Hackenfeller’s Ape 
by Brigid Brophy.
Faber, 133 pp., £9.99, October 2023, 978 0 571 38129 6
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It’seasy to imagine Brigid Brophy at London Zoo, making notes on the animals. I can see her by Berthold Lubetkin’s disused elliptical Penguin Pool or watching the apes. Two of them

used the full extent of the cage as a cubic area: their chases went also up and down, and up and down diagonally. Sometimes they shewed boredom, the consequence of play, and would fret for a moment; then one of them would invent a new game with the rubber tyre that was suspended from their ceiling.

Hackenfeller’s Ape was Brophy’s first novel, published in 1953 when she was 23. In a preface written almost forty years later, she describes the flat she shared at the time with her friend Sally, close enough to the zoo to hear the lions roar. The novel tells the story of four days in the life of a professor, Clem Darrelhyde, who has made the study of Hackenfeller’s apes his life’s work. Named after a Dutch explorer, the fictitious ape is

the same size as the gorilla, but in appearance and character nearer the chimpanzee. In captivity it moved on all fours; but in the jungle, as Hackenfeller had noted, it ran erect with its hands holding on to branches overhead. Children sometimes used a similar method when they learned to walk, but in the adult man it was forgotten until he had to relearn it in crowded buses and trains.

Darrelhyde’s career has culminated in an attempt to record the apes’ mating rituals, which, according to Hackenfeller’s notes, form ‘a ceremonial so poetic, so apparently conscious that, if it were true, it must mark a stage between the highest beast and Man’. But, however poetic the performance,

in Europe [the apes] seldom mated. Any collector who wanted a pair of the apes had to incur the expense of sending for them south of the Equator. Accordingly there was only one cage here labelled ‘Hackenfeller’s Ape’: and this label, with a few like it in other zoos, was perhaps the Dutchman’s only memorial on the face of the earth.

Darrelhyde spends his days chatting to the two specimens at London Zoo, Percy and Edwina, and singing The Marriage of Figaro to them in a voice that is ‘true but spindly, rather like a harpsichord; which made it almost exactly in period’. Percy and Edwina, meanwhile, live in their cage in ‘a resentful communion’. They represent ‘a satire on human marriage’. Edwina is ‘willing’; Percy rebuffs her advances. ‘Sometimes she sallied out and grasped Percy round the waist. He, with impatience, often with disgust, would push her away.’ Darrelhyde is sure that free will is bound up with freedom of movement. ‘It was not lack of desire, but desire too strong, too prickly, too fantastic. What the animal yearned after, when he gazed forlornly out of his cage, was the freedom to make love to Edwina of his own choice … to break into that domain which, in fact, he could not break out of.’ His speculations slip from human to operatic:

Was [Percy] already in the flare-lit, grotto-ornamented, statue-sprinkled garden of Count Almaviva, masked, wooing the wrong woman in the dark, keeping assignations, speaking asides; entangled in the symmetrical pattern of formal comedy and all the imbroglios of plot which beset and postponed the marriage of Susanna to her Figaro, just as, for different reasons, the marriage had been postponed between Percy and Edwina?

It was nonsense. Percy’s thoughts were enclosed by the cage, and he was no freer in his imagination than in his body.

Darrelhyde believes that Percy recognises three words – ‘evolution’, ‘Mozart’, ‘friend’ – but imagines him to be uncomfortable about his inarticulacy. ‘It was an indisputable scientific fact that Percy would never be able to speak. Yet it seemed no less indisputable, and no less to be established by science, that had he been able to live five hundred years he would have learned.’ Such statements are typical of the lonely professor: first the fact, then the hypothesis, which is more a statement of faith than evidence. Percy’s putative humanity is felt more strongly by Darrelhyde than that of most of the people around him, and this projection allows Brophy to deploy the sort of empathetic trick on which you might draw to persuade humans not to kill animals, while the absurdity of some of Darrelhyde’s thinking emphasises Percy’s opacity. It’s a strategic compromise between perspective and persuasion. His own ideas are shifting: ‘It no longer seemed to him that evolution proceeded by strengthening the strong: rather it used as its vessel the weak and inadequate as though they possessed some special felicity that was more fertile than strength.’

