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Jocelyn Brooke’s The Image of a Drawn Sword: A Paradoxical Narrative of Dislocation

The Image of a Drawn Sword de Jocelyn Brooke ou les paradoxes d’un récit de dislocation
Catherine Hoffmann


Cet article s’interroge sur l’origine du trouble suscité chez la lectrice par le roman de Jocelyn Brooke, The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950). Renonçant au mode semi-autobiographique de ses autres récits, Brooke choisit une narration hétérodiégétique pour explorer les dislocations mentales, perceptives et communicationnelles qui affectent Reynard, le protagoniste, quelques années après la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Paradoxalement, ce récit de dislocation présente une surface stable et exploite la force rhétorique de la focalisation interne, de la narration chronologique et de la tension narrative pour placer la lectrice dans une situation cognitive et affective analogue à celle du personnage. L’irruption involontaire de Reynard dans un camp militaire à proximité de son village du Kent accroît les incertitudes diégétiques tandis que la tectonique transtextuelle perturbe la réception et rend problématique le positionnement esthétique et éthique par rapport au texte. En outre, bien que centré sur les dislocations d’un individu, le roman, en faisant d’une zone rurale le site du camp et de combats à venir, fissure l’idéal pastoral et révèle la militarisation de la campagne anglaise.

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Introduction: Why Fiction?

  • 1 I have analysed these aspects of Brooke’s work in a previous Ebc article. See Ebc 55, 2018.
  • 2 Brooke uses the same word in A Mine of Serpents to describe his own state in the pre-war period (Br (...)

1The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950) belongs to the most prolific period of Jocelyn Brooke’s production when, a few years after the Second World War, many of his best works appeared in quick succession. In all of them, Brooke (1908–1966) explores the connection between the topography of East Kent and the self’s inner territories,1 and evokes his experience in the British Army during the war and in 1947 when he re-enlisted. In The Image of a Drawn Sword, however, Brooke abandoned the semi-autobiographical mode of The Military Orchid (1948), A Mine of Serpents (1949) and The Goose Cathedral (1950), and, shifting to heterodiegetic narration, produced a suspenseful novel recording Reynard Langrish, the protagonist’s perception of his mental state, his environment and the unsettling events in which he gets involved in the aftermath of World War Two. The Image is something of a paradox, for, although fictional in form, it may well be, in some respects, ‘Brooke’s most autobiographical work’ (Powell 2010, 10). Fiction allows the author to express the protagonist’s feelings of disintegration,2 the dislocation of and alienation from his world, his homo-erotic and sado-masochistic fantasies in the condensed form of a short novel without the protective self-irony Brooke uses to treat the same material in his more overtly autobiographical works.

2This initial paradox, perceptible only in relation to Brooke’s main literary output, is compounded by others at the diegetic, narrative, and transtextual levels, which make the reading of The Image a disturbing experience. This essay will seek to account for the difficulty of positioning oneself as reader in relation to the text, aesthetically and ethically, as if the relative comforts of theory were undermined by a twin sense of guilt and intellectual failure induced by the suspicion that the difficulty may in part originate in the reader’s own fault-lines, an inability to thoroughly transcend the complex of emotions generated by the narrative. Yet, in this effort to understand the effects of the novel, it is to narrative theory that I have turned for help: mostly classical narratology as well as the rhetorical narratology of James Phelan, or to Raphaël Baroni’s study of narrative tension. Approaching The Image as a paradoxical narrative of dislocation, the essay will highlight the textual control exercised over the diegetic material and will then examine how internal focalization and chronological ordering contribute to the careful management of plot dynamics thus increasing narrative tension and heightening the reader’s emotional involvement. It will be further argued that transtextual tectonics combine with diegetic uncertainties to destabilise the reader’s expectations and response to the text. The final part will suggest that, though The Image is not literally a war novel, the protagonist’s psychic dislocations reflect the perceptual distortions of time and space experienced in war zones, while the novel itself undermines the pastoral ideal by revealing the continued militarisation of the English countryside.

Diegetic Dislocations under Narrative Control

3The term ‘dislocation’ is used in preference to ‘fault-lines’ in that it covers a wider semantic field, the following meanings listed in the New Shorter OED being especially appropriate to Brooke’s novel:

— gen. Displacement; removal from a proper (or former) position; geol. The fracture of strata with upheaval or subsidence; a result of this, a fault;
— Disarrangement of parts; a disordered state;
— Mil. The distribution of troops to a number of garrisons or stations.

  • 3 The concept, borrowed from James Phelan’s rhetorical model, is defined as ‘the observer position wi (...)

