Desperately seeking Brigid Brophy

Ce qui m’etonnait c’etait qu’it was my French that disintegrated first. In Transit (1970)

Finding Brigid Brophy books is near impossible. Bookstores and second-handers won’t have them. Libraries may or may not have a single copy of each of her titles, and under a lock somewhere, requiring the placing of a special request and in-library usage. You friends won’t have BB. Your online contacts won’t even have heard of her. But you’ll keep finding the odd reference to her work in some of the coolest written pieces you’ve ever read. You’ll also find out that she and Iris Murdoch had an affair, and maintained a very close friendship. When BB’s husband, an art-historian and a former head of the National Gallery in London, died a few years back, you’ll have read in the papers what kind of ‘unconventional’ their unconventional marriage was.

I spent the afternoon searching through the databases for any writing on BB, and discovered that the last special issue of a lit journal on the topic of “BB-unfairly, outrageously forgotten! Let’s all get our act together!” was in the mid-1990s. The Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 n.3 (Fall 1995) was an issue dedicated to BB and has a number of goodies. London Review of Books online archives will have some of BB’s reviews as well as the essays by other people on BB. Nota bene John Bayley’s (a.k.a. Mr Iris Murdoch) review of Baroque ‘n’ Roll (1987) under the title ‘In Praise of Brigid Brophy’:

We read therefore we are. The idea is suggested to me by Brigid Brophy’s essays, which constitute one of the strongest proofs of personal identity I have ever come across. If a real person is not here, where is a person to be found? She writes therefore she is, and to receive such an impression, so clearly, is very uncommon indeed. […] With their amiable curlicue pun for a title, the linked essays on baroque which conclude her book are as fascinating as they are informed, and every sentence creates the author, on the one hand, while illuminating the spirit of baroque, on the other. The combination is rare, in every sense, and reveals what all its most devoted clients know by instinct: that art is both communal and personal; that it tells us we are individuals at the same time that it transcends individuality.

In my search I also came across a rare lengthy interview, one of the few that BB left behind: in Contemporary Literature Vol. 17, n2 (Spring 1976), conducted by Leslie Dock.

And that is it. For anything else, you will have to engage private investigators.

But it will be worth it. I am about to send a search party for these works: In Transit (in which the narrator lingers at the airport and misses flights while struggling to determine whether they’re female or male), Baroque n Roll (for baroque, obviously, but also for the personal essays, one of which relates how the MS affected her self-understanding), Mozart the Dramatist (I think I tried reading this ages ago, and can’t remember why it didn’t take; possibly I was a grad student clinched between several other mandatory reads), the other couple of works in which she uses the Don Giovanni plot to enhance or complicate the narration. First and most of all, however: The King of a Rainy Country.

I wish I could do lengthy summary of Patricia Juliana Smith article ‘Desperately seeking Susan[na]: closeted quests and Mozartean gender bending in Brigid Brophy’s ‘The King of a Rainy Country from the above mentioned issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. The book starts with a seemingly regular hetero pair who are living together but keep slipping out of their prescribed normal sexualities. The two leave the city and head to Venice to follow an old finishing-school crush of Susan’s (Cynthia, who is now an actor of some renown) where they also meet Cynthia’s companion, the opera star Helena Buchan. The plot from Le nozze di Figaro seizes all the characters, and Susan takes off with Helena (the Countess) to Padova. After Susan declines the invitation to follow the soprano on her travels, the women part but remain forever tied in other ways. (The lad decides he’s into Cynthia and takes over that line of admiration from Susan, therefore becoming a well-functioning lesbian himself.) Says Smith:

…I would argue that with the critical hindsight of nearly four decades we can readily perceive The King of a Rainy Country as an example of […] a metafiction that tries on and discards a variety of conventional generic plots which, because of their deeply ingrained heterosexual narrative ideologies, offer no viable solutions or means of closure to the protagonists. Ultimately, Brophy indicates, when all other plots fail, there is always opera. And opera, not coincidentally, has long been one of the few “respectable” art forms in which women en travesti can switch their gender and make love to other women with impunity.

25 thoughts on “Desperately seeking Brigid Brophy

  1. According to the Wikipedia entry on her, someone in the TLS once pronounced her “one of our leading literary shrews.”

    High praise, from that quarter (I used to subscribe but gave it up after reflecting on the really quite unfair brevity of life). They wouldn’t use such terms nowadays, but might rephrase the sentiment in words that meant the same.

