The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

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.

‘Oh, Society.’

‘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.

55 thoughts on “The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

  1. Jonathan

    Oh, the film is excellent. I was surprised when I discovered how recent the book was. I kept seeing it at my local library and meant to take it out. I still hope to read it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, cool. Apparently, the film was a big influence on Julian Fellowes and his screenplay for Gosford Park. I’m looking forward to seeing it now that my post is up.

      Reply
      1. Jonathan

        I hope you like it. I watched it years ago and didn’t realise it was based on a book until I saw it in the library.

        Reply
  2. Eric

    It does sound fascinating reading about a bygone era and such rigidly enforced ritualized traditions when reading this story in the present we know how these will all be swept away. Those quotes you picked out do really illuminate the emotional distance these characters have from those around them. I’ve not heard of this novel before so I’ve noted it down. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! The quotes are so telling, aren’t they? Bob Lilburn is particularly wrapped up in the codes of this social set – such a pompous ass, especially in his dismissal of anyone or anything outside of his sphere. It’s an interesting insight into the tail end of an era. Even though the Great War is still out of sight, one gets the feeling that something must happen to destabilise this privileged world. Olivia is beginning to question the meaning of it all; she knows it can’t last for ever.

      Reply
  3. Café Society

    I read this after seeing the film and as is so often the case enjoyed the book so much more. Even a very faithful adaptation inevitably leaves out much of the texture of a novel, which in the case of a book like this is vital to overall thrust of the work.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I agree, that’s so often the case. Even so, I’m really looking forward to seeing the film, just to discover how Alan Bridges has interpreted the book. I liked his adaptation of The Hireling, so it’ll be interesting to see how this compares.

      Reply
  4. BookerTalk

    Your comments about how the book shows the pointlessness of those parties and the rituals does remind me of the film Gosford Park. What a tedious life these people led.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think Colegate captures the absurdities of the era very well. It’s not hard to see the influence on Gosford Park – and on Downton Abbey for that matter, although I’m not a huge fan of the latter.

      Reply
      1. BookerTalk

        me neither Jacqui – the first DA series was ok but after that it became quite ridiculous. Servants would never have had that close a relationship with their employers in that era

        Reply
          1. JacquiWine Post author

            Oh, excellent. It looks as if the film is available on YouTube – broadband signal permitting, I’m going to try to watch it at some point this week.

            Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    This sounds very good. How the world changed in this period of time can make for the basis of such interesting fiction.

    Characters trapped by society is also a common, interesting, but terribly sad theme. I am currently reading Anthony Trollope’s The Duke’s Children. It takes place in the 1870s. The social constraints placed on the characters seem almost akin to slavery.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a really interesting period from a social perspective. It reminded me a lot of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, especially in terms of mood and tone. Plus, it has that same feeling of tension rippling beneath the surface, the sense that everything could come crashing down at any moment. The Trollope sounds like a a great comparison too. I’m woefully unread when it comes to his work, only a few short stories so far, something I ought to remedy at some point in the future.

      Reply
  6. Tredynas Days

    I too saw the film a while back, and hadn’t realised how recent the novel was. There’s a novella with a similar title by Chekhov published 1884 – his longest prose work. Available in Penguin. I read it also some time ago, but recall little about it, sadly. Still, it’s a relief that our illustrious UK leaders believe animals aren’t sentient (despite their protestations to the contrary), so at least the hunted don’t mind being shot.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it really does feel as though it was written many years ago, maybe looking back at a distance from the 1930s or ’40s once it has become apparent that this rarefied world is about to be swept away for good.

      I suspect that the blood sports element might put a lot of readers off this book. Nevertheless, I do think the author does enough to highlight the senseless of the shoot. While she doesn’t judge these characters in an overt way (I think she leaves that to the reader), it’s pretty clear that the majority of the ‘upstairs’ set are a pretty rotten bunch. Gilbert Hartlip and Bob Lilburn in particular – their morals and underlying motivations are completely skewed.

      Reply
  7. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    As usual, those are very nice quotes you picked out. Just based on your review, I would have thought the book to be older as it is. I agree with you that it’s quite an accomplishment when you can evoke a bygone era so incredibly well as Colgate has apparently done here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s quite an achievement. I put this book on my list for the Classics Club, thinking it had been written (with the benefit of hindsight) in the 1940s or ’50s. A little like The Go-Between by L. P, Hartley with which it shares some qualities. So, imagine my surprise when I checked the inside cover and discovered it had been published in 1980 – I never would have guessed it from the style!

      Reply
  8. Emma

    This reminds me of a chapter in They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy, a book I’m currently reading. It’s set in 1904/1905 in the Hungarian high society. The shooting and all the living habits are as codified as what you describe.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes! I loved that book. And you’re right about the similarities between the two, especially in the depiction of their social pursuits. One the whole, Banffy’s characters are rather more likeable than Colegate’s, less pompous in their attitudes towards others – at least, that’s how I remember them in my mind.

      Reply
  9. Elena

    Sounds great for those of us who were too much into the decay of Downton Abbey, and I’m always in for any upper class character named Olivia who feels she must escape her life.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The names are particularly apt here, a great job on that front. Olivia seems to suit Mrs Lilburn’s character very well, while Gilbert Hartlip has a slight sneer to it, just like the man himself. It’s a very good novel, astutely observed.