When a young man called Kendrick arrives with a terrible pronouncement, Darrelhyde identifies in him the danger of science without humanity. Kendrick pursues progress but doesn’t really think about where his or anyone else’s experience fits in. He knows to smile and make jokes, ‘but the Professor was, without evidence, convinced he had no sense of humour.’ Kendrick announces that Percy has been chosen to go into space:

‘It’s top priority. It’s top secret as well, for that matter.’
       ‘When is it to be?’
       ‘Tuesday or Wednesday,’ Kendrick replied. ‘Probably Wednesday.’
       ‘You don’t mean Tuesday or Wednesday of this week?’
       ‘I do mean Tuesday or Wednesday of this week,’ Kendrick answered, smiling, relaxed, unemphatic.

Darrelhyde worries that Percy can’t consent and won’t understand why he’s trapped in a rocket. Brophy, who thought of herself primarily as a playwright, makes good use of this dénouement. Darrelhyde’s visits to a newspaper to appeal against the injustice to Percy and to the League for the Prevention of Unkind Practices to Animals provide opportunities for quasi-Socratic dialogues about animal rights, but the conversational is undercut by the urgency of the ticking clock. Percy’s prospects are not good: ‘How can people be kind to animals,’ wonders the head of the league (really just a fundraising operation greased by snuff pictures), ‘while they’re worried to distraction about another war?’

Just as he loses hope, Darrelhyde falls prey to a pickpocket called Gloria who, after failing to rob him, tells him she has been in prison for breaking and entering. She’s not a fan of the zoo: ‘All these animals shut up. It doesn’t seem right, really.’ Darrelhyde spies his chance. They meet at nightfall. Gloria brings a ‘metal tool’. The bars are broken, and Percy escapes – first from his cage, then from his rescuers – and the narrative goes from the abstract and intellectual into colour and image:

He passed like a substantial angel across the zoo, touching off here and there the note of each species, as if he had been a child left alone in a concert hall with the deserted instruments of a full orchestra. Finding a sealion snoring on the bank of its pool, he rippled the water suddenly. He was a quarter of a mile away when he heard the responding bark.

In this vision of an animal meeting neighbours he has never known, Brophy breaks out of the human-centric perspective without quite breaking into Percy’s. Gaining entry to the aquarium through a ventilator, Percy sees ‘an eel looping itself to and fro half buried in sand, and an octopus stretching and contracting its noise-absorbing tentacles’. Darrelhyde, sitting on a bench with Gloria dozing on his shoulder, has become irrelevant to Percy, but the Professor turns out to have been right: freedom brings desire and Percy returns to Edwina. Brophy uses a religious lexicon:

Percy laid his hand on her, gently, from behind.

She turned over and opened her eyes to a miraculous volte-face, Percy offering satisfaction to her long-held, honest sensuality. No questions disturbed her soul. Without modesty, she welcomed him home.

The light reached the inner cage and the Professor could, by creeping a little nearer, have witnessed what no white man had ever seen: half-dance, half-drama, the first work of art created by a species less than man … He found he had, in unscientific compunction, averted his eyes.

What happens after the heist is pure soap opera. Search parties trawl the zoo looking for the increasingly distressed Percy, who has tired of ‘moral liberty’ and, unable to find Darrelhyde, runs towards the assistant keeper, Tom, with relief and joy. Tom, however, is armed and takes aim ‘with classic correctness’, remembering the ‘joy of sharing a manly pursuit with his father’. As Percy dies, he sees a vision of the Professor as a dazzling ‘Super Monkey’. Gloria seduces Tom and Kendrick tries to make off with Edwina, but Darrelhyde blocks their path: ‘You can’t take Edwina … she’s pregnant.’ When the Professor visits the morgue to identify Percy, he finds him ‘pink … completely skinned’, realises what Kendrick has done and speeds off in his car. He arrives at the secret rocket-launch location too late: by the time Darrelhyde has spoken to an official, Kendrick, in a grotesque parody of anthropomorphism, has been launched into space wearing Percy’s pelt.

