Brigid Brophy

Brigid Brophy’s most recent books are The Prince and the Wild Geese, the text for a series of drawings inspired by Prince Gagarin’s love for Julia Taaffe in 1832, and A Guide to Public Lending Right.

Mozart’s Cross

Brigid Brophy, 7 August 1986

Mozart the letter-writer, like Mozart the composer of virtually every form and species of music, is the supreme non-bore. The ‘daughter of Hamm, the Secretary for War’, must, he reports to his father from Augsburg in 1777, have a gift for music since, even without having been well taught, she can play several clavier pieces ‘really well’. Yet she is an affected performer. Tuition in Salzburg from Mozart père would improve both her musical knowledge and her intelligence, and the teacher would get ‘plenty of entertainment’ in return.

Woman in Love

Brigid Brophy, 7 February 1985

Two voices are there of Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University John Halperin, whose rank and area of operation are, by what strikes me as a publishing solecism in a book that solicits a general readership, placed in apposition to his name on the title-page. The first voice is scarcely of the deep, but it utters some common sense. The other, which predominates, is the voice of Mr Collins. Long driven to that conclusion, I came upon Professor Halperin himself, some three hundred pages into his book, pronouncing that the Rev. James Stanier Clarke, the librarian to the Prince Regent who transmitted to Jane Austen his employer’s permission (in the sense of command) for her to dedicate her next novel to the Prince, ‘must have convinced Jane that Mr Collins had come to life.’ Well, that one deutero-Collins should recognise another when he sees him seems only fair; and in the notion that one of Jane Austen’s inventions turned into real life he pays a tiny fragment of recompense for the gross injustice he does her in his indeed gross book.


Brigid Brophy, 6 October 1983

A small ad in Private Eye seeks a companion ‘sexy, feminine and discrete’. Siamese twins, I suppose, need not bother to apply. It is harder to divine why this translation of Murasaki’s Diary renders one passage by the words: ‘This is not to say that her women are always so genteel; if they forget themselves they can come out with the most indiscrete verses.’ Perhaps, in becoming conversant with Japanese to a degree he makes plain even to me who know not a syllable of the language, Richard Bowring has forfeited some command of English. That looks all the likelier when he skids into bad grammar: ‘ … sent to whomever was to copy out the story’. Or perhaps both the ‘indiscrete’ and the ‘whomever’ are misprints. If so, there is something moving in the persistence – and the persistent justification – of literary fears. It is roughly a thousand years since the son-in-law of the Emperor of Japan filched a copy of Murasaki’s novel from her room at court and she recorded in her Diary the quintessential literary dread that it might be an inaccurate copy that ‘would hurt my reputation’.–

Son of God

Brigid Brophy, 21 April 1983

The heavenly ruler looked down, noted the inadequacy of Giotto and his successors and decided to dispatch Michelangelo to earth, there to demonstrate perfection in no fewer than four arts (drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture) and thus redeem mankind from errors of taste. So runs the exordium of Giorgio Vasari’s Life of Michelangelo. It would not surprise me if Vasari got this conceit from the source that provided much of his biographical information – namely, Michelangelo. Dr Liebert, a psychoanalyst, discerns that during his last twenty years Michelangelo ‘increasingly and deeply identified himself with Christ’. Certainly he inclined to treat Popes as vicars of Michelangelo. It may well be his own account of his mission, given narrative form by the fantasy underlying it, that Vasari recorded as a mini-myth which is in essence a de-Christianised and non-blasphemous version of the myth of the incarnation.–


Brigid Brophy, 2 December 1982

The most charming fact I have stumbled on in intellectual history is that Freud and Shaw were shocked by one another. Freud’s wounded romanticism speaks in his reference (in Group Psychology, 1921) to ‘Bernard Shaw’s malicious aphorism to the effect that being in love means greatly exaggerating the difference between one woman and another.’ If I am right in supposing that what he had in mind is one of the speeches Undershaft addresses to Cusins at the climax of Major Barbara, ‘Like all young men, you greatly exaggerate the difference between one young woman and another,’ then Freud has performed a little secondary elaboration. In substance it is fair. The ‘being in love’ is extrapolated from the dramatic context, where Cusins is indeed in love. But in giving the words the formal and impersonal turn of an aphorism Freud suppresses the dramatic characterisation, including that of Undershaft as the Prince of Darkness, and attributes to Shaw himself both the supposed aphorism and its supposed taint of the ‘malicious’.

