The Shooting Party

In which I review The Shooting Party, Isobel Colegate’s 1980 novel about a group of aristocrats gathered for a weekend shooting party at a country estate, shortly before the outbreak of World War One.

What it’s about: Northamptonshire, England, 1913. Sir Randolph Nettleby invites a party of guests to a weekend shooting party at Nettleby Park, his country estate. Randolph is a traditionalist who wishes to preserve the feudal values of country life, and is well-known for the high quality of his shooting parties, attracting high society guests (including the former King Edward VII, with whom his wife Minnie is rumoured to have had an affair). His guests include Lord Gilbert Hartlip and his wife Lady Aline, whose infidelities are as well known as his skill at shooting; Lionel Stephens, an ambitious young barrister; Lord Bob Lilburn and his much younger wife Lady Olivia; and Count Rakassyi, a Hungarian aristocrat. The three-day shoot is overseen by the gamekeeper Glass and his teenaged son Dan. Glass is also a traditionalist, who has refused Randolph’s offer to pay for Dan’s education. A series of tensions and romantic entanglements unravel over the weekend: Randolph disapproves of the “unsportsmanlike” rivalry between Gilbert and Lionel for the title of best shot, and contends with Cornelius Cardew, an animal rights activist who protests the shoot. Lionel falls in love with Olivia and finally tells confesses his feelings, only to be rejected. The house footman John finds a discarded love letter of Lionel’s and readdresses it to Ellen, a lady’s maid, who is similarly unimpressed. Count Rakassyi flirts with Randolph’s eldest granddaughter Cicely, and invites her to visit him in Hungary. Meanwhile Osbert, Cicely’s youngest brother, searches frantically for his missing pet duck, whom he tries to save from the guns. On the final day of the shoot, Lionel accidentally shoots a beater named Tom Harker, who dies in Sir Randolph’s arms. The shoot is cancelled, the guests disperse and Cicely refuses Rakassyi. The only happy member of the family is Osbert, who is reunited with his duck. In a coda, we learn of the characters’ fates: Gilbert is cleared of responsibility for Harker’s death, but loses his social standing, and he and Aline emigrate to South Africa. Lionel is killed in the war, and Olivia strikes up a friendship with his grieving mother. Cardew has a crisis of faith and becomes a monk. Randolph lives to an old age, lamenting the new post-War age of “striking industrial workers, screaming suffragettes, Irish terrorists, scandals on the Stock Exchange [and] universal suffrage“, while Osbert grows up to become an artist.

Why it’s a classic: The Shooting Party was Coleman’s ninth novel, and her most successful, winning the prestigious W H Smith Literary Award in 1981. Its publication coincided with the rise of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, a period that stimulated cultural nostalgia for rose-tinted depictions of the landed gentry and the hey-day of the British Empire. Just a year later, ITV had a massive success with a TV serialisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which has a similarly elegiac view of the English aristocracy as an endangered species, stumbling glamorously towards their own extinction. The Shooting Party was filmed in 1985 by Alan Bridges, capitalising on the recent success of costume dramas like Brideshead and the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E M Forster’s A Room With a View, and featured a starry cast including James Mason, John Gielgud and Edward Fox. Julian Fellowes also cites The Shooting Party as a major influence on his screenplay for Gosford Park, which it resembles so strongly in plot and tone that it’s a minor scandal Colegate wasn’t given a film credit. Fellowes acknowledges this in a type of mea culpa in his Foreword to the Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Since then, Colegate has rather fallen from public view, though there’s been a recent rediscovery of her work – her Orlando King novel trilogy, a reworking of the Oedipus myth in mid-century England, has been republished by Bloomsbury, and New Zealand’s own Eleanor Catton is adapting Coleman’s debut novel The Blackmailer as a TV series. (Let’s hope it’s better than Catton’s dreary adaptation of her own novel The Luminaries).

Bouquet or Brickbat: Not a brickbat, but not quite a full bouquet, either – maybe a single rose, withering on the stem. Kate Camp, one of my favourite book reviewers, often comments on how familiar novels like The Shooting Party can seem to lovers of English literature, which is weird, since stories of aristos swanning about in grand houses has nothing to do with modern life as we know it. That sense of literary familiarity with the aristocratic world is both a curse and a blessing when reading The Shooting Party. On one hand, we’re reminded of all the other writers (Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Powell) who cover the same territory with far more style and impact; on the other hand, some familiarity with the country house novel as a genre allows us to notice how Colegate deals with the material and what her particular points of interest are.

