Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

 Includes some spoilers. 

I saw the 1985 film "The Shooting Party" with James Mason as Sir Randolph Nettleby and a whole host of other distinguished actors many years ago and it stayed with me. Only later did I realise it was from Isabel Colegate's 1981 novel. Colegate is one of those post-war novelists who rarely get a mention nowadays, but on the evidence of "The Shooting Party" she has an elegance to her writing that should never go out of fashion.

Taking place on the eve of war, a shooting party is taking place at Nettleby's country seat. His wife was a confidante, possibly even lover, of the late King Edward VII, and with his death the "Edwardian age" - that brief sojourn between the start of the new century and the Great War, is already passing into history. The book touches on both the political situation and social changes, yet it is at a distance, for the way of life embedded in this Oxfordshire great house focuses on a surface decorum. The invites to this shooting party no longer include the King, but there are various nobles of the era. The book deftly moves between its large cast of characters both upstairs and downstairs, as a comedy of actual manners is played out exquisitely. It's hard to imagine that Julian Fellows didn't closely study it in his scripts for Downton Abbey, yet there's something somehow generic about this much written about era. Neither a contemporary reading like Waugh or a post-modern take, there's a subtlety at play in this book which is both forensic in its detail of country life, and at the same time a knowing elegy for a time that is no more.

In the film, if I remember correctly, the tragedy that takes place towards the end of the book, when one of the country men gets accidentally killed by the brash noble who has committed to this being a sporting contest rather than a gentlemanly one, is then overshadowed by the phone call that indicates the death of the Archduke Ferdinand. Yet in the book this is only told allegorically - but from the very first line: "It caused a mild scadal at the time, but in most people's memories it was quite outshone byy what succeeded it." In other words, the reader has the overhang of history to see that there are clear parallels between the mindless slaughter of pheasants at the shoot, and the callous disregard for human life that is to come.

What makes the book - and film - such a joy is that by concentrating on a single weekend in the country Colegate succeeds in bringing a light on so many aspects of that dying Edwardian society. The rural peasants are poorer than before because of changes in the economy, yet they trust more to the benign dictatorship of the country lord than the workings of (Liberal) politicians in London. A curious radical, Cornelius Cardew (not the avant garde composer!) has attempted to stop the slaughter in his attempt to promote vegetarianism and land rights for the poor. He gets more time from the bored Lord than from the suspicious peasantry in the local inn. Meanwhile the women and children of the family, and the wives of the shooters are a backdrop chorus, bored of the shooting, and indulging in various fancies and affairs. In a world where marriage is of convenience, and to hold together landed dynasties, affairs are not just tolerated but encouraged. One of the Nettleby grandchildren is an artistic child called Osbert who has a tame duck who he is worried will go out when they are ready for the carnage of the duck shoot - the traditionally vicious end to the day's shooting. At the same time - and it is a small duck - we get a wide portrait of the rural community that exists to serve the Nettlebys, from the unfortunate Tom, a dirt poor poacher, to the gamekeeper and his bright son who is wanting an educated future, but cannot bring himself to leave his father's care.

The two central plot lines centre around one of the younger shooters though. Lionel Stephens, who is training to be a lawyer, proves himself to be as good or better shot than Lord Gilbert Hartlip, widely thought of as one of the best shots in England. This unspoken sport between them ramps up as the shooting party goes out for a second day. Stephens has a nonchalance about him which is shaken on the day by his love for Lady Olivia, the married wife of another of the day's shooters. 

This is an exquisite novel of Edwardian country life that doesn't spare the grime and ugliness, whilst at the same time giving us a vivid portrait of the game sports which are so important. The subjects under the surface - the Irish question, David Lloyd George, the rural economy, and the thought of a war with Europe - are there, but also absent. Nettleby alone sees this world that he knows so well disappearing, but by temperament and upbringing he doesn't know what to say. We know that the war that will follow will devastate the ranks of the aristocracy and the middle classes as it will the working class. The last few pages of the book take us forward through those histories - it feels an unecessary coda perhaps, but also gives us a sense that these are not fictional lives but are stand-ins for some very real ones. A short novel, its a genuine pleasure that stands up better than many more regarded works of the era. 

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