It gets stranger. Brophy worshipped Aubrey Beardsley, who often drew embryos, she believed, to express ‘the consumptive poet’s dread that his body’s unfitness will make him cease before his pen has gleaned the teeming brain inside that huge foetal skull’. In the epilogue to Hackenfeller’s Ape, Freud, Darwin and space travel are condensed into one ape embryo – ‘a snug, smug, self-sufficient little incubus, in the middle of warm, wet darkness’. We watch Percy and Edwina’s baby launch itself out of the womb to issue its ‘first roar of wrath’.

In​ 1954, Hackenfeller’s Ape won the first novel prize at Cheltenham Literary Festival, beating Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net into second place. Brophy and Murdoch, who was a decade older, got on immediately. Brophy had just married Michael Levey, whom she’d met at a New Year’s party. ‘I was struck,’ he said, ‘by her blondeness and the unmissable diamond-like quality of her mind.’ Levey was an assistant keeper at the National Gallery, and it took three dates for them to decide to marry. Before they did, she wrote to him that ‘until a year or so ago I was at least 50 per cent homosexual, and this was the half I acted on.’ She had been sent down from Oxford, she told a journalist much later, after a ‘scene’ in chapel. The wedding took place on the day she turned 25 (she also became a vegetarian that day). Levey and Brophy both believed the institution of marriage immoral and kept theirs open. Brophy began a long romantic relationship with Murdoch the following year. A daughter, Kate, today a vocal advocate for her mother’s work, was born in 1957, a year after Brophy published her second novel, The King of a Rainy Country, an ‘autobiography or fake autobiography’ in which young Londoners take a road trip to Venice (it will appear from McNally Editions next year).

Murdoch was supportive of Brophy’s books, which is more than you can say of Brophy, who remarked that Murdoch produced ‘one more clay foot every year’. In an essay in the only scholarly volume on Brophy, Brigid Brophy: Avant-Garde Writer, Critic, Activist (2020), Kate Levey notes that her mother ‘was never inhumane, but in her mildly autistic way she could wound by insisting on her creed of unblenching honesty’. In response to Brophy’s criticism, Murdoch wrote to her: ‘I don’t, by the way, dislike, or don’t think I do, interesting criticism, if devoid of spite … I am, I think, rather like my books, so that it is at least odd (and a little unnerving) to find you detesting them.’ When, in 1962, she received a copy of Brophy’s novel Flesh in the post, wrapped in silver paper, Murdoch wrote to her: ‘You must be the first person who has described sexual intercourse beautifully and well in a book. I liked the fine fine sensuousness of it all.’ Brophy had stuck newsprint onto the cover, making a collage: ‘Flash’, it now read, ‘a navel by Brigid Bardot’. On the back, the biographical note had been amended by hand. After the sentence, ‘She is socially timid and inveterately literate: she would always rather write a letter than telephone or go there,’ Brophy had added: ‘(There are one or two rather intimate occasions of which this is not true.)’ In the jacket photograph she was decked out as James Joyce, with a felt-tip monocle over one eye. ‘The picture of you on the back rather turns my head,’ Murdoch wrote. ‘You dazzling creature.’ (Years later, she tried a new tack: ‘I am not a great writer. Neither are you.’)

After Brophy’s first book of non-fiction, Black Ship to Hell, was published in 1962 (‘an exploitation of my discovery that … art is not in opposition to reason’), she began writing for the London Magazine, then for Karl Miller at the New Statesman (and, eventually, the LRB). Ian Hamilton called her ‘Britain’s foremost literary shrew’. She was a strong, funny critic. She lost patience with Virginia Woolf’s novels (‘too devastatingly vague’) on discovering that ‘she thought you need a corkscrew to open a bottle of champagne.’ Henry Miller was ‘no sensualist. He might have made a mechanical engineer.’ Monogamy didn’t suit women best: ‘I can well believe men were masochistic enough to impose monogamy on themselves as a hair shirt, but I find it a touch implausible that the hair shirt designed for the husband just happened to be a comfortable and perfectly fitting garment for the wife.’ Regarding her mother: ‘If she murdered, it is the moral standing of murder which would have to be modified, not the moral standing of my mother.’