4The dislocations recorded in The Image concern the story-world and its perception by the protagonist, while—and this constitutes a second paradox—the narrative eschews fragmentation: no textual or stylistic experimental upheavals disrupt the surface of the heterodiegetic narrative, entirely focalised through Reynard, and chronologically ordered. The choices made by Brooke have crucial consequences in terms of the reading experience. The filtering of all information through Reynard’s consciousness combined with chronological telling entails a restriction of the narrating agency’s role to mere reporting and means that, at no point, does the reader know more than Reynard. We need not be on the brink of disintegration to experience cognitive uncertainty, mirroring his own, about causal links and the nature of diegetic events. The means employed by Brooke may be traditional, but this does not affect their rhetorical force, assigning us, as narrative audience,3 a position reflecting Reynard’s. In addition, the circumscribed spatio-temporal scope exacerbates a sense of claustrophobic oppression which affects the reading experience: the story-world is restricted to a small rural area of East Kent, the events take place shortly after the end of World War II over a period of about six months, and the cast of characters is limited to fewer than twenty, mostly soldiers of various ranks. We shall see, however, that the corseted temporal framework tends to burst at the seams.

5From the outset, Reynard is presented as suffering from a sense of inner disintegration and disjunction between mind and body, the symptoms of which are often conveyed in spatial, visual and geological simile: thus, he felt ‘as though the several parts of himself lay scattered about the perimeter of a gradually widening circle’ (Brooke 2010a, 17–18), or ‘as though, within his brain, some seismic disturbance was taking place’ (18). This leads to perceptual and emotional alienation from the surrounding world, ‘as though he were living under a glass bell, through which he was able to perceive the normal features of the world, but which prohibited him from any direct contact with it’ (14). The repetition of ‘as though’ underlines the sense of perceptual disjunction and unbridgeable gap between feeling and expression. Reynard’s state of mind at the start of the narrative seems to echo the dysphoric atmosphere of the immediate post-war period in England. Invalided out of the Army during the war, he finds the routine of his life as a bank clerk, sharing his mother’s house in a village, increasingly unbearable. A sudden upheaval occurs when, on a stormy night, Roy Archer, a young officer, appears on the doorstep. The subsequent series of events involves Reynard in Roy’s world of rough masculinity through attendance at a boxing match and physical training in the context of a mysterious state of emergency. The initial excitement felt by Reynard gives way to a nightmarish experience when, on one of his walks, he enters a disused dug-out and emerges into an Army camp. There he discovers he has been enlisted without his knowledge. This situation—incomprehensible for the protagonist and for the reader—intensifies mental, perceptual and communicative dislocations, accentuating Reynard’s distorted perception of time and place, undermining his already shaky hold on reality and troubling the reader’s cognitive processing of the narrative along coherent generic lines.

6Although Reynard’s reported thoughts register in almost clinical manner the symptoms of his psychological state, its deep causes remain vague. Added to the vocabulary of faulty sensory perception is one relating to moral flaws with repeated use of terms referring to guilt, remorse, lack of will-power and the temptation to surrender to unspecified forces: ‘A strange recklessness overcame him: a passionate desire to surrender to every impulse, to throw aside, for once, the self-imposed restrictions which bound him to his diurnal, spiritless routine’ (82).

7Though Roy’s visit and the ensuing training period reconnect Reynard to ‘the life of the body’ (32), these events further alter his relation to reality: his perception of what happened is regularly contradicted by the words or behaviour of others, especially Roy who later on treats him as a stranger so that Reynard comes to think that ‘perhaps his whole complex relationship with Roy was an illusion’ (60).

  • 4 The image echoes the title of chapter two, ‘Parted in the Middle’, which refers to Archer’s haircut (...)

8A newly erected barbed-wire fence in the plantation through which Reynard is in the habit of walking materialises a fundamental crack in the fabric of his world. Parting the familiar landscape in the middle,4 it also disconnects the recent past from the present once he has emerged into the Army camp beyond the plantation: ‘He felt . . . obscurely, that the passage of time had become subtly deranged: it seemed months, years almost, since he had entered the dug-out’ (88). The world of the village and his mother’s house are now literally out of bounds and appear remote both in time and space, ‘curiously diminished, as though seen through the wrong end of a telescope’ (115). If, with time, only his life in the Army comes to seem real to Reynard, it is punctuated by scenes of communicative dislocation. There are earlier signs of this in Roy’s conversations with Reynard about his enlistment but once he finds himself in the camp, the narrative extensively reports exchanges with other men, characterised by incomprehension on both sides. No common ground and shared terms of reference can be established between Reynard, clinging to civilian peacetime rationality and the soldiers who keep stating the rules enforced under the unexplained state of emergency. The process works both ways as the others, whatever their rank, fail to grasp the point of Reynard’s discourse, so that ‘the very currency of language seemed to have become inflated: one word seemed of as much value as another, none would express what he wanted to say’ (89). Those repeated failures enhance the enigma of the circumstances surrounding Reynard’s enlistment and increase his and the reader’s doubts about the reality of his recent experiences which no one can or will corroborate. Thus, Spike Mandeville, now his fellow soldier, cannot remember having met him during the boxing tournament or while Reynard was training, a few weeks earlier, two episodes narrated in detail in chapters 3 and 7:

