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Brooke, (Bernard) Jocelyn (1908–1966), writer and naturalist, was born on 30 November 1908 at 9 Radnor Cliff, Sandgate, Folkestone, Kent, the third child of Henry Brooke, wine merchant, and his wife, May, née Turner. Both his parents were English, and were converts to Christian Science. Jocelyn Brooke was brought up in Kent primarily by his nanny, a strict Baptist whom he called Ninnie. A painfully sensitive, precocious child, considered by his family to have weak health, Brooke from a very early age observed his world, the countryside around Folkestone and their summer residence, Forge Cottage, Bishopsbourne, in the Elham valley. Much younger than his sister, Evelyn, and his brother, Cecil, Brooke seems to have admired and been rather overwhelmed by the gregarious if strictly class-conscious world of his family. He found school a painful experience: life at his preparatory day school was daunting but tolerable. Not so, however, King’s School, Canterbury, and he ran away twice in the first two weeks before being sent to the co-educational progressive Bedales School, which seems to have been as good as it could be given that Brooke hated sport and the intrusive environment of boarding-school life. From 1927 he attended Worcester College, Oxford, where he paid to have his first book, Six Poems, published in 1928.
After only a year Brooke was sent down from Oxford. Between 1928 and 1930 he worked in three London bookshops, and for a London publisher in 1931. He then joined his brother in the family’s wine business, but found that he had no acumen for this or any of the other jobs he worked at and suffered a breakdown of some sort. When the Second World War began he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and became one of the pox wallahs, those working to treat venereal disease. He was decorated for bravery.
Brooke was restless as a demobbed veteran and soon rejoined the venereal disease branch of the RAMC as a regular: ‘Soldiering had become a habit with me’ (Brooke, The Dog at Clambercrown, 220), he wrote by way of explanation for this rather surprising decision, given his childhood unhappiness at boarding-school. His homosexuality and the orderly anonymity of military life perhaps combined to make the army attractive to Brooke, who was a self-deprecating, extremely private individual; his unsuitability to take over the family business (his brother was killed in a car accident) may well have propelled him away from civilian life.
While Brooke wrote poetry and prose from his schooldays onwards, his next book, December Spring: Poems, published by John Lane’s Bodley Head (which became his main publisher), did not appear until 1946. It was followed by The Military Orchid (1948), which in addition to receiving critical acclaim (Desmond MacCarthy praised it highly) was a sufficient financial success to enable Brooke to buy himself out of the army. He moved to London and became a talks producer for the BBC, but was unhappy in the metropolis. After four months he resigned and moved to the country, eventually settling in an environment familiar from his childhood—Ivy Cottage in Bishopsbourne, which he shared with Ninnie.
From this point Brooke wrote full-time and published books of a variety of genres in an astonishingly quick succession (eighteen appeared between 1949 and 1958). They reflect his knowledgeable passions for botany, pyrotechnics, and literature. He was a botanophile from early childhood:
not content with the English names [of flowers], I memorised many of the Latin and Greek ones as well. Some of these (at the age of 8) I conceitedly incorporated in a school essay. … The Headmaster read the essay aloud to the school (no wonder I was unpopular). (Brooke, The Orchid Trilogy, 23)
He was a founder member of the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation and published two botanical works: The Wild Orchids of Britain (1950) and The Flower in Season (1952), ‘a book about wild flowers for those who like wild flowers’ (Brooke, The Flower in Season, 11). His only children’s novel, The Wonderful Summer (1949), includes a detailed description (with diagrams) of how to make fireworks, and the plot revolves around the search for a rare orchid, the Epipogon, by three teenagers in Oxfordshire: a brother and sister and their cousin, Vincent, a mocking self-portrait. This novel is just one aspect of what Anthony Powell aptly described as the ‘Brooke myth’ (Powell, 3): Brooke’s ability to write what has elsewhere been called ‘managed autobiography’. Brooke repeatedly drew on his life in the three loosely connected volumes of his trilogy: The Military Orchid, A Mine of Serpents (1949, named after a type of firework), and The Goose Cathedral (1950). In these witty, subtle, deceptively simple works, the narrator records details of the childhood and later life of a young man resembling but not identical to Brooke himself, who is presented as a prototype of his generation and class. The books capture the unfolding of a melancholy, often painfully sensitive male consciousness, an observer who portrays sardonically and with delicate wit a quintessentially English life. His gift lay in evoking life in the inter-war years and in the army with all its idiosyncratic and distinctive elements without creating dated period pieces.
Also on the cusp between autobiography and fiction are the following narratives: The Scapegoat (1948)—an excellent portrayal of doomed adolescent angst; The Passing of a Hero (1953), in which Brooke wrote in a note that ‘all the characters … including that of the narrator, are ninety per cent fictitious’; Private View (1954); The Dog at Clambercrown (1955); and Conventional Weapons (1961). Brooke’s only true novel, The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950), is a haunting account of a post-war veteran whose sense of futility is dissolved when he is drawn into a world where fantasy, paranoia, and reality merge with fatal consequences. Brooke’s most unusual work is The Crisis in Bulgaria, or, Ibsen to the Rescue! (1956), a surrealist pastiche. In addition to his own writing Brooke was a percipient reviewer and wrote critiques of Aldous Huxley, Elizabeth Bowen, Ronald Firbank, and John Betjeman as well as introducing and editing the journals and published works of Denton Welch. His interest in music is shown in his final publication, The Birth of a Legend: a Reminiscence of Arthur Machen and John Ireland (1964).
Brooke continued to live at Ivy Cottage after Ninnie’s death and was a well-respected albeit solitary figure in Bishopsbourne and the surrounding countryside. Despite his enormous output, he never received due recognition. On 29 October 1966 he was found dead in his cottage of a coronary artery insufficiency due to atherosclerosis. His ashes were scattered at Barham crematorium. A plaque decorated with an orchid on Ivy Cottage commemorates his unassuming yet distinctive achievements:
Author & Naturalist.