You can see why descriptions of Brophy return to certain words: glitter, sparkle, shards of light. The Snow Ball (1964), republished by Faber in 2020, is full of brilliance: showers of snow, of peppermint creams, of women who pile their hair ‘as though they were wearing high heels on their heads’ or talk about Casanova attending the first performance of Don Giovanni. Brophy considered it her masterpiece, saying it was ‘deliberately constructed as a baroque monumental tomb’. The main character, Anna, applies make-up in the mirror at a New Year’s costume party. ‘She wanted a metallic suggestion and at the same time a suggestion of patina … to metal she wanted to fuse porcelain.’ She chooses ‘a bottle of chalky grey liquid’ for her eyelids. Yet this preparation ritual is curiously unsexy: when she’s done, Anna wipes ‘her fingers on a tissue like a priest after communion, tumbling her apparatus back into her case like a doctor or a children’s entertainer after a visit’.

Anna can make the chandeliers hum by singing a high A – she has perfect pitch – but when she asks a man dressed as Don Giovanni to serenade her, he feels shy. ‘I’m sad to inhibit you,’ she says. ‘That would be perfect bitch.’ The bathos of the pun contributes to the heavy atmosphere of the book – Brophy’s most atmospheric – as though meanings aren’t as important as the carapaces in which they arrive. For Anna, wordplay, charm, etiquette and self-deprecation are means of evasion. This is a melancholy attitude: decay creeps in on the tail of description and, as on several occasions, passion precedes death. ‘Some people prefer life to perfection,’ Anna tells her Don Giovanni, ‘and take imperfection as a sign of life. Whereas I should like to be complete, even at the risk of being cut off … Ideally I would live surrounded by very beautiful, highly coloured, fantastic reptiles or fish. Something cold-blooded.’ She finds it ‘easier to like animals than people. And things than animals.’

The Snow Ball is fixated on refined objects – putti, soffits, newels – and on people metamorphosing into objects, if only through language. At her hostess’s make-up table, Anna’s face provokes ‘a question of taste, a question of style … She sits before it, painter before primed canvas, potter before bisque, gilder before wood on which the gesso had been laid.’ Her hands were ‘like the hand of death in a gruesome marble tombscape – but with deep pink fingernails’. One guest, who weaves through the novel, looks like ‘a boiled egg in a neat little chinoiserie egg-cosy’. The noise of the party can be stepped out of like ‘a frilled petticoat’. Anna looks ‘deep into’ Don Giovanni’s mask, then she makes her own face ‘like a mask’. When, after much object-obsessed deferral, she finally goes to bed with him, her orgasm is described as liquid that hardens into form:

Suffering, sobbing, swelling, sawing, sweating, her body was at last convulsed by the wave that broke inside it: and the image which was dashed up on to the walls of her mind and deposited like droplets there, distinct but quite passive, was of the rococo cartouche which broke everlastingly over the walls of Anne’s bedroom, perpetually but without moisture drenching the white satin with drops like drops of glycerine or sweat.

This passage reveals something about Brophy’s style: she tries to crystallise rushing movements another writer might not attempt to render. The effect is strongest when it’s at its most accentuated, as it is here (the impossibility of freezing an orgasm), or funniest, as in the diary of the teenage Ruth Blumenbaum:

Used to think must be Lesbian. Looked up Sappho and Lesbos in encycl. Liked idea of Gk islands: sun: blue sky: playing ball on sands beside blue sea – like one of those classical Picassos Miss L. is so keen on. But do not really care for pink, monumental women – a bit like M.! – but cannot imagine M. playing ball w. nothing on. Used to wonder if when grown up D. wd BUY Lesbos for me. But all that ages ago. Realise now it was naive idea.

All this converting of high spirits to solid objects can be hard work to read. It feels as though Brophy weren’t only fixing her characters, but trapping the reader in a mausoleum of antique references and jeux d’esprit. (One of the epigraphs to The Snow Ball is a footnote from her own book on Mozart.) ‘The baroque method of designing,’ Brophy explained elsewhere,

consists of deploying contrasting masses in such a way that each, as well as performing its own function, constitutes a funnel down which one gets a sharply unexpected view – ironic, tragic or comic – of the others. It is an architectural method, a manipulation of levels to provide bizarre perspectives. It is the steepness of the perspectives and the sharpness of the angles which trap and distil the work’s emotional intensity.

She had adopted it in her writing, ‘since I too am aiming to reform Western civilisation’. There is a dualism to her structures, Eros cantilevered against Thanatos, brain against body, style against life, each aspect necessary and neither prevailing.

