Hi-pri spy-guy here
Three hitherto unnoticed (by me) benefits of blogging.
1) You get to know when your piece on Brigid Brophy's novel, The Finishing Touch, is published in a faraway newspaper.
2) Also that "TLS Editor Sir Peter Stothard lays it on the hi-pri spy-guy dreadline in this deft, distinguished, and distinctive re-examination of Brophy's lesbian-fantasist novel". I could not have put it so generously myself. I truly could not.
3) And you get a 'Happy Birthday' wish from faraway too.
And, for anyone who wants to know (see previous posts) why Brophy's slim volume was my choice for exhumation as a 'Buried Treasure' in the series currently being published by the Toronto Globe and Mail, the answer lies below.
WHAT ANTHONY BLUNT HAD TO DO WITH HER
In a history of fictions inspired by the lives of famous spies, no novel would lie more deeply in the footnotes than Brigid Brophy's The Finishing Touch. This "buried treasure" is no sort of spy thriller. The author liked to call it "a lesbian fantasy." Its setting is a French finishing school for the daughters of the very rich, a hothouse of such exquisite heiresses as Regina Outre-Mer, whose mauve blotting paper reveals her most passionate devotions; Fraise du Bois, whose addictions leave her droguée in the asparagus bed from dawn to dusk; and a hereditary abbess, her Poggibonsian bottom "buttoned down the back; so suggestive of the girl."
The novel's plot, containing nothing of cold wars, or any wars, concerns only the arrival at the school (and hasty departure) of an English princess, her royal breast stung by a nasty local wasp, her headmistress's oral remedy caught by a contraband camera.
Brigid Brophy's work attracted much thoughtful criticism in its day, but in 1963, no one saw the slightest connection between The Finishing Touch and the Blunt affair, Britain's greatest postwar spy scandal. Eventually came the revelation that Miss Antonia Mount, the fictional educationaliste with the lifelong difficulty in deciding between yellow and green Chartreuse, had been inspired by Sir Anthony Blunt, curator of paintings for the Queen and the Fourth Man of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.
On the surface of the novel lay a few clues: a feminized Christian name and a fondness for sex with British sailors shared by both the real and imagined figures. Beneath Brophy's sparkling and perfumed prose lay deeper rococo corruption. But even so newsworthy a critical identification could not bring this masterpiece of comic style a permanent popular appeal. Brigid Brophy, when remembered at all today, is remembered for other works than this, which is her finest.
To read The Finishing Touch in 2009 is to enter an almost forgotten sensibility. Every sentence is there to be weighed, stroked and smelled. The mixture of languages, the mocking allusions, the merciless way with snobbism: All produce a sense of extended pause and perilous calm. Instead of hastening from paragraph to paragraph in the modern manner, the reader is drawn back after every few lines to sniff the night airs again, to hear the grenouilles ("as though at a mad dinner party every guest had simultaneously seized on his pepper mill") and to seek the "dusky dusting powder" in the ménage of the African president's daughter ("but was it, Antonia prickled with the question, black or blue?").
Every schoolgirl's parent hopes, of course, for a future friendship with the royal newcomer, a rounders-playing ingénue with an "innocence of French literature" that Buckingham Place is keen should not be spoiled by French schooling. Letters from homes around the world urge the same message "like multifarious petals awaiting pounding into a potpourri." Sadly for their writers' social ambitions, and for the future dreams of "Dame Antonia," a wasp, a bosom, a medically attentive mouth and the paparazzi skills of the Plash girls ensure that the captain of a British destroyer has to come and provide the finishing touch to the plot.
Digging up this lost treasure is no act of social nostalgia. Brophy was an inventive original throughout her life, self-consciously at the forefront of extending rights as well as imaginations, for fellow authors and fellow animals most of all: "Whenever people say, 'We mustn't be sentimental,' you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add, 'We must be realistic,' they mean they are going to make money out of it."
All British writers who cash a Public Lending Rights cheque, an annual sum calculated on the number of their books borrowed from libraries, owe a toast to her memory. Her reputation probably suffered from the very breadth of her activities, and from a long final illness that ended her literary productivity without providing the promotional possibilities of death.
When Brophy first met Sir Anthony, at dinner among the sailors and art students ("probably both," she suggested) of his Courtauld Institute apartment, not even the British security service knew that the aesthete was their betrayer. A few years later, he secretly exchanged immunity for a full confession and remained a respected art connoisseur, at the heart of London society, until he was finally exposed in 1979 and deprived of the title that Antonia never gained. Anthony Blunt suffered a few other signs, too, of belated public disgrace. John Banville and Alan Bennett turned him more directly into fiction. But a life eked out in a finishing school for girls? That, Brophy wrote in 1987, was perhaps "the hell he had imagined for himself."