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Review: The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate
Viking, 1980. 195 pp.

As he does every October, in 1913, Sir Randolph Nettleby, Bart., invites some of the best shots in England to his Oxfordshire estate to shoot pheasant. The activity has a particular meaning here, for we don’t expect tweed-coated gentlemen to trample through the underbrush in their wellingtons, bagging a few birds for supper. Rather, we have the spectacle of “beaters,” local men and boys recruited to flush the pheasant so that the frightened birds take brief flight — the only type they are capable of — toward the tweed-coated gentlemen, waiting with their loaders and dogs. Not that the participants would agree, but this is more mechanized killing than sport. The shooters take hundreds of birds, and the loaders are there to make sure the gentlemen never even have to turn their heads to receive a ready weapon, restocked with cartridges.

Snowden Slights, a Yorkshire huntsman, sometime between 1900 and 1912, by Sydney Harold Smith (or collaborators). A very different picture from the organized shoots on estates at the time. (courtesy Yorkshire Museum, York, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The novel’s opening paragraph notes that an infamous incident will take place, “an error of judgment which resulted in a death.” And since the timing is the autumn before the Great War, Colegate intends The Shooting Party as a metaphor for England on the eve of that tragic struggle.

What a metaphor it is, slaughter for its own sake, by the so-called best people in the country, no less. That the death referred to is a mistake, and that the author reveals it up front, properly removes any sense of whodunit, though the narrative does build suspense as to who will be the victim, how, and why. Instead, Colegate focuses on the characters, who represent various social classes and attitudes.

In lesser hands, this premise and approach could have devolved into a talky, theme-driven tract, populated by two-dimensional ideas rather than characters. But Colegate writes well-drawn people whose private concerns merge beautifully in a single, cohesive picture, and whose opinions often seem contradictory, which makes them more human.

For example, Sir Randolph, courteous to all despite his oft-injured sensibilities, worries that the stewards of the land, as he views himself, are a vanishing breed. Outwardly almost diffident, he nevertheless carries himself as the aristocrat born to rule, and his confusion as to how the world has changed lends him depth. Stolid Bob Lilburn, who believes in form above all, astonishes his gorgeous wife, Olivia, by doubting that there could exist in England any people worth knowing whom he doesn’t already know. Lionel Stephens, a lawyer who seems perfect to everyone, believes he’s passionately in love with Olivia and would be willing to die for her if the fraught international situation brought war. A footman repeats this sentiment to the young parlor maid he fancies, who has the sense to think it’s twaddle.

Throughout, Colegate’s description of the shoot evokes the future conflict, often involving the manner in which the birds, fed and catered to before their destruction, are driven toward the guns. Again, a lesser author might have overplayed the symbolism, but Colegate’s hand remains deft. That’s because she’s careful to keep her descriptions active as well as physically and visually precise. Consider, for instance, how she portrays a poacher waiting to enter the woods once the gentry have finished their initial shoot of the weekend:

Tom waited until they were nearly all out of sight, and until the gold of the late afternoon had been succeeded by the soft pinkish-grey of the early dusk before he moved. The mist was now rising much more noticeably from the ground, still low but thickening, beginning to spread a layer of damp haze which in the morning would linger on the lower ground like spilt milk, while the sky above it became the pale clear blue of another late October day.

Though published forty years ago, The Shooting Party still keeps its edge. It’s one of those elegant novels I admire, in which the central action is itself an arresting metaphor. I must warn you that other than from a library (or sources in the UK), the book may be hard to find. But it is well worth your time and effort, a classic tale.

Disclaimer: I pulled this book off my shelf because it deserves a revisit, as does the feeling these days of holding printed pages in my hands.