prize at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, bringing Brophy to widespread attention. 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). 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". Brophy's daughter says that her parents had granted each other the freedom to have lovers; Brigid Brophy had a complex amorous relationship with Iris Murdoch, and later a stable partnership with writer Maureen Duffy, which ended in 1979.

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".[3] 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".[4]

In 1968, Brigid Brophy wrote a stage play, The Burglar, an amusing attack on bourgeois sexual manners.[4] The play met with hostile reviews when it premiered, described as an "instant and virtually unanimous critical cannonade".[4] The play closed three weeks after it opened in London's West End in the spring of 1968.[4] 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.[4]

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".[5]

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.

From 1987 her husband, Michael Levey, looked after her during her illness, resigning his position as director of the National Gallery to do so. She died on 7 August 1995, aged 66, at Louth in Lincolnshire.[6][7]

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' .





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

See also



  1. ^ Martin Pope (29 December 2008). "Sir Michael Levey". The Telegraph. 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. ^ Stenger 2002, p. 47.
  3. ^ a b c Stenger 2002, p. 48.
  4. ^ a b c d e Stenger 2002, p. 49.
  5. ^ Stenger 2002, p. 53.
  6. ^ "Obituary: Brigid Brophy". The Independent. 8 August 1995. Retrieved 3 August 2020.
  7. ^ Sarah Lyall (9 August 1995). "Brigid Brophy Is Dead at 66; Novelist, Critic and Crusader". The New York Times.

Further reading