The biggest​ of the statues at Brophy and Levey’s house on the Old Brompton Road was that of Antinous, the lover of Hadrian. There was also a Portuguese saint and a painted wooden angel, rescued from a skip. Brophy lived with these and many heroes: Freud, Mozart, Ronald Firbank, Shaw, Beardsley, Katherine Mansfield and Martina Navratilova, to name a few. When she berated Murdoch, it was for not being a well-made statue but one with brittle clay feet. Sculpture is everywhere in her work. Flesh is inspired by the Pygmalion myth, and details the meeting and marriage of Marcus and Nancy, and its effect on Marcus, whose appetites develop, with Nancy’s encouragement, until he becomes physically feminine, growing breasts. The Finishing Touch is a story about a finishing school, in the style of Firbank (‘perhaps the inventor, certainly the fixer, of modern camp’, as Brophy wrote in her book about him, Prancing Novelist). Anthony Blunt, a friend of Brophy and Levey’s, inspired the headmistress, because Brophy found his relationship with his besotted vice-director amusing. She changed his gender since ‘it would have been very hard to create a scandal’ with a woman and a man. ‘I cannot regard the thing as worthy just because it comes from me, whom I do not regard as wholly worthy of my love in the first place,’ she wrote in the 47-page preface to her theatrical farce The Burglar, a rebuttal to the critics who had received it poorly during its short West End run.

The work has to be made worthy, and towards making it so I subject it to all the destructive and fault-finding impulses which, if they were not directed at it, would be being trained on myself. The result is that works by me are highly wrought. They embody intense emotion but, in the fashion of all classical works, the emotion is embodied in the actual design.

The assessment is apt – for the most part. Brophy’s writing is propelled by the excitement of the intellect, while the emotion is held within the structure.

She found a form for her work that accommodated her need for artifice, for self-creation rather than simple self-fashioning. Kate Levey describes her mother as quiet in private, even ‘marmoreal’, outside the group of people she ‘loved or venerated’, and their family life as ‘contained’. Brophy must have worked hard at her public persona to appear so confident and fully formed. Hackenfeller’s Ape was her second book – she disowned her first, a short story collection called The Crown Princess, because it was ‘written by a little girl trying to be good, producing what was expected … life imposed on me, not me on life.’ By her own account, she had built herself up following a crisis (being sent down from Oxford):

I reformed … my personality not out of reformist zeal but because I entered circumstances where the relentlessness inherent in reality pressed in on me so hard that I began to disintegrate. In a dark crisis of my personal life, the constituents of my personality were broken down, like the constituents of a caterpillar inside the chrysalis case. I had either to abdicate from existence or to try to reassemble myself as a butterfly.

In the butterfly house at London Zoo, you can see pupae suspended in rows, hard evidence of a transformation, looking like earrings made of leaves, cigars, acorns. The problem with writers adopting this system is that they need to change form more than once, and often in relation to others, rather than in a chrysalis. Brophy’s writerly persona, built early in her career, produced controlled prose that conveys invulnerability, that performs, pursues, persuades, entertains, impresses, provokes, defies. These are quite formal acts, things you could do to an acquaintance. It’s prose that challenges, but doesn’t necessarily trust its reader. She tends to lean into stereotypes, often to send them up, rather than to turn away from them. There’s a kind of clubbishness to her style, an attempt to keep her dead heroes close, for example in her use of the Shavian form ‘shew’. Even in her own day her aesthetics conformed to her description of camp as ‘pioneering backwards’. Like the use of the word ‘rape’ to mean ‘seize’, this can add up to a type of pedantry that disdains, or forgets, or wilfully ignores the passage of time.

Brophy’s extreme rationalism was a form of self-construction, too. She claimed that the ‘mechanical and relaxed delight’ of logic ‘served me as, I imagine, knitting serves some of my friends’ – a type of restorative creativity. In polemics such as ‘The Rights of Animals’, published in the Sunday Times Weekly Review in 1965, she makes a vivid, convincing case. Whereas in Hackenfeller’s Ape she had experimented with something approaching an animal perspective, in her articles the foundation of her argument for animal rights is that we cannot know one another. But she is also asserting that a well-made moral argument – that words – can settle a social matter. That idea seems almost delusional today, but not when reading Brophy (her essays and criticism are ripe for republication).