Arts Councillors

Brigid Brophy, 7 October 1982

My fellow members of the Left often seem to have met an entirely different middle class from the one I was brought up in. Left-wing chat about education accepts without challenge the thesis that book learning comes easily to middle-class children because they come from homes conversant with books. Chat (which is rarer) about arts policy accepts that ‘standards’ and ‘quality’ are bourgeois conventions which the middle class has contrived to impose on public patronage of the arts, thereby getting itself, at the taxpayers’ expense, a bonanza of the kinds of art which it happens to enjoy. This gives me a surreal feeling that I must be the only member of the Labour Party who has hacked through the pampas grass in the front garden, penetrated the mock-half-timbered facade and set actual foot in any of the thousands of middle-class homes where no kinds of art are enjoyed, where the most bookish book to be accorded houseroom is the AA Members’ Handbook and where an invitation to partake in the bourgeois bonanza by passing a publicly subsidised evening at a Shakespeare play or a Bartok opera would elicit bafflement, fear or derision.


Brigid Brophy, 15 April 1982

The phenomenon of transference – how we all invent each other according to early blueprints – was Freud’s most original and radical discovery. The idea of infant sexuality and of the Oedipus complex can be accepted with a good deal more equanimity than the idea that the most precious and inviolate of entities – personal relations – is actually a messy jangle of misapprehensions, at best an uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy systems. Even (or especially) romantic love is fundamentally solitary, and has at its core a profound impersonality. The concept of transference at once destroys faith in personal relations and explains why they are tragic: we cannot know each other.

Small Boys and Girls

Brigid Brophy, 4 February 1982

‘Ah, Jane Austen! He is such a great novelist!’ That was said to me by a Hungarian émigré, who, when I mildly queried the ‘he’, explained: ‘I find those English pronouns tiresome. We don’t have them in Hungarian.’ Thus I stumbled on the fact, which I report now in Mario Pei’s words (and on his authority, since mine doesn’t rise to vouching for a syllable of Hungarian), that ‘in Hungarian the same word means “he”, “she”, “it”.’ Unless things have changed since I was there in 1973, the trams in Budapest are driven by women. Otherwise, Hungary is not a discernible jot more sex-egalitarian than Britain or the USA.

Anyone for sex?

Brigid Brophy, 16 July 1981

It is funny of Jack Kramer to recount his ‘40 years in tennis’ under the title The Game, given that he was a pioneer of tennis as a business. I received my serious call to a life of devout tennis-watching in the year (1947) when Mr Kramer took the men’s singles championship at Wimbledon. His court personality was that of a Nice American Kid. (He still speaks of latterday players as ‘kids’, a term that sits on John Newcombe and Stan Smith as askew as on a lord mayor.) He was tall and, if not quite clean-cut, skinny. He looked as if he would converse by shuffling his large feet and muttering ‘Aw, shucks’. (Thus kids muttered in novels of the period. What they said in real life I don’t know. ‘Aw, Huck’, perhaps.) That he would become not only a player but a promoter and organiser of professional tennis should have been predictable from his tennis style, which was bleakly businesslike. He was a powerful serve-and-volley player who put down each delivery with a worried seriousness as though it were a massive sum of capital which he bore the responsibility for investing wisely.

A Good Ladies’ Tailor

Brigid Brophy, 2 July 1981

Mozart had a discernible tendency to fall in love with his sopranos, Shaw something little short of a compulsion to fall in love with, first, women who took singing lessons from his mother and then, after he turned dramatist, his actresses. This must be one of the hazards of creating works of art that need executants to perform them. Ordinary lovers are sometimes dismayed to find that their beloved is in effect their own invention, a fantasy they have unwittingly devised to inhabit the attractive externals of some real person; and something similar seems liable to happen in reverse when an artist deliberately invents a dramatis persona and designs it, as he goes along, to wear the trappings of a particular executant. It was surely with autobiographical import that Shaw’s imagination was seized by the fable of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his own creature. When he eventually wrote Pygmalion, he designed the role of Eliza for Mrs Patrick Campbell. He went to persuade her to take it and, as he reported to Ellen Terry, ‘fell head over ears in love with her in thirty seconds’.