‘Hut? What hut?’
‘You know—the hut where we were training—up on the Glamber Downs, by the Roman Camp. You were one of the instructors.’
‘Hold it a minute, chum. You’re getting me muddled. Glamber you say—oh, ay, I’ve got you. It must have been when the battalion was there in ‘forty-one.’
‘No, no—it was only a few months ago.’ (95)

9Spike eventually agrees that they might have met long ago, ‘Nigh on ten years’ (95), which forces the reader to reconsider the diegetic reality presented in those earlier chapters.

Dynamic Variations: Plot Progression and Psychic Moods

10The narrative features mentioned earlier combine with a careful management of narrative tension—a term I borrow from Raphaël Baroni—to elicit in the reader a mixture of curiosity and suspenseful apprehension and desire:

La tension est le phénomène qui survient lorsque l’interprète d’un récit est encouragé à attendre un dénouement, cette attente étant caractérisée par une anticipation teintée d’incertitude qui confère des traits passionnels à l’acte de réception. La tension narrative sera ainsi considérée comme un effet poétique qui structure le récit et l’on reconnaîtra en elle l’aspect dynamique ou la ‘force’ de ce que l’on a coutume d’appeler une intrigue. (Baroni 18)

11Though The Image does not provide the kind of closure which resolves readerly uncertainties, this does not invalidate Baroni’s argument since our emotional involvement in the narrative depends on plot dynamics and narrative tension. As already observed, the restriction of information and field of perception entailed by the chronological order of the narrative and by internal focalisation positions the reader in a cognitive situation of uncertainty similar to that of the protagonist which metaleptically unites the fictional character and the audience across the ontological divide. Baroni underlines the emotional force of this in his chapter on suspense: ‘le couple incertitude/anticipation qui connote la tension narrative prend . . . une tonalité ‘affective’ particulière du fait de l’homologie entre les situations épistémiques et temporelles de l’interprète et des personnages’ (271).

12Tension builds up through the multiplication of ominous enigmatic sounds and sights: the sound of a bugle from an unexpected direction, the barbed-wire fence suddenly closing off a public path, signs suggesting affiliation to a secret brotherhood, especially the tattoo on the arm of various male characters, representing a serpent curled around a sword, the image of the novel’s title. The narrative leaves unanswered the questions raised as the plot progresses, concerning among others the nature and cause of the emergency, or the identity of the enemy. Plot dynamics undergo variations in intensity, with uneventful returns to routine corresponding to dysphoric states affecting Reynard. Textually, such periods, extending to a few days or even a few weeks, contrast with vivid scenes of action and/or dialogue covering very short periods of story-time. After Roy’s initial appearance, a succession of key events, increasingly triggered by Reynard’s own actions, rekindles plot dynamics: Reynard’s decision to enter the dug-out leading into the Army camp, the receipt of an official form seemingly relating to his mother’s health, his subsequent attempt to break bounds, his second escape which triggers a manhunt, and Roy’s second visit to his mother’s house where Reynard, unaware of his identity, kills him. The unfolding of events is thus framed by Roy’s two visits to the house, a design which imposes aesthetic and emotional coherence on the incoherent story-world conveyed to the reader through the filter of the protagonist’s mental and perceptual dislocations.

13The relationship of plot dynamics to Reynard’s moods fluctuating between the extremes of euphoria and dysphoria often appears paradoxical. Even though the event of his unexplained enlistment intensifies his confusion about what constitutes reality, his initial sense of disintegration undergoes fluctuations rather than evolving in one clear direction. Sometimes, two contrary states coexist, stretching Reynard’s psyche between fear and desire, repulsion and attraction in a tense oxymoronic juxtaposition, signaled by expressions such as ‘half-fearing, half-hoping’ (Brooke 2010a, 43, 63), or by more elaborate descriptions of his ‘extraordinary mixture of feelings’ (64) and ambivalence towards Army life ‘which he dreaded yet profoundly desired’ (65). Most striking is the oscillation between the nightmarish moments when Reynard, terrified at the prospect of physical punishment for breaking Army rules, loses control of his body, and moments of well-being he experiences in the camp: ‘a sense of warm, relaxed well-being stole over him: he felt almost happy . . . Reynard was aware, once again, of a curious sense of relief, a perverse and inexplicable joy at his enforced servitude’ (105).