      Reply
  10. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui and it sounds fascinating, very much capturing a way of life about to be lost – and one that pretty much needed to go, by the sound of it. However, if there *is* a lot of detail about the hunting, I really think I would struggle…. =:o

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The shooting scenes are reasonably detailed, but they’re pretty swift. As is often the case with these stories, it’s more about the morals and motivations of the characters involved than any gratuitous images of the kill itself. Nevertheless, I can understand your hesitation over this one. Have you read L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between? If not, I would recommend it ahead of the Colegate for you – but only if you’re interested in reading about this privileged classes of this era. :)

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    Interesting to note she wrote many novels but this one seems to be the one which she is known for. I saw A Woman of No Importance last night (first performed 20 years before this is set) and can’t help but notice some similar preoccupations.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s interesting how some novelists are known for one of their books ahead of any others. L. P. Hartley probably falls into the same camp with The Go-Between, although The Hireling generated a bit of interest especially when it was adapted for the screen. I’m not very familiar with A Woman of No Importance – will have to check it out. Was it a NT Live type of thing or a local production?

      Reply
  12. Jessie @ Dwell in Possibility

    I’ve had The Shooting Party on my radar for a while now, and your review certainly makes me want to pick it up sooner rather than later! I really enjoyed The Go-Between and love the movie Gosford Park, and this sounds like a wonderful blend of the two. I think one of the signs of successful historical fiction is when it seems as if the book was written well before it actually was.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great to hear. If you liked The Go-Between and Gosford Park, chances are you’ll enjoy this – as you say, it’s definitely a good blend of the two. That’s a very interesting observation about the qualities of successful historical fiction. I felt the same way about Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Beginning of Spring which took Russia in the early 20th century as its wonderful setting. Once again, it was hard to believe that it had been written as late as the 1980s.

      Reply
  13. madamebibilophile

    This sounds great Jacqui – I’m fascinated by this period of history. I was sure I had some Colegate in the TBR & went scuttling off to dig it out but can’t find any – I’ll have to rectify this before my planned book-buying ban of 2018!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, yes – it’s worth making an exception for Colegate before your book-buying ban kicks in. I think you’d find this really interesting, especially given your fondness for the era. It’s right up your street!

      Reply
  14. bookbii

    Excellent review as always, Jacqui. I didn’t realise Colgate had written fiction, I have only come across her in passing as she’s written a non-fiction book about hermits which I *almost* bought in an Oxfam shop then didn’t then regretted it when it was gone. This sounds like an excellent read, and surprisingly authentic given when it was written.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How funny! I didn’t know that she had written some non-fiction too. In fact, The Shooting Party is the only one of her books that I’ve ever come across in print. Looking her up on wiki, I can see the one you are referring to – A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaries, and Recluses. What a great title that is. I do hope you manage to find another copy at some point. On the strength of TSP, she’s a very fine writer.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        It is a very appealing title, isn’t it! I have kicked myself multiple times for not getting it when I saw it, but then if I had I still probably wouldn’t have read it by now either. I’ll take your praise of The Shooting Party as a strong recommendation. Thanks.

        Reply
  15. Caroline

    This sounds wonderful. I’m not sure what to think of the fact it was written in 1980. So it’s actually a historical novel.
    The dress codes sound like such a nightmare. Not so much because one had to change constantly but because there were so many possibilities of doing it wrong,

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s strange. It really feels as though it was written many years ago, maybe at some point in the 1940s or ’50s. I was very surprised to discover the actual publication date. And yes, the dress code sounds like a social minefield. We get a sense of that from Bob Lilburn’s anxieties over the shirt studs. Oh, the horror of turning up to dinner in the ‘wrong’ type of suit, shirt or accessories!

      Reply
  16. Tina

    Edwardian period is a fave of mine but i did not love this book when i read it years ago.
    I would recommend LOVE FOR LYDIA by HE BATES.Or the trilogy by Kate Williams–STORMS OF WAR.Judith Lennox captures the era well and has written many books set in the 1900 to 1930 era.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting. I have another book by H. E. Bates, but the setting is later – WW2, I think. Many thanks for your recommendations, I’ll certainly take a closer look. :)

      Reply
  17. Gastradamus

    I havnt been to England but if I ever went I’d party with these people. It’s sounds like a interesting Novel for sure.
    Would love your feedback on my new short called The Writers Block. Really hope to see you there soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They’re an interesting bunch, for sure. I’m not sure I’d want party with them, but they’re fascinating to watch (albeit from a safe distance). Best of luck with your story – I’ll drop by when I get a chance.

      Reply
  18. Naomi

    As I was reading your review, I was definitely getting Downton Abbey vibes. I have to say I’ve always been glad of not having to change my clothes several times a day. How pointless. I’m pretty sure that if I belonged to a family like this, I would have to run away!
    I was not expecting the publication date to be 1980!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Julian Fellowes has cited the film adaptation as an influence on his scripts for Gosford Park and Downtown Abbey, so they all tap into similar themes. The Shooting Party seems slightly more focused on the ‘upstairs’ set than the other two, but that’s probably a function of the main story here. The clothes thing seems ridiculous now, doesn’t it? Thank goodness times and social conventions have changed since then!

      Reply
  19. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s