Cruelty to Animals

Brigid Brophy, 21 May 1981

William Blake is surely the locus classicus for human sympathy with other-than-human animals. Anyone who is, as I am, seared by the cruelty and injustice humans inflict on their fellow animals will recognise in Blake his own perceptions expressed with unsurpassed accuracy and poignancy.

Abbé Aubrey

Brigid Brophy, 2 April 1981

‘Although he was only 17, his interests were iridescent.’ I wonder what Miriam J. Benkovitz, sometime Professor of English, thinks ‘iridescent’ means. The next stage after ‘adolescent’, perhaps. Something, certainly, to do with growing. A hundred or so pages further on, she suggests that Beardsley’s ‘iridescent interests’ may have ‘enlarged his stature’. What’s more, she describes A Book of Fifty Drawings (1897) as a monument to the 24-year-old Beardsley’s ‘iridescence and growth’.

In search of Eaffry Johnson

Brigid Brophy, 22 January 1981

Angeline Goreau calls her chapter on the beginning of Aphra Behn’s life not ‘Birth’ but ‘“Birth” ’. She turns out, however, not to be disputing that Aphra Behn was born or even suggesting that she was from her mother’s womb untimely ripped. It’s merely that Ms Goreau is given to an illiterate use of inverted commas and is under the misapprehension that the time and place of her subject’s birth are unknown. Fluttering her inverted commas, she asserts that the ‘missing “birth” ’ is an impediment to what she calls, with a further flutter and the cosy nomenclature she observes throughout, the ‘search for Aphra’s “identity” ’.

To be continued

Brigid Brophy, 6 November 1980

The boldest way to supply the missing second half of Edwin Drood would be in the idiom of the present time. Such a course would nowadays come naturally or at any rate fashionably to an architect were he required to complete a building that had stopped short in 1870. But the mini-vogue among writers (or is it among publishers?) for endings to fictions that their authors left unfinished during the 19th century has not thrown up a single modern-dress production.


Brigid Brophy, 2 October 1980

Something is amiss with Robert Harbison’s sentences. They seem to consist almost wholly of last-minute additions.

Animal Happiness

Brigid Brophy, 5 June 1980

You possess two pain-killing injections and you encounter two casualties of an earthquake. Should you administer a shot apiece or give both to the person in the worse pain? Alternatively, you have enough medicine to treat one wound. Do you save the endangered leg of X or the endangered toe of Y, who has already lost a leg?

Graham Greene Possessed

Brigid Brophy, 1 May 1980

What can have possessed Graham Greene? The answer, I suspect, is the ghost of Thomas Mann. The Swiss setting of Doctor Fischer of Geneva might be determined by some generic effluvium of Mann, a compound of his Magic (Swiss) Mountain, his post-war return to Switzerland and, perhaps, his rather landlocked position at the centre of European letters. But the Dybbuk that seems to have taken over Mr Greene’s imagination is specific: German Mann, pre-war Mann, long-short-story Mann (author of, in particular, that other piece of magic-making, Mario and the Magician) and, positively and peculiarly, Mann in translation.

James Joyce and the Reader’s Understanding

Brigid Brophy, 21 February 1980

‘The aim of this work,’ Colin MacCabe announces, ‘is not to provide the meaning of Joyce’s work but to allow it to be read.’

Jane Austen’s Children

Brigid Brophy, 6 December 1979

In one respect at least we must be glad Jane Austen refused the proposal of marriage made her in 1802. Literature would be a little less seemly had she obliged us to think of our greatest (indeed, I more and more suspect, the greatest) novelist as Jane Bigg-Wither.