14His psychic progress is framed by two short passages sounding an almost similar note of elation and uncharacteristic determination, respectively at the end of chapter one and the close of the novel:

Reynard stepped out with a sudden briskness, feeling an unaccustomed pride in his forbears, and in the curious name which had descended to him from the last owner of the manor. Reynard—it was the badge of his cunning, a totem-symbol, strengthening him in his guerilla war against the powers which oppressed him. He crossed the village street, and walked on towards his home with a new confidence—secure in the guardianship of his totem, the fox. (15)

Reynard paused a moment longer, filled suddenly with a serene happiness such as he had never known before; his will unflinching, strong in his purpose: aware that past and future were fused at last in the living moment.
He turned, and walked forward with a firm step towards the camp. (143)

15This circularity is deceptive, and the last lines of the novel do not return the protagonist to his starting point. In the first passage, Reynard’s ephemeral confidence and energy originate in a sense of lineage and rootedness in a place as well as in childhood magical belief. In the final paragraphs, the past, in the form of his mother’s house, his mother herself and even Roy Archer, is reduced to nothingness. As for the future towards which Reynard is walking with such euphoric determination, it holds no promise but that of death, whether by execution or in combat. Progress of a sort there is, however, in that Reynard moves from the status of patient, submitting to internal and external forces, to that of agent whose actions accelerate plot progression. This evolution towards what is presented in the closing paragraphs as a victory over inner dislocation, is of a paradoxical nature, for Reynard achieves his victory by killing two men, first a corporal of Military Police, then Roy Archer who dies in his arms, after making him promise to ‘go through with it’ (142), that is go back to the camp and face punishment. Reynard’s elation at the end of the novel is therefore of a dubious kind since it springs from acceptance of self-sacrifice, in compliance with Roy’s final request. The configuration of narrative tension in the last chapters elicits ethical and aesthetic complications at the receiving end. Although there is no alteration to internal focalisation and chronology, the cognitive and affective companionship with the protagonist which these features have encouraged in the audience is jeopardised in the final chapters by the paradoxical axiology of Reynard’s reactions. Whereas in the earlier chapters the narrative reports mostly his negative feelings of irresolution, guilt, remorse and general dislocation, his elation at the end connotes positively his violent actions and forthcoming surrender to more violence. Ethical complications experienced mostly by the reader as narrative audience are compounded by the difficulties arising from generic undecidability which affect primarily our efforts as actual readers to determine how the text positions its authorial audience, defined in Phelan’s rhetorical model as ‘the author’s ideal reader’, the audience which ‘the flesh and blood reader seeks to enter . . . in order to understand the invitations for engagement that the narrative offers’ (Phelan 2007, 210).

Transtextual5 Tectonics

  • 5 Genette defines transtextuality as ‘[la] transcendance textuelle du texte’ (Genette 1982, 7), ‘tout (...)

16In Brooke’s semi-autobiographical works, generic hybridity presents no difficulty and contributes in fact to the pleasure of the reading experience. Besides, these works abound in explicit references to other writings and genres in the form of quotations, critical evaluation or acknowledgement of their influence on Brooke. The Image is a very different case since the only overt instance of intertextuality is the epigraph, a quotation in Old English from Beowulf.

  • 6 Here again I use Genette’s terminology, hypertextuality referring to ‘toute relation unissant un te (...)
  • 7 ‘Ce qui rythme concrètement la narration, ce qui . . . en configure le sens, c’est la relation tens (...)

17Even in translation, the lines and their relation to the narrative of The Image remain enigmatic. If anything, the epigraph accentuates in retrospect the transtextual instability of the narrative. Indeed, the diegetic uncertainties are connected to the tensions generated, in the course of reading, by the various generic and hypertextual6 strata superimposed in the novel which obscure our horizon of expectation.7 In what may be an oblique, and exceptional, metatextual comment, Reynard, trying to state his case to the Company Officer, becomes aware that ‘his strange story . . . must sound . . . fantastically implausible’ (Brooke 2010a, 111), which could equally apply to the narrative, with its slippery genericity. The chapter headings—all of them quotations from the text of the chapters—give an indication of this hybridity and instability, some referring to actual plants (for instance, chapter 12 ‘The Patch of Alexanders’), some relating to the Army and/or to physical violence (19, ‘A Fight to the Death’), others suggesting a poetic yet sinister otherworld (9, ‘Like Some Unhappy Ghost’).

The novel opens reassuringly with a vignette of rural England at sunset:
The autumnal dusk was thickening across the valley as Reynard Langrish . . . began to walk down the lane towards the village. The lane was bordered on one side by a plantation of beeches, between whose straight, slender boles the sunset sky gleamed with a watery brightness; on the other side fields sloped gently down to the valley where, muffled among trees, the village showed indeterminately, hazed with the river mists. (13)

  • 8 ‘The light streamed out through the open doorway, kindling to a sudden brilliance the sharp, slanti (...)
  • 9 The text is punctuated by references to Clambercrown increasingly pointing towards impending confli (...)

