The following is the introduction by Jonathan Hunt to the 2002 Penguin Classics edition of Jocelyn Brooke’s The Military Orchid and Other Novels, reprinted by kind permission of the author.
When in 1979 Secker & Warburg planned to re-issue Jocelyn Brooke’s three linked semi-autobiographical books — The Military Orchid, A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral — in a single volume, Anthony Powell was a natural choice to write an introduction. The two writers had corresponded, met, and reviewed each other’s books. Powell, as literary editor of Punch, had employed Brooke to write reviews and articles. A committed fan of Brooke’s writing, Powell was to nominate Brooke after his death as an unjustly neglected author.
Brooke’s career as a published writer had begun on the highest of high notes: a review of The Military Orchid in The Sunday Times by Desmond MacCarthy, highly influential critic of the older generation, was headed simply ‘Distinction’ . The Military Orchid (1948), A Mine of Serpents (1949) and The Goose Cathedral (1950), together with Brooke’s novels The Scapegoat (1949) and The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950), received enthusiastic notices and Brooke was greeted as a new writer of unusual and singular gifts. Brooke found it less easy to build on this initial burst of success, and The Passing of a Hero (1953) and Private View (1954) were received as less original, if characteristic works. Despite a return to his best form in 1955, with The Dog at Clambercrown, all Brooke’s books were out of print at the time of his death at the age of fifty-eight in 1966. Perhaps, as Olivia Manning suggested in a rather double-edged retrospective article in 1969, Brooke was destined to be appreciated chiefly by his fellow writers, to achieve a mere succès d’estime. 
The re-publication of the three books as The Orchid Trilogy in 1981 (by Secker in hardback and Penguin in paperback) won Brooke a new round of appreciative reviews and many more readers than he had ever had in the 1950s. Anthony Powell suggested the title ‘The Orchid Trilogy’ for the three books at the request of Secker, which had provisionally entitled them ‘The Military Trilogy’. Brooke himself had never provided an overall title, merely describing the books as constituting ‘what may loosely be called a trilogy’ , and in this new edition the three books resume their separate but closely associated status.
In his introduction, Anthony Powell raises the question of why Brooke, who was forty when The Military Orchid was published, did not achieve publication before the war. Brooke’s own explanation was that he was a late developer. Having decided when he was at school that his only ambition was to become a writer, the literary attempts of his twenties were, in his own words, ‘dismally bad: dreary pastiches of Huxley and Waugh’.  His only complete surviving work of fiction from the early1930s is an attempt at ‘a “sophisticated” novel . . . all about nightclubs and wild parties’.  Its title—Surplus Men—is uncomfortably close to that of Anthony Powell’s Afternoon Men (1931), a novel on a similar theme and the book, which, as Powell describes, led indirectly to his friendship with Brooke.
Besides a tendency to imitate, Brooke was also highly self-absorbed as a writer. The central character of Surplus Men, a would-be novelist named ‘Maurice Raglan’, is all too aware of his ‘distressing tendency to become autobiographical . . . like the other adolescent vices it was extremely difficult to cure.’  This autobiographical tendency was heightened by Brooke’s discovery of Proust. Brooke identified so strongly with the narrator of A la recherche du temps perdu that he formed the ambition of writing an enormous roman fleuve ‘even longer and more self-revealing than that of Proust himself’, a project that ‘needless to say, never got written—or even, alas, begun.’ 
Brooke’s wartime service in the Royal Army Medical Corps was a turning point in his development as a writer:
. . . the war succeeded in bouncing me out of a neurotic condition which had afflicted me through most of the 1930s. After the war I sat down and wrote about fifteen books in the subsequent ten years . . . The war . . . was in one sense ‘good’ for me, bringing a sense of release and a renewed capacity to write the stuff one had always wanted to write’. 
During the war itself Brooke wrote poems, a number of which look forward to later prose works. On his return to England in November 1945 he resumed novel writing, and by March 1946 had completed The Scapegoat and The Deserter. The Bodley Head had already accepted December Spring, a collection of his poems, in January, but declined the two novels (perhaps because both had homosexual themes) though it was later to change its mind about The Scapegoat.
In this flurry of literary activity, Brooke also resumed work on a botanical monograph, The Wild Orchids of Britain, conceived in the late 1920s. Because of the rejection of his novels, and knowing of his enthusiasm for botany, his agent, A. M. Heath, suggested that he write a popular book about flowers. Brooke envisaged a chatty book, ‘with a few personal anecdotes sandwiched between the descriptions of plants’. But once he had started, ‘the anecdotes took command, and insisted on stringing themselves together into an autobiography.’  The result was The Military Orchid, which Brooke also completed at speed, finishing it in August 1946.
The genesis of The Military Orchid and its successors was a crucial but unexpected creative breakthrough: the books, he used to tell friends, were not at all the books he ‘meant to write’. The new genre was an amalgam of autobiography and fictionalised autobiography, allowing Brooke for the first time to make direct use of nostalgic memories of childhood that the war had only intensified. It also allowed him to quote from and allude to the writers who had influenced him so strongly: Ronald Firbank, T. S Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and above all, Proust.
