The Orchid Man

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I owe the discovery of The Passing of a Hero and Conventional Weapons to a fellow-visitor to the London Library who, shrewdly interpreting the glazed stare of a fellow shelf-crawler, urged me to make my way to English fiction and look for Jocelyn Brooke.

Brooke is known today, although not widely, for three wartime novels – The Military Orchid, A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral, which were reissued in 1981 by Secker & Warburg as ‘The Orchid Trilogy’. Unashamedly autobiographical, they use the twin devices of orchids and fireworks, subjects on which Brooke had acquired a rich store of recondite knowledge, to tell the story of Brooke’s upbringing in Kent, his years at Oxford and his experiences as a soldier posted to Italy in the Second World War.

Seductively ironic, marvellous in their evocation of the tranquil English landscape to which Brooke thankfully returned in later life, the ‘Orchid’ novels celebrate the poignancy of beauty lost in the moment of its realization. The fireworks which glitter above the roofs of an Italian city in the second novel, A Mine of Serpents, are cunningly used to parallel the author’s descriptions of the elusive orchids for which many an intrepid plant-hunter lost his life and to which Brooke would gladly have devoted his. ‘I was more interested, at that time, in flowers, than in people,’ he observes in a revealing aside on his 7-year-old self. ‘Indeed, except in particular cases, I still am.’

This heightened fastidiousness is a hallmark of Brooke’s writing. The Scapegoat (1948), one of his most mysterious explorations of tenderness, terror and yearning in a child’s mind, describes the sensations of a young soldier who finds himself, in 1939, seated alone in a closed railway carriage with a weeping boy whose beauty and grief present him with an immediate challenge, a demand for an emotional response to such baffling angu

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About the contributor

Miranda Seymour is a novelist, critic and biographer whose most recent book, The Bugatti Queen, is available in paperback.

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