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Jocelyn Brooke: The Orchid Trilogy

This trilogy is almost as much autobiography as novel but, as Brooke has pointed out, the names have been changed, incidents and characters merged and a fictional gloss applied, so we will consider it as an autobiographical novel. The three novels go over more or less the same time period but look at different aspects of his story, but clearly overlap.

Brooke’s story is relatively straightforward. He was a somewhat precious child, with a father who ran a successful wine business. Very early in life, he became interested in botany and, in particular, the orchid. The eponymous military orchid in fact refers to a real and very rare orchid that Brooke looks for and does find (on more than one occasion). Indeed, his botanical ramblings are a core part of the three novels. As he admits, he finds plants more interesting than people.

He is sent to a British public school when young and runs away twice in the first two weeks and then is sent to an easier school which allows him more time to pursue botany and avoid sports. After school he goes to Oxford and then enters his father’s wine business, which he hates. Fortunately for him, after other abortive career attempts, the war intervenes and he joins up. His army adventures – he joins up as a private not an officer – also form a key part of the novel. He ends up in a VD unit in Italy, which provides a rich source of stories. After the war, to everyone’s surprise, to avoid a real job and to have a certain easy structure to his life, he re-enlists and continues in the army till his writing career takes off and he can buy himself out.

Despite a not very exciting life, Brooke does tell a very good tale. He is not ashamed to show his own weaknesses and, at the same time, has a good eye for what is worthwhile and what is not. His love of botany and literature come through very strongly and he draws us into this love, even if we find orchids and 1920s literature boring.

Publishing history

First published 1948 (The Military Orchid); 1949 (A Mine of Serpents) and 1950 (The Goose Cathedral) by Bodley Head