In his hybrid genre of fact and fiction, Brooke’s policy was to use as much fact as possible. But the risk of libel made fictionalisation a necessity and in the late 1940s homosexuality and homosexual relationships could only be alluded to in a veiled or coded way. ‘If one’s writing in the first person (though I don’t admit that the “I” is entirely myself!) one has to be careful’, Brooke declared to a friend who had read A Mine of Serpents, ‘my publisher is terrified of my books, anyway, and regularly goes through them with a blue pencil.’ 
Brooke’s method in fictionalising the people he had known was to amalgamate the characteristics of two or more of them into a single composite character. One such person who was the origin of one of the characters in the trilogy and who was unknowingly to play a part in the development of The Military Orchid was Albert Heron, a twenty-year-old private soldier from Durham.
In 1932 Brooke gave up his job with the publisher Herbert Joseph, where one of his tasks, as reported to his friend Julian Trevelyan, was to persuade North London newsagents to stock the firm’s short-lived magazine, Movie Fan. Brooke’s literary affairs were no more successful. His novel Surplus Men was with the agent Curtis Browne, failing to find a publisher. In his social life, Brooke frequented the London bars, clubs and theatres used as homosexual meeting places; it was probably in one of them that in October 1932 he first met Heron.
When, the following summer, Brooke yielded again to family pressure to get a job and to join J. H. and J. Brooke Ltd., the family firm of wine merchants in Folkestone, there was the compensation that Heron, who was serving with the 1st Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders, was stationed nearby at Dover. The Highland Light Infantry were also at Dover Castle, and the evening streets, as William Plomer recalled, were filled ‘with the inaudible frou-frou of kilts’.  By tradition, the presence of the regiments meant, for men in search of it, the possibility of a sexual liaison with a badly-paid soldier, money generally changing hands. Letters from Heron to Brooke, one with a row of Xs beneath his signature, suggest that Heron was not just ‘rent’, and that the relationship was a mutually affectionate one. When Heron’s battalion sailed for Palestine in December 1933 it came to an end.
Brooke’s relationship with Heron inspired two pieces of writing. The taboo situation of a middle-class man ‘befriending’ a working-class soldier became the basis of his novel The Deserter. In 1942, shortly before Brooke himself was posted to the Middle East, a newspaper reference to a military action in which the Seaforths were fighting prompted memories of Heron and a poem both realistic and symbolic. In typescript the poem is headed ‘The Orchid’, but Brooke later referred to it as ‘The Military Orchid’, the title he would subsequently use for the opening book of the trilogy. Addressing the soldier, the poem evokes
. . . the salty and alkaline
Taste of our friendship and the Dover evenings,
Your innocent and athletic mode of love
The soldier’s Highland uniform is compared to the orchid’s flower, the sporran suggesting the flower’s lip. Soldier and uniform, ‘long sought’, like ‘the rare orchid in the high/Calcareous pasture and the sexual wood’, become ‘A complete and compelling synthesis/Of the displaced quest . . ..’ The poem reads like a private document, the equation of love object and desired flower. But it can also be read as a metaphorical blueprint for the trilogy, which begins with its narrator’s quest for the almost vanished Military Orchid and closes with an ex-soldier called ‘Bert’ saying goodbye to the narrator.
Forming an epigraph to The Military Orchid is a description of the plant from the Elizabethan botanist Thomas Gerarde’s Herball of 1597, a copy of which Brooke had bought with his Army gratuity after his demobilization. Under its ancient name of ‘Souldier’s Satyrion’, Gerarde describes the orchid’s phallic stem and testicular ‘stones’ (tubers) and the resemblance of the flower’s tips to the figure of a helmeted man. For the narrator in childhood, Orchis militaris seems to embody all the desirable qualities of masculinity, which he feels he lacks and can never attain. By making the central focus of his narrator’s quest an orchid, Brooke alludes to the predominantly sexual associations and symbolism surrounding orchids, prominent among which are Proust’s image of the fertilisation of an orchid by an insect, an emblem of a sexual encounter between the Baron de Charlus and the tailor Jupien. The Military Orchid, and the other orchids mentioned in the text are one of the ways by which Brooke alludes to what cannot be directly stated, but which is frequently present in the three books: ‘the love that dares not speak it name’.
In the second volume of the trilogy, A Mine of Serpents, the firework of the title and the magisterial watertower on Barham Downs take over the symbolic role of the orchid. ‘Mine’ and ‘serpent’ images flower independently. An imagined underground city connects an inland mine shaft with tunnels and staircases inside Dover Cliffs. A subtle pattern of serpent and reptile imagery is woven into the text. Places and objects are suffused with an erotic or sinister fascination. Dirty, working-class Dover, in contrast to respectable Folkestone or the countryside districts around Bishopsbourne features in the book almost as a potentially dangerous but desirable character. The narrative is a set of Chinese boxes in which the chronology goes backwards and forwards between different periods in the narrator’s life. The narrator has unpredictable but recurring encounters with two emblematic characters of the 1920s and 1930s, Hew Dallas and Basil Medlicott.