18This pastoral strand is soon fractured by other generic affiliations: with the fantastic or uncanny, starting with Roy’s appearance in the storm,8 with dream narratives, and narratives of Army life. As suggested by the title of the first chapter, ‘His Totem, the Fox’, there is also an echo of boys’ adventure stories. In this respect, the choice of Clambercrown as the heart of the military topography9 of The Image is significant to readers of Brooke’s other works. The place, real though unmarked on the Ordnance map, had haunted Brooke as a child and adolescent, and he was later to publish one of his autobiographical narratives under the title The Dog at Clambercrown (1955). In the novel, the author exploits the fictional potential of this site of childhood fantasies and, in part at least, provides an adult version of the ‘lurid ghost-story’ set in this mysterious place which Brooke ‘related with considerable gusto to the boys in [his] dormitory’ (Brooke 2010b, 175).

19The Image is also a tragic love-story, a literalisation of Oscar Wilde’s lines in The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

The man had killed the thing he loved
And so he had to die.
Yet each man kills the thing he loves.
. . .
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword. (Wilde 412)

20As in an ancient tragedy, Reynard, unaware of Roy’s identity, fatally injures the man to whom he has, from the start, been attracted. This violent action restores his belief in the reality of Roy’s existence and finally brings the two men into tender physical contact in a sentimental ‘death-bed’ scene with homo-erotic undertones:

[Reynard] fell to his knees and, with a sudden passion of tenderness, raised the heavy body from the floor, resting the head against his shoulder. With his free hand, he touched the pallid face . . . Gently he unbuttoned the tunic and shirt, and laid his hand on the warm flesh above the heart. A faint, almost imperceptible pulse throbbed beneath his fingers. (Brooke 2010a, 141)

  • 10 Developing this point would far exceed the scope and subject of the present essay.

21As stated earlier, the text makes no explicit reference to specific literary works though it was tempting for Brooke’s contemporaries to label The Image ‘Kafkaesque’: Powell for instance calls it a ‘Kafka-like novel’ (Powell 2002, 2). While the nightmarish spiral in which Reynard gets caught up is reminiscent of the fate of Joseph K. in The Trial, the differences between the two works are more striking than their similarities.10 Besides, Brooke insisted that he had always found Kafka unreadable (Brooke 2002b, 422). Anyway, hypertextual relations can only be hypothetically detected by the actual audience on the basis of elements, be they diegetic or textual, present in the novel and on the assumption that both author and reader share a common literary encyclopedia. Thus, it seems legitimate to perceive echoes of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the crucial moment when Reynard enters the dug-out—a militarised version of the rabbit-hole—after eating the enticing leaves of a plant growing near its entrance, a botanical analogue to the cake bearing the EAT ME label, though here the narrative alters and condenses the sequence in Alice:

Near the entrance, a patch of bright, glossy leaves caught his attention . . . He recognized the plant—it was the herb called ‘Alexanders’ . . . Knowing the plant to be edible . . . he picked a succulent leaf-stalk, and rapidly ate it . . .
He turned towards the entrance to the dug-out . . ., he stepped forward and, without an instant’s hesitation, plunged through the crumbling doorway, down a couple of steps, on the piled beech-leaves within. (Brooke 2010a, 83)

22Unlike Alice, however, Reynard does not wake up at the end to find that his adventures in khakiland were just a dream—like the bad one he recalls upon emerging out of the dug-out: ‘some perilous dream of falling over a precipice. Just as in the dream, the sensation was enough to shock him into complete ‘wakefulness’—or at least into an objective awareness of his surroundings’ (84). This awareness, conveyed in vivid sensory, realistic, or referential details, prevents any straightforward reading of The Image as a dream or hallucinatory narrative. On the one hand, the uncanny, even horrific situations, never accounted for by a rational resolution, continue in retrospect to destabilise our perception of the ‘reality’ of the story-world in which Reynard may or not be dreaming, may or may not have trained with Spike and been friends with Roy.

23On the other hand, the affiliation with the fantastic and with dream narrative is undermined by the accuracy of botanical vignettes and by the minute recording of acute sensations, often relating to physical repulsion. The evocation of the corporal’s smell—‘a faint bestial taint of dried sweat, tobacco, stale urine’ (87)—together with close observation of the natural environment of the camp seem to confirm the physical reality of the fictional world: ‘The corporal’s grip on his arm, the rank soldier-smell which came off his body, were too real to be the stuff of nightmare; so too, . . . , were the budding hedges, . . . , the patch of red dead-nettle in bloom at the path’s edge’ (87). References to Reynard’s unpleasant physical reactions (nausea, spasms, excruciating need to urinate, loss of bodily control) act as additional proofs of a factual reality and prevent interpretation of events as mere products of Reynard’s imagination.