Despite her activism – she was a member of anti-vivisection and anti-bloodsports groups, the Free Thought Movement, the British Humanist Association, the Committee against Blasphemy Law and the Rationalist Press Association, and a critic of faith schools, the Vietnam War and the criminal justice system – Brophy, while admitting ‘I am a feminist, of course,’ described ‘women who make a profession out of being women’ with disdain, comparing them to ‘Frenchmen who live in England and make a profession out of being Frenchmen’. Yet she was subject to intense sexism from critics. A review by the mischief-making Simon Raven in the Spectator in 1966, titled ‘Brophy and Brigid’, divided her into ‘the incomparable’ Brophy, an ‘intelligent writer of clear masculine prose’ – by which Raven seemed to mean mainly her argumentative non-fiction – and Brigid, a ‘faddy and finicking prig’ whose ‘dottiness’ was ‘beyond belief’ and whose ‘fussing’, ‘feminine’ voice made ‘asinine interruptions’ like a ‘fatuous and opinionated wife’.

Brigid Brophy​ became a monument. In a 1969 episode of the ITV sitcom Father, Dear Father, a teenage girl announces that she plans to leave home. ‘I want to spread my wings. I want to be buffeted by the winds of experience; I want to drink deep the cup of life. I want to grasp it with both hands and so fulfil myself as a woman.’ ‘You’ve been reading Brigid Brophy again,’ her father responds. The same year Brophy, who kept a model of Concorde on her desk, published In Transit, an experimental novel set in an airport lounge whose protagonist, who deliberately misses the plane, has lost their sex. (Another kind of collage, mashing up libretti, hardboiled detective fiction and several languages, it will be republished by Lurid Editions and Dalkey Archive next year.)

Reading the fiction and non-fiction, the prefaces and the epigraphs, the reviews and the interviews, Brophy’s fully-formedness can begin to feel like a trap. It’s a relief to look at Murdoch’s letters, published a few years ago, and guess at a private Brophy (whose letters aren’t included). In Murdoch’s eyes we find Brigid – ‘dear girl’, ‘Queen of the Night’, ‘Cherubino’ – to be unlike the persona she projected. Yes, she is a companion with whom to discuss Freud and Plato, but she also wants and fails to change the terms of their relationship (‘What you referred to would have a beginning, a middle and an end’), stays in hotels with Murdoch, requires apologies (‘I am sorry about what appears to you in effect as my bitch-like behaviour’), argues (‘you asked, or wonder, why I don’t lie “more suavely”’), reconciles (‘asking you not to be an ass, I embrace you’), experiments with gender fluidity (‘in my view you ought always to be habillée en homme’), is told to wear certain clothes (‘why not black ski pants?’) or to give her own to Murdoch (who has her eye on ‘a blue striped sack’). Even with the replies missing, it’s clearly a close, reciprocal exchange, though Brophy asked for more from Murdoch than she was willing to give.

By 1967, Brophy’s affections had moved on to the playwright Maureen Duffy, with Murdoch’s encouragement (‘I, after all, am a fairly rock-like presence by now’). Duffy and Brophy put on an exhibition of homemade ‘heads and boxes’ playing on political and psychoanalytic ideas: 55 readymades, a series of dioramas, followed by polyester mannequin heads they had bought at Peter Jones and then decorated. A box named ‘Aunt Eater’ contains a figure of a woman in sensible clothes standing before a dangerously large anteater, in a fantasy of animal revenge. One head, served up on a plate, is framed by herbs and cutlery, with something – citrus? onion? – stuffed in its mouth, garlic in its ears, as if it’s been roasted. ‘Ma’soupappeal’ features a soup tureen capped with a kangaroo undergoing a coronation ceremony, watched from below by a crowd. ‘To be any kind of artist is a dangerous profession,’ Brophy told the Guardian on the occasion of the exhibition. ‘There is a constant attempt to place limitations on the intellect and the imagination, and if someone comes up with something new – not newness of form, which can become immediately fashionable, but newness of concept, people find this disturbing.’