The One-Eyed World of Germaine Greer

Brigid Brophy, 22 November 1979

‘Why portable paintings have acquired such prestige is not immediately obvious, especially because we have all grown up taking their prestigiousness for granted and calling other art forms, including the massive ones of architecture and gardening, minor arts.’ With this one sentence Germaine Greer provokes several queries and a vehement expostulation.


Woman in Love

7 February 1985

Brigid Brophy writes: How odd of Professor Halperin to suppose that the difference between the title he repeatedly attributes to Mary Wollstonecraft’s book and its true title is merely the difference between North American and British English.


2 December 1982

Brigid Brophy writes: Mr Silver misses the distinction between what was known and, perhaps, privately discussable and what Shaw would have wanted to represent (or, with uncharacteristic slyness, to hint) in the theatre or on the page printed under his name, just as he misses the distinction between a regular and secure ‘private income’ and the chancy earnings of a freelance writer.

Arts Councillors

7 October 1982

SIR: I’m glad to learn that, though he seems to dislike professionalism in the arts, Mr Hutchison (Letters, 4 November) really has it in only for ‘professional narcissism’. (I imagine he means this phrase to imply that professional artists are narcissists, not that narcissists can make a living from their narcissism.) May I take the chance to add a more interesting footnote to my...

Unfair to Reich

15 April 1982

SIR: I wonder what was in your mind when you decided to publish (Letters, 21 July) a letter that asserted that my review of the Reich-Neill Correspondence ‘was pure spite’ and that went on to speculate ‘that Brophy was working off some kind of grudge – that she had been undergoing a more orthodox analysis and vaguely suspected that Reichian therapy would have had far better...

Sexist Language

4 February 1982

Brigid Brophy writes: ‘Logical error’, my foot – an expression that should, by this doctrine, be censored, because that may well be (though it may equally well not be) a ‘necessary step’ towards justice for the disabled (another ‘cause we all must support’).
Brigid Brophy writes: If politics is its ‘central theme’, Mr MacCabe’s book is even emptier than I thought. A last chapter of 13 pages recounts, largely through his letters to his brother, Joyce’s understandably out-of-touch efforts to follow Irish and European politics from the position of an expatriate in Trieste. In addition, Mr MacCabe purports to give a ‘political...
Brigid Brophy writes: The Mitford butterfly was exploded in 1869. Mary Russell Mitford was recounting her mother’s supposedly eye-witness account, which her mother dated to the period before her own marriage. J.E. Austen-Leigh was able to show that the mother moved out of the Austens’ neighbourhood when Jane Austen was seven. Being nice to writers they exploit is an old tradition of British...

Women Painters

22 November 1979

Brigid Brophy writes: Ms Aukin may dislike domestic service and opera singing as professions women could practise, but her dislike doesn’t magically lend truth to Ms Greer’s assertion that until 1879 they didn’t exist. Aphra Behn earned her living on her own in the 1660s and became well enough thought of to be buried in the Abbey. So Ms Greer’s claim that ‘until a hundred...

Recognising Mozart

Peter Gay, 7 July 1988

The literature on Mozart is almost as diverse, though surely not quite so glorious, as Mozart’s own output. These three books are a case in point: a freewheeling analysis of Mozart the...

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Skinned alive

John Bayley, 25 June 1987

Amusing, and perhaps instructive, to think of great paintings whose voyage into mystery and meaning seems to depend, in the first instance, on a technical trick: a separation of planes so that...

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In praise of Brigid Brophy

John Bayley, 5 March 1987

In his recent book Reasons and Persons the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit is inclined to decide that persons have no existence, and that the motives to morality are for that reason clearer and...

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Julia Caesar

Marilyn Butler, 17 March 1983

The Prince and the Wild Geese is a story of 1832 told in words and pictures, the words almost all Brigid Brophy’s, the pictures by Prince Grégoire Gagarin, artist son of the Russian...

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A Writer’s Fancy

D.J. Enright, 21 February 1980

Brigid Brophy’s novels have often been described as ‘brilliantly written’: a judgment which can have done her sales little good. (‘Don’t bother with that book...

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