  • 11 ‘The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been (...)

24The foundations of this precarious generic edifice are further eroded by excesses in the handling of the horrific and by inconsistencies which fracture the initial temporal/historical framework along fantastic fault-lines. When, shortly after receiving the official form about his mother’s health, Reynard returns to her house, its utter dereliction and the advanced state of decomposition of Mrs Langrish’s body appear implausible from a temporal perspective: ‘The room was indeed his mother’s sitting-room, but as it might appear after months or years of neglect’ (139). Gruesome details accumulate, including the description of a putrefying meal reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake in Great Expectations:11

Upon the table . . . were laid out the paraphernalia of a meal—knife and fork, cup and saucer, a plate carefully covered with a cloth.  . . . Reynard pulled aside the square of dust-grimed, damp-spotted linen: revealing a putrefied mess of food—. . ., a square of mildewed bread, a piece of meat pullulating with maggots  . . . he realized that the meal must have been laid ready for him by his mother—but how long ago? (139)

25The past in the shape of Mrs Langrish’s house and Mrs Langrish herself, one of the very rare women characters, is thus disposed of and reduced to decomposing matter. As for the male figures of the corporal of Military Police and Roy Archer, they do not fare any better. The last three chapters thus externalise disintegration, intensify and condense the physical violence sporadically manifested in the sparring contests or in the threat of corporal punishment. On two occasions, Reynard faces the prospect of being lashed, the first time he is ‘liable . . . to . . . two hundred strokes of the cat-o’-nine-tails’ (92), the second time he is sentenced by Archer, now a colonel, to ‘one hundred lashes and fourteen days’ field punishment’ (124). This, together with the practice of impressment as described by Spike Mandeville and suggested by Reynard’s enlistment, explodes the referential framework as Brooke’s novel transposes to the post-war British Army practices current in the Navy and Army of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries. Beyond the sado-masochistic fantasies at play here, the fusing of past and present military life lends a sinister dystopian dimension to a novel not only concerned with its protagonist’s inner conflicts but also with the prospect of renewed war and the permanence of a military presence in rural England.

A Khaki World in Rural Kent

26While the narrative centres ostensibly on the protagonist’s psyche, uncertainties arising from Reynard’s perceptual and mental dislocations, and tensions caused by transtextual instabilities, should not obscure the subversive dimension of a novel registering in its own fantastical way anxieties about renewed war after 1945. Besides, as Mark Rawlinson argues in his essay on Brooke and England’s militarised landscape, it records the traces left on the rural landscape of Kent by previous wars and the continuing presence of troops.

27Reynard’s troubled perceptions often echo ‘the warping of civilian space-time by the powers of menace’ which Adam Piette regards as characteristic of war zones (Piette 38). The area beyond the village has not yet become a war zone—the ‘show’ is about to begin as the novel ends—but the sharp divides of time and space experienced by Reynard are similar to those mentioned by Kate McLoughlin when she quotes War and Peace: ‘that terrible dividing line of uncertainty and fear’ which cuts off the war zone from its surroundings and from everyday civilian life (McLoughlin 83). In this light, Reynard’s mental and perceptual dislocations no longer seem mere idiosyncratic manifestations of a disturbed personality. McLoughlin also observes that war reconfigures time, ‘felt as an immeasurable and directionless present, removed from temporal markers’ (119). Of particular relevance to The Image is her argument that, rather than interpreting wartime as subjective time, opposed to objective time, it is more fitting to understand it as a non-linear ‘layered temporal experience in which two or more mutually incompatible outcomes hang simultaneously in the balance’ (120). When, at the close of the final chapter, ‘The Living Moment’, Reynard leaves behind the ruins of the past, his Horatian enjoyment of the present constitutes the last narratable moment of his existence: whether he walks towards the excruciating pain and humiliation of corporal punishment, or towards death, his life and death ‘hang in the balance’, the latter outcome being the most likely.

28While The Image is not literally a war novel, much of its last third relates to a tradition of narratives of Army life, foregrounding military rituals, jargon, absurd procedures and incomprehensible forms, and giving pride of place to dialogue between soldiers.

29An all-male homosocial world, yet thoroughly homophobic in its language and conception of masculinity, the post-war Army of The Image exists in sharp separation from the adjacent civilian world with which there is no communication (Reynard’s letters to his mother for instance never receive an answer and might never have reached her), a frontier materialised by the barbed-wire fence. The location of troops, Army manoeuvres and the forthcoming theatre of war in the heart of rural Kent rather than at the remote, exotic confines of a imaginary state, is one of the aspects distinguishing The Image from a group of European novels written during or shortly after World War II, among which it could otherwise be included. In these, as in Brooke’s novel, the narrative focuses on a protagonist and his fellow-soldiers who spend the duration of the story waiting for war to break out with a vaguely defined enemy. Well-known instances are Buzzati’s The Desert of the Tartars (1940) and Gracq’s Le Rivage des Syrtes (1951), their titles suggesting not only exoticism but also historical remoteness.

