Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party presents a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes.
The novel follows the final twenty-four hours of a three-day shoot, a landmark event in the social calendar of the Nettlebys and their immediate set. Our host is Sir Randolph Nettleby, a landowner and member of the old guard, one who values the long-established traditions of rural life and the gentlemanly spirit of the shoot. In this capacity Sir Randolph is ably assisted by his wife, Minnie, a slightly foolish but charming woman with a great appetite for socialising – she is the perfect hostess for the formal dinners and elaborate lunches which accompany the main attraction.
Present at the party are several esteemed guests, the rich and successful, the beautiful and decorative. All of these individuals appear to know one another quite well as they are all part of the same social set. There is Minnie’s bridge partner, Sir Reuben Hergesheimer, a well-travelled and wealthy financier who now views England as his adopted home; the rather pretentious and stuffy Bob Lilburn and his beautiful wife, Olivia, one of the most sensitive and sympathetic characters in the group; and Lionel Stephens, a very successful young barrister who has fallen for the lovely Olivia and all her charms. Also in attendance are the Nettlebys’ rather disapproving but practical daughter-in-law, Ida, and her four children, Cicely, Marcus, Osbert and Violet. (Ida’s husband, John, is abroad on business.) Nineteen-year-old Cicely, a romantic at heart, flirts openly with another of the guests, Tibor Rakassyi, the dashing Hungarian aristocrat who promises to invite her to see his homeland in the forthcoming months. Lastly (at least among the upper classes) we have two of the most interesting characters in the book, the rather conceited and ultra-competitive Lord Gilbert Hartlip, widely known one of the best shots in England, and his highly spirited wife, Aline, a knowing woman who has enjoyed several affairs in recent years. Her latest lover, the vacuous Charles Farquhar, has also been invited to participate in the shoot.
Aline was a fairly demanding guest and if the presence of the handsome but stupid (in Sir Randolph’s view) Charles Farquhar would keep her quiet so that her husband could concentrate on his shooting, Sir Randolph was perfectly happy to ask him. Gilbert Hartlip was one of the best shots in England, if not the best of all, and it was a pleasure to see him in action – sometimes a bit of an anxiety as well, for he had some of the star performer’s temperament and could be very difficult if he thought he was not being given his dues share of the best places. (p. 13)
In addition to the cream of society, we also meet the various servants and workers responsible for the smooth running of the event. Chief among these is Glass, the head gamekeeper who manages the finer details of the shoot, issuing instructions to his team of beaters on how best to raise the pheasants and woodcock on the right flight paths for each ‘drive’. A little like Sir Randolph, Glass is another traditionalist, a man wedded to the ways of the land. He would like nothing better than for his son, Dan, to follow in his footsteps to become assistant gamekeeper at the estate; but Dan is bright and intelligent with a natural aptitude for science and nature. As a consequence, he is torn between staying at Nettleby to support his father and going to college to further his education, an endeavour Sir Randolph has offered to fund.
Other members of the supporting classes include the thatcher and poacher, Tom Harker, whom Glass has enlisted (albeit somewhat reluctantly) as one of the beaters to man the event, and Cecily’s maid, Ellen, a friendly, kind-hearted girl who comes to the aid of young Osbert when his beloved pet duck goes missing on the final morning of the shoot. Also present are Albert and Percy, the young lads who load the guns for Gilbert Hartlip and Lionel Stephens during the periods of intense shooting which take place throughout the day.
As the novel unfolds, we learn more about the main characters, their distorted moral values and the rarefied world in which they circulate. What Colegate does so well here is to shine a light on the farcical nature of Edwardian society, the sheer pointlessness of the endless social whirl and the ridiculous codes that govern it. We see the elaborate preparations for lunch at the boat-house, an activity which requires the butler and footmen to transport a hot meal to its destination via hay boxes to keep it warm. There are the frequent changes of clothes throughout the day, with a need for each outfit to be perfectly suited to the particular occasion – not to mention the prospect of social embarrassment when one doesn’t have the ‘right’ kind of shirt studs to hand to wear at dinner. In this scene, Olivia Lilburn is making fun of her husband’s worries over that very matter; clearly these things are terribly important to Bob if not to his wife.