There’s certainly a lot to enjoy about The Shooting Party, especially the whodunnit that Colegate sets up, announcing the death of one of the characters on the first page, but not identifying the victim. This injects some urgency into what’s otherwise a rather langorously-paced story, and Colegate has fun dropping clues about who the victim might be: the very strange little boy Osbert, the cherubic schoolboy Dan, or the idiotic Cardew, who seems the most deserving of a bullet in the brain. The book has no chapters or breaks, and is composed of short interlocking scenes of a few pages each, moving from character to character, which builds a degree of dramatic tension. Colegate’s greatest strength is her precise anthropological immersion in the details of country life, and some deftly etched period detail: the skinning of a rabbit, the wiping of a fountain pen on a blotter pad, a guest who chews blotting paper to relieve his migraine after a day of noisy gunfire. Her writing is elegant and reads very easily, and her descriptions of the autumnal landscape nicely match the sombre emotional mood and sense of foreboding in the story.

The Shooting Party should be a more exciting read than it is, but ultimately the Big Bang comes off as more of a whimper – largely because the stakes seem so low. Colegate sketches in plenty of detail about her characters but we seldom sense what it’s like to be in their shoes or feel the blazing passions that we’re told they have. The men especially tend to sound the same and blend into each other, to the point where it no longer seems to matter who is speaking. Coleman’s narrative reads as clinical and distant, only picking up emotional weight in the final chapter when we learn of each character’s fate. There are a lot of references to the impending War, which I think are meant to work as dramatic irony – we, unlike the characters, know that that the comfortable indolence of this world will soon be swept away – but they’re so heavy-handed that they read as set-ups for a joke rather than foreshadowing of the great tragedy to come.

In his Foreword to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, Julian Fellowes praises Colegate for not taking sides with the characters (or judging the aristocrats for their lives of privilege) and instead observes them in their surroundings. I’m not sure I totally agree with this. Colegate devotes far more of the story to the aristocrats than the servants, and her writing sparks to life when she describes the lords and ladies. By contrast, her descriptions of the servants feel quite workmanlike, and they feel more like ciphers than fully fleshed-out characters. There’s little to any dissent or dissatisfaction among the servants, who trudge dutifully through the landscape, never questioning the vast gulf between their lives and those of their rulers.

Perhaps that’s Colegate’s point – to present a world where social castes are so entrenched that no one thinks to question the rules, not even Tom Harker, who accepts his fate humbly and without complaint, asking his master to recite a prayer for him and crying “God save the British Empire!” before he dies. For all her cool observational approach, Colegate can’t help but romanticise this world. If the book is meant as a critique of the English class system, with the killing as a symbol of all that’s wrong at its core, it’s a little too subtle to be effective.

The only critique of this world comes from Cardew, who has a brief epiphany as he witnesses the shooting: “[T]he cure could not come from a non-participant, from someone who was not part of the game, for how could a mere spectator be expected to be listened to when he wanted to tell the players not just that they were using the wrong rules but that they were playing the wrong game?” But this awareness goes nowhere: Cardew abandons his fashionable Socialism and withdraws from the world to become a monk, as stupid and self-deluded as he ever was. We’re left with Sir Randolph, too old to understand “the assumptions, orthodoxies, hypocrises, even events, of the new age“, which he is certain embodies “changes for the worse, a sort of mass loss of memory, and the replacement of the common understandings of a civilised society by the destructive egotism of a barbaric one.” It’s left to Osbert to cheer Randolph up with “his own extraordinary gaiety“, and waft, perhaps also gayly, into the Roaring Twenties.

Quotable Quotes: [Randolph] did feel, if not yet a dodo, at least at the end of something; he did feel, looking round the room in which the watery light filtering through the beech leaves and reflecting the river gave everything a soft luminosity becoming to the unpainted faces of the women and the muted colour of their clothes and the blue and white of the china on the dark shelves behind them, that beyond the river and the trees, beyond the boundaries of his own estate, there was a whole clamorous violent disorderly process going on which was to bring about the end of an idea, an idea started by people whose combination of poetry and political acumen, curiosity and love of pastoral life, made them seem, he’d always thought, though Florentine, rather English.”

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