Brophy did seem to live by her principles. In a 1971 piece, she argued that ‘buying a sealskin coat doesn’t represent a choice between evils. It is a simple choice of evil. (The choice is human; the evil is to seals.)’ She wore plastic shoes, became a vegan and, in 1975, blurbed Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation with a gloriously unrepresentative summary, closer to her own rights-based position (put elsewhere as ‘I must live’) than his utilitarian one. At a 1977 RSPCA symposium at Trinity College, Cambridge, she described fishing and angling as ‘fascist fantasy’. Another attendee recalled going to the dining hall with Brophy afterwards and being fed ‘meagre rations of bland 1970s-style veggie food. The rest of the symposium’s attendees ate venison.’

She was writing less. Her time was occupied by the Writers’ Action Group, founded with Duffy to campaign for authors to receive annual royalty payments when their books were borrowed from public libraries. It was a broad collective, with more than five hundred members by 1974, including Doris Lessing, Raymond Williams, Anthony Burgess, B.S. Johnson, Harold Pinter, Ted Hughes, Kingsley Amis and the adamantine Murdoch. In 1979, the Public Lending Right was passed by Parliament (today, authors receive around 9.55p per loan, capped at £6,600 a year). Then Duffy dumped Brophy.

Logic might have felt like a sturdy pedestal to Brophy, but her study of Freud had taught her that it will come up against less rational types of resistance. In 1980, giving a talk in defence of fiction at a conference of assistant librarians, she dug into psychoanalytic corners: ‘The source of the shame people feel when they are caught reading a novel is, I think, that a novel has a strong textural resemblance to those shaming things we have all had, though we may not admit to having had one since the age of six, namely daydreams.’

In her early fifties, she started noticing that her body was behaving differently, ‘alerting my mind to facts it did not know’. Once, hurrying to catch a cab, she fell and temporarily lost her memory. Another time she couldn’t lift her leg to step onto a kerb; she noticed ‘a stutter in my gait’ at Wimbledon. The doctors told her to ‘practise walking’. She found herself crawling ‘on all fours through the communal hall, wondering whether the occupant of some other flat would at that moment come down the staircase or, having begun to do so, would retreat thinking, “There’s that eccentric Lady Levey crawling across the hall.”’ In 1983, Brophy was told she had multiple sclerosis, ‘or, rather, that the results of all the tests thoroughly conformed with my having it – a presumably legalistic formula that reminded me of my sending down.’ (Her college wrote to say not that she had been sent down but that ‘I should be if I attempted to return to Oxford.’)

As she had then, she fell quiet. Kate recalled her ‘angry inarticulacy’. Brophy said she wouldn’t fight the MS, having ‘fought all my life for one thing or another’. In a 1986 essay, reprinted in the collection Baroque-’n’-Roll, she wrote about the battle between mind and body: ‘The knowledge that I shall never be in Italy again is sometimes a heaviness about me like an unbearable medallion that bends my neck.’ The illness was an ‘assailant’. She was given an ‘electric chair’: only ‘in a palace without furniture of any kind, instead of in our narrow-corridored flat, could its virtuosity be fully used’. She insisted that her antivivisectionist principles still stood, that no live animals should be used to find a cure, and counted herself lucky to have fallen ill in a welfare state. Levey quit his job as director of the National Gallery to care for her. He recorded those last years as difficult: Brophy’s ‘emotional Thatcherism’, both partners imprisoned, ‘sickness against health’. In 1991 they moved to Lincolnshire, with Kate. Brophy died in 1995 and was cremated.

‘I have not a shred of respect for the judgment of posterity,’ Brophy wrote in 1968. Her daughter’s request for a blue plaque on the Old Brompton Road was rejected in 2015, the committee insisting that Brophy’s ‘historical significance was not on a par with that required by the scheme’. In her recollection of her mother, Kate wrote that ‘Brophy has not, as it were, slipped down the back of the bookcase – she has not been overlooked or neglected – she has been, for the moment at least, rejected.’ Are we now about to see a Brophy revival? Will the republished novels be followed by a biography, perhaps a flamboyant biopic? As a society we have come to meet her when it comes to sexuality, and she’s less unusual now in her views on animal rights. But she doesn’t fit comfortably in any era. She wouldn’t be Brigid Brophy if she did.

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