‘Don’t dismiss it in that way, Olivia. Society is very important. I hate going into it inadequately equipped.’
‘It’s not a battle surely?’
‘In some ways it is not unlike a battle.’
‘In which he with the too-smart shirt studs bites the dust?’
‘Well…’ he began unwillingly to smile. ‘Sustains a setback maybe.’
Olivia laughed, putting her head with its thick crown of auburn hair back against the blue chaise-longue. ‘You are quite ridiculous.’
‘It’s all very well. You can dismiss these things if you like, but they are the structure of our lives and if we lose respect for them we lose respect for ourselves.’ (p. 38)
While Olivia Lilburn has come to the realisation that she is trapped in an empty and shallow world, there is little she can do to break away from it. For all her insight and sensitivity, Olivia is virtually powerless when faced with the well-established structures that govern her place in society. In this scene, Olivia has just been observing her husband, Bob, in conversation with Minnie Nettleby, rattling off the names of various people in attendance at some social function or other without showing the slightest interest in any of the individuals themselves. A sort of ritual ‘checking of the compass points’ as Olivia regards it.
The object of the thing appeared to be enumeration rather than enlightenment. Once she had said to him, ‘Supposing there are some other people somewhere, people we don’t know?’
He had looked at her seriously.
‘What sort of people?’
‘Perfectly charming people. Really delightful, intelligent, amusing, civilized…And we don’t know them, and nobody we know knows them. And they don’t know us and they don’t know anybody we know.’
Bob had thought for a moment and then he had said, ‘It’s impossible. But if it were not impossible, then I don’t think I should want to know such people. I don’t think I should find anything in common with them.’ (p. 120)
I love that quote; it seems to capture so much about these people and their abject disregard for others. While Colegate doesn’t overtly judge her characters, she does shine a light on their disreputable morals and skewed principles.
As the shoot progresses, a competition starts up between Gilbert Hartlip and the normally relaxed Lionel Stephens, a rivalry which is just as keenly felt between their respective loaders, Albert and Percy. Lionel, impassioned by his love for Olivia, begins to fire on all cylinders, shooting his birds with great speed and accuracy. There is even some suggestion of him encroaching onto Gilbert Hartlip’s territory, a development the latter does not welcome, keen as he is to maintain his reputation as one of the country’s finest shots. Significant tensions ensue, much to the dismay of Sir Randolph, who detests any attempts by participants to keep a count of their individual kills. At one point, the action is enlivened by the appearance of an animal rights activist who ultimately appears to find some common ground with the host, much to the surprise of some of the guests.
What makes this book all the more fascinating for readers is the knowledge that a whole way of life for this generation is about to be swept away with the advent of the Great War. Sir Randolph clearly fears change as the political and industrial developments of the day are already threatening to destabilise the familiarity of his world. He bemoans the decline of the agricultural industry and the long-standing traditions of rural life.
‘…For generations we ran the country; it did not suffer from our rule. If the landlord class goes, everything goes. It will be the ruin of rural England. Ida tells me I am prejudiced. Show me the man with blood in his veins who is not.’ (p. 28)
All in all, this is a brilliant novel, poised and subtle in its depiction of the shallowness of the society at the time.
While checking the details for this post, I was surprised to discover that the book had been published as recently as 1980. In many ways it actually feels like a much older novel, one that could have been written in the 1920s or ‘30s, such is the authenticity of the world Colegate creates here. It’s a very impressive achievement. There’s a film too, directed by Alan Bridges (who also adapted L. P. Hartley’s The Hireling for the screen, another book I read this year). I’m looking forward to watching it.
The Shooting Party is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.