Brooke also took the epigraph to The Goose Cathedral, final volume of the trilogy, from Gerarde’s Herball. This describes the botanical ‘curiosity’ of the ‘Barnakle’, or ‘Goose Tree’, the apparent phenomenon of geese hatching from shellfish growing on a dead tree submerged in water. Gerarde claimed to have seen such a Goose Tree on the East Kent shore ‘between Douer and Rumney’. Brooke by implication identifies it with Folkestone and the ‘Goose Cathedral’, the narrator’s nickname for a lifeboat shed built in a pretentious Gothic architectural style.
The Goose Cathedral recapitulates the narrator’s childhood fantasies from The Military Orchid:
I wanted, when I grew up, to be a soldier or an airman myself; but in my heart of hearts I knew this to be a mere romantic phantasy: my profound and incurable ‘difference’ precluded me, I felt, from ever being a ‘real’ soldier. 
It is in The Goose Cathedral that a version of Private Albert Heron appears, disguised as ‘Bert Hunwick’, a character who bears the name of the Northumbrian village where Heron’s sister lived. Hunwick begins as the young ex-soldier protégée of ‘Pussy’ Wilkinson, relic of the mauve epoch, but deserts Pussy to marry his rich sister Moira. All the characters — ‘The Breede of Barnakles’ — undergo a Barnakle-like metamorphosis, even the Goose Cathedral being transformed into The Boathouse Café.
In the final scene of The Goose Cathedral, Brooke’s character Bert Hunwick bids a final goodbye to the narrator, putting his hand on his knee and telling him he has always been ‘sort of fond of him’. Hunwick, who has metamorphosed from naïve young soldier to middle-aged RAF squadron leader, is the man who will inherit the post-war future. Like the character in which Brooke partially embodied him, Albert Heron was a ‘flyer’, for Heron had transferred from the Seaforth Highlanders to the Army Air Corps in 1939. But unlike Bert Hunwick, the original ‘Military Orchid’ of Brooke’s poem and a significant inspiration for the subsequent book and its successors, did not come back from the war; he died in November 1942 in North Africa, while a prisoner of war.
One of the themes of the trilogy is writing and authorial ambition. In The Military Orchid the narrator sends up his own adolescent persona ‘Maurice’, who lived on in Surplus Men. In A Mine of Serpents the narrator conceives the ambition of writing a ‘Proustian masterpiece’, but by the end of The Goose Cathedral he realises the futility of this ambition. In his own life, however, Brooke continued to regret not having attempted a Proustian roman fleuve, feeling that his published books were ‘trivial and unsatisfactory . . . a series of extended footnotes, as it were, to that unwritten masterpiece.’  Not surprisingly, Proust was an important point of contact between Anthony Powell and Brooke, Brooke being one of the first to question whether ‘Proustian’ was an appropriate adjective for Powell’s twelve-volume sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. Was Brooke, though, jealous of Powell’s ability to bring off a large-scale project, just as Powell admired and may have envied Brooke’s ability to recreate his childhood so fully and powerfully?
Brooke’s judgement on himself was not necessarily shared by critics. John Pudney, who in 1950 acclaimed Brooke as ‘one of the most exciting creative artists of our time and one who will consistently evade all the literary categories,’ also observed that Brooke’s trilogy and his novels The Scapegoat and The Image of a Drawn Sword ‘seemed to hang together like a set of Proust’.  In a letter to the present writer, George Painter, Proust’s biographer, referring to Brooke’s narrator’s desire in the trilogy to write a Proustian masterpiece, said that ‘The Orchid Trilogy, in which Proust is constantly mentioned and always present just beyond the horizon, is that masterpiece.’ 
- Desmond McCarthy, review of The Military Orchid, The Sunday Times 18/4/48 ↑
- Olivia Manning ‘An Enemy in the Mind’, The Times Literary Supplement 8/5/69 ↑
- Preface, The Goose Cathedral, The Bodley Head, 1950 ↑
- Brooke to Yvonne Kapp 21/4/62 ↑
- ‘The Wrong Side of the Blanket’, article by Brooke, The London Magazine, Vol.2 No.7 1955 ↑
- Surplus Men, unpublished novel by Brooke, Chapter 1 ↑
- ‘The Wrong Side of the Blanket’ ↑
- Jocelyn Brooke, Author’s Note in The Poetry of War, ed. Ian Hamilton, Alan Ross Ltd. 1965 ↑
- Brooke to Yvonne Kapp 24/5/62 ↑
- Brooke to Julian Hall 21/2/50 ↑
- William Plomer, At Home, ‘Marine Residences’ ↑
- The Goose Cathedral, Chapter II ‘The Wild Soldiers’, Section III, pp.331-2 ↑
- ‘The Wrong Side of the Blanket’ ↑
- John Pudney, review of The Goose Cathedral in Public Opinion 17/11/50 ↑
- George Painter in letter to Jonathan Hunt 4/4/89 ↑