Blog Post 19: The Shooting Party (1980)
It caused a mild scandal at the time, but in most people’s memories it was quite outshone by what succeeded it. You could see it as a drama all played out in a room lit by gas lamps; perhaps with flickering sidelights thrown by a log fire burning brightly at one side of the room, a big Edwardian drawing-room, full of furniture, tables crowded with knick-knacks and framed photographs, people sitting or standing in groups, conversing: and then a fierce electric light thrown back from a room beyond, the next room, into which no one has yet ventured…It was an error of judgement which resulted in a death, It took place in the autumn before the outbreak of what used to be known as the Great War.
My previous post was Nancy Mitford’s ‘The Pursuit of Love’, another story of the great country house, only ‘The Shooting Party’ is set before the first world war, rather than the second. And whereas Mitford’s novel was written a few years after the events, Colegate’s novel is written from the distance of nearly seventy years. When you read this novel it will come as no surprise that it was the inspiration for Julian Fellowes’s ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Downton Abbey’.
It is a curious short novel, set over the course of a weekend in 1913, revolving around a shooting party at the estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby, a traditionalist who loves the land, and despises industrialisation and who longs to keep the status quo of feudalism because he believes it to be the best system for everyone. He certainly can’t abide the idea of ‘striking industrial workers, screaming suffragettes, Irish terrorists, scandals on the Stock Exchange, universal suffrage’.
Everything’s against us now. The politicians are determined to turn this country into an urban society instead of a rural one and in the course of the change they think they’ve got to take away the power of the landed proprietor. So they fling Acts of Parliament at our heads, set up town councils…do nothing to help agriculture out of its terrible problems—and now the Liberals are crippling us with taxes.…It will be the ruin of rural England.
This will be the biggest shoot of the year and amongst the lords and ladies, and the Hungarian royal, and the rich Jewish merchant, is one of the greatest shots of England who is in competition with a young barrister. And then there are various members of Sir Randolph’s family, including his wife Minnie (said to have had an affair with King Edward himself who was frequently a guest), his daughter and granddaughter, and his two sons.
Then there are the gamekeeper and his son, the beaters, the servants. This is a massive cast that Colegate handles with great deftness. She does not judge the aristocrats or tug at the forelocks. She treats each character, whether upstairs or downstairs, with the same authorial voice, with a sweeping omniscience, which carries the very essence of the Edwardian era, so that we could be in a Forster novel. This is not parody or pastiche though it is maybe somewhat satirical. Soon the shooting will not be of pheasants on a country estate in Oxfordshire; the killing will move to the trenches of Europe and a generation of young men will be wiped out. And though the novel could be seen as one whopping metaphor, it is much more than that.
…heavy birds, a flight of more than a few feet exhausts them — forced up and out to meet a burst of noise and a quick death in that bright air.
The increasing sense of doom is handled brilliantly. We are told from the outset that there will be death this weekend, but we have to anticipate whose death. The child? His pet duck? Or will it be protestor and pamphleteer, Cornelius Cardew, (played by Gielgud in the film of 1985). Cardew with his ideas on vegetarianism and a new society is the outsider, the fool who shows us the ridiculous truth of the situation. He is powerless to do anything other than to wish he could ‘tell the players not just that they were using the wrong rules but that they were playing the wrong game.’
But thank goodness for Ellen, one of the maids, who gets herself wet and filthy helping Osbert look for his duck. She is perhaps the most likeable character of all.
Ellen knew as well as anyone that the last day of a big shooting party ended with a duck shoot by the river at dusk. She also knew that the rules of sport and the rules of entertaining were both inexorable. Even Sir Randolph could not be expected to refuse to offer his guests the opportunity of shooting at wild duck just because a child’s tame duck might have chanced to be among them.