  2. Bob Beck, welcome, dear chap! I have kept a seat just for you.

    She was also described as a “Camille Paglia of her time”, I think for no other reason than that she defended the right to write porn. This was well before the internet, of course.

    “A leading literary shrew” I rather like.

  3. Better that than any era’s Camille Paglia, in my opinion. An entertainer of sorts, Ms. P., but as a thinker or writer, well…

  4. Absolutely! A completely inadequate comparison.

    Pondering instead the BB-IM affair… Who seduced whom? How does one imagine two of one’s favourite intellectuals getting it on? Better not, I suppose. Yet I’m sure it was essential for their friendship, this early sexual event in their relationship.

    And Bayley sounds magnanimous in his reviews. They all stayed friends, all very Bloomsbury. I suppose ideas and art mattered more than who was (technically) married to whom.

  5. Thank goodness for academic libraries! Mine has _Mozart the Dramatist_ and _In Transit_, though sadly not _The King of a Rainy Country_. The NYPL has fuller collections, but all exasperatingly labeled IN-LIBRARY USE ONLY, as you predict.

    1. Hm, that’s a good thought, though: there’s a little shop around the corner from the Strand, dubbed The Albatross, which has an unusually good selection of hard-to-find things I like (e.g. German literature and opera books.) Will have to see if their collection includes Brophy’s oeuvre… or if the owner can be persuaded to join the hunt!

  6. That needs to stop, you know. This LA-fabulousness. Car-free days, university libraries that actually have books in more than one copy… What’s gonna be next? A TV show with an all-lesbian cast of characters? Get off it, already.

  7. Well, that last could obviously never come to pass. But while Vancouver (where The L Word was actually filmed, if I remember right; interiors, anyway) obviously lacks a certain LA-fabulousness — and no bad thing, in my opinion — the Public Library catalogue lists 13 BB titles, only 2 tucked away in Compact Shelving. At least 2, including King of a Rainy Country, are in “Popular Reading Fiction,” while another is “On Order”. You may have caught a wave, here. In Transit and Baroque and Roll, unfortunately, are not listed.

  8. You could always try online specialists AbeBooks, my friend at one of the few remaining indie bookstores in England swears by them, keeps his business afloat selling on there, so not entirerly betraying the cause to shop on there.

    Love BB but would warn anyone with MS to steer clear of Baroque and Roll unless feeling particulalry robust…

    Meanwhile have been HUGELY enjoying the biog of Patrricia Highsmith Beautiful Shadow. Fascinating character and her and Judy Holliday…? Well I never!!

  9. I read it! Although was written by a man called Andrew if memory serves. But I forgot all about Judy Holliday. I remember reading that she seduced just about every wife of every publisher that ever worked with her. From within the closet, she had an international lesbian soap opera of a love life!

    She was also apparently nasty in every way possible to a human being. Gawd, I love Mrs Ripley.

  10. I got the reprints of both In Transit (highly recommended!) and King of a Rainy Country (also recommended, but I’d say In Transit is both queerer and more operatic) from an ordinary (Swedish) online bookstore. Amazon has In Transit, and do try abebooks for the more obscure titles.

      1. Late reply, but: it’s quite indescribable really. It all happens at an airport. The hero(ine) has forgotten her/his gender and tries to find out in hilarious ways. S/he is involved in various operatic plots including a descent to the lesbian underworld. The opera theme is very prominent as an intertext running through the book, especially regarding travesti and (un)gendered voices. You have to like (or at least bear with) silly wordplay, metafiction and (post)modernist experimentation.
        King of Rainy Country is a much more traditional novel in comparison, and lovely in its own way. It feels like it belongs to a different era and I suppose it does – it was the 50s and then the 60s happened. I feel King of Rainy Country is “in the closet” – it addresses a queer readership but only implicitly, discreetly, for example through that Nozze di Figaro theme I never picked up on. I feel the ending is anticlimactic – it can’t be happy and straight because that would be wrong and not happy and queer either because that would be too provocative, so it’s just… odd. In Transit is “out” but too weird to count as a “lesbian novel” – there’s so much else going on.

  11. At this rather late date I’d like to thank you for referencing my work in your essay. I’m currently at an academic conference where, earlier today, a young scholar and I got into a discussion about Ronald Firbank, which, in turn, led to Brigid Brophy. I told her I thought that “Desperately Seeking Susan[na],” which I wrote at least twenty years ago, could be found online. In my search for it, I came across this piece. It is very gratifying to discover that one’s work still touches people, even after so many years.

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