  • 12 Orwell’s novel was published in 1949, a year before The Image.

30In The Image, the territory around the village, with its downs and valleys, its parkland, pastures and woodland, offers no pastoral retreat either from the city where Reynard worked before his enlistment or from the Army. The pastoral illusion is brutally destroyed by the erection of the fence and the setting up of the camp. Yet, these are mere contemporary additions to the traces left on the rural landscape by past military presence, from the earthworks of the Roman Camp where Reynard trains with Roy to the disused World-War-Two dug-outs in the plantation. The fence and camp therefore do not violate some a-historical purity of the English countryside but confirm its continuing militarisation. ‘Brooke’s vision of rural England’, Rawlinson contends, ‘modifies the relationship between the pastoral and war’ in that ‘the military transformation of place . . . is not contingent on wartime exigency . . . . The military presence becomes . . . a core element of English nature in its function as a component of cultural identity’ (Rawlinson 115). In its own peculiar way, The Image debunks the myth of an idyllic English countryside which British soldiers were encouraged to protect by fighting wars abroad. In the novel, rural Kent is not only the site where preparations for the next war get under way as they did in the past: it is also to become the battlefield. The early metaphor of Reynard’s inner ‘guerilla war’ (Brooke 2010a, 15) against personal dislocation will thus become literalised and transformed into the forthcoming collective dislocations of war. There seems to be no possible retreat from war especially if, as the company officer tells Reynard ‘there’s surely not much distinction nowadays between being at war and being at peace’ (Brooke 2010a, 110) with the concomitant that, in the words of the same officer, ‘all law is martial law nowadays—in fact it always was. All law, that’s to say, is backed ultimately by force’ (110). In recognizing the ambiguity of words and their referents, and the concealed foundations of power, the officer’s statements are more chilling than the antiphrastic slogans of the Ministry of Truth in 1984.12


  • 13 See Peter Stockwell’s assertion, based on general models of human communication: ‘most literary wor (...)
  • 14 Peter Brooks observes that ‘If we cannot do without plots, we nonetheless feel uneasy about them’ ((...)

31The attempt to account for the disturbing experience of reading The Image of a Drawn Sword leads at best to tentative answers. The difficulty of positioning oneself in relation to the text appears to derive from a hypertrophy of one’s role as narrative audience whose emotional involvement in the diegetic world is activated by internal focalisation and narrative tension. In contrast, the authorial audience and actual reader in her role as analyst are relegated to a situation of aesthetic and ethical uncertainty which can be attributed to the destabilising effects of transtextual tectonics and the resulting difficulty, or even impossibility, of identifying a preferred response encoded in the text.13 The suspicion arises that, in spite of its apparently conventional narrative form, the text encodes no such response, and, perversely, prevents this form of communication with its readers. It may be that, in The Image, Brooke was not only using fiction to reconfigure ‘the ambivalent motives behind his own sequence of enlistments as a political nightmare’ (Rawlinson 117) but was simultaneously indulging with gusto in the pleasures of telling a frightening story, thus holding his audience in thrall and inducing our own guilty pleasure of ‘reading for the plot’.14

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Baroni, Raphaël, La Tension narrative. Suspense, curiosité et surprise, Paris: Seuil, 2007.

Brooke, Jocelyn, A Mine of Serpents (1949), The Military Orchid and Other Novels, London: Penguin, 2002a.

Brooke, Jocelyn, The Goose Cathedral (1950), The Military Orchid and Other Novels, London: Penguin, 2002b.

Brooke, Jocelyn, The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950), London: Faber & Faber, 2010a.

Brooke, Jocelyn, The Dog at Clambercrown (1955), London: Faber & Faber, 2010b.

Brooks, Peter, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984.

Carroll, Lewis, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), The Annotated Alice, ed. Martin Gardner, London: Penguin, 2001.

Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations (1861), New York: Norton, 1999.

Genette, Gérard, Palimpsestes. La littérature au second degré, Paris: Seuil, 1982.

Genette, Gérard, Introduction à l’architexte (1979), Théorie des genres, Paris: Seuil, 1986, 89-159.

Hoffmann, Catherine, ‘Jocelyn Brooke’s Country: “Topologies of the Self”’, Études britanniques contemporaines 55 (2018), last accessed at on May 4, 2021.

McLoughlin, Kate, Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Illiad to Iraq, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

Phelan, James, ‘Rhetoric/Ethics’, The Cambridge Companion to Narrative, ed. David Herman, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007, 203–16.

Phelan, James, ‘Authors, Resources, Audiences: Toward a Rhetorical Poetics’, Style 52.1–2 (2018): 1–34.

Piette, Adam, ‘War Zones’, The Cambridge Companion to War Writing, ed. Kate McLoughlin, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009, 38–46.

Powell, Anthony, Introduction to The Military Orchid and Other Novels (1981), London: Penguin, 2002.

Powell, Anthony, Introduction to The Image of a Drawn Sword (1983), London: Faber & Faber, 2010.

Rawlinson, Mark, ‘Wild Soldiers: Jocelyn Brooke and England’s Militarised Landscape’, The Fiction of the 1940s: Stories of Survival, eds. Roy Mengham and N.H. Reeve, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001, 101–23.

Stockwell, Peter, ‘The Positioned Reader’, Language and Literature 22.3 (2013): 263–77.

Wilde, Oscar, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, (1898), Oscar Wilde’s Plays, Prose Writings, and Poems, London: Dent, 1972.

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1 I have analysed these aspects of Brooke’s work in a previous Ebc article. See Ebc 55, 2018.

2 Brooke uses the same word in A Mine of Serpents to describe his own state in the pre-war period (Brooke 1949, 253). In fact, the whole passage (252–54) confirms the autobiographical dimension of The Image.

3 The concept, borrowed from James Phelan’s rhetorical model, is defined as ‘the observer position within the storyworld adopted by the actual audience’ (Phelan 2018, 8). See also Phelan 2007, 210.

4 The image echoes the title of chapter two, ‘Parted in the Middle’, which refers to Archer’s haircut (21).

5 Genette defines transtextuality as ‘[la] transcendance textuelle du texte’ (Genette 1982, 7), ‘tout ce qui le met en relation, manifeste ou secrète, avec d’autres textes’ (Genette 1986, 157).

6 Here again I use Genette’s terminology, hypertextuality referring to ‘toute relation unissant un texte B (. . . hypertexte) à un texte antérieur A (. . . hypotext) sur lequel il se greffe d’une manière qui n’est pas celle du commentaire’ (Genette 1982, 13). Given the undeclared and localised nature of hypertextual relations in The Image, I am, however, using the term in looser sense than Genette who mostly applies it to cases of ‘massive derivation’ (Genette 1982, 19).

7 ‘Ce qui rythme concrètement la narration, ce qui . . . en configure le sens, c’est la relation tensive entre une activité interprétative fondée sur notre mémoire encyclopédique—sur un horizon d’attente configuré en partie par un répertoire de textes connus—et l’actualisation effective d’un texte, qui fournit des indices induisant le recours à tel ou tel cadre interprétatif déterminé, mais qui est susceptible en même temps de manifester un écart plus ou moins marqué avec nos attentes de sens’ (Baroni 239–40). In the case of The Image, the question is not so much one of discrepancy as multiplicity and instability of such frames.

8 ‘The light streamed out through the open doorway, kindling to a sudden brilliance the sharp, slanting needles of the rain. Against this bright, metallic curtain stood the tall figure of a young man: framed in the narrow doorway, he seemed immense, larger than life—a visionary being conjured out of the night’s wildness’ (Brooke 2010a, 19).

9 The text is punctuated by references to Clambercrown increasingly pointing towards impending conflict. The place turns out to be both the military area of Reynard’s unit, the location of ‘the other lot’s’ advance HQ (118, 141) and, finally the theatre of war where ‘the show’ will begin (143).

10 Developing this point would far exceed the scope and subject of the present essay.

11 ‘The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; . . . as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it . . .’ (Dickens 69).

12 Orwell’s novel was published in 1949, a year before The Image.

13 See Peter Stockwell’s assertion, based on general models of human communication: ‘most literary works have an encoded, text-driven preferred response’ (Stockwell 269).

14 Peter Brooks observes that ‘If we cannot do without plots, we nonetheless feel uneasy about them’ (Brooks 7). Brooks’s Reading for the Plot and, more recently, Baroni’s study of narrative tension, have restored the legitimacy of plot as a dynamic force in reading.

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Catherine Hoffmann, « Jocelyn Brooke’s The Image of a Drawn Sword: A Paradoxical Narrative of Dislocation »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 64 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Hoffmann

Catherine Hoffmann, formerly Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Le Havre, now retired, has published essays in France, Britain, the USA, mostly on Anthony Powell, William Gerhardie, Jocelyn Brooke, and Dermot Healy. She has co-edited Representing Wars 1860 to the Present: Fields of Action, Fields of Vision (Brill-Rodopi, 2018). Her most recent publications include ‘Death to the Music of Time: Reticence in Anthony Powell’s Mediated Narratives of Death’ in The Routledge Companion to Death and Literature (2021), and ‘Phatic, Polemical, and Metaleptic Addresses to Readers in William Gerhardie’s The Polyglots’ in The Rhetoric of Literary Communication (Routledge, 2022).

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