The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

I know I am usually hyperbolic in my praise of the books I review, and as most of the books I read are wonderful because I pick them very carefully, I rarely end up writing a review that doesn’t involve me being in raptures. I fear this does sometimes lessen the impact of my praise. I will say this now - The Shooting Party is in a league of its own when it comes to being a genuinely fantastic book that will appeal to a wide range of people. Seriously, before you even read what I have to say, you need to go to wherever you purchase your books from and buy a copy of this now. Right now. When it arrives you need to open the book and begin reading immediately, casting all other commitments aside. I am genuinely being deadly serious. If I could afford to, I’d buy everyone who follows this blog a copy of this book and then stand behind you while you read it, grinning like a lunatic and clapping my hands at the especially good bits. It’s everything you want from a book; beautifully, sparsely written, excellently characterised, both hilariously witty and deeply, desperately moving, and the best example of historical fiction I have ever read. Isabel Colegate perfectly recreates pre-war Edwardian society, and apart from the obvious, retrospective parallels between the shooting party of the title and the yet to come Great War, her skill is so great that it is very difficult to tell that it wasn’t written in 1913.

The action of the novel takes place over an Autumnal weekend shooting party at the Northamptonshire estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby, a well respected country squire in his sixties, who was an intimate of the late King. Sir Randolph is a traditionalist, who believes in old fashioned sporting values and the responsibility of the landowning class to protect the feudalism of rural life. He is known for the quality of his shoots, and he attracts a good deal of society greats to his estate over the season. With him for this weekend is England’s most renowned shot, Lord Gilbert Hartlip, whose fame is so great that there is a make of gun named after him, and his wife Lady Aline, whose beauty, wit and indiscretion are almost as famous as her husband’s sporting prowess. Also along for the festivities is Lionel Stephens, a promising young barrister, whose reputation on the shooting circuit is starting to give Lord Hartlip’s a run for its money. However, Lionel’s primary focus is not the shooting; he finds himself falling in love with the ravishing young Lady Olivia Lilburn, who is locked into a loveless marriage with the dull and overbearing Lord Bob, a good friend of Sir Randolph. Presiding over the guests is Minnie, Randolph’s sweet and goodnatured wife, a perfect Edwardian hostess, who is just the right mixture of endearingly risque and perfectly proper, and is rumoured to have had an affair with the late King.

Alongside the polite dinner table discussions and scandalous gossiping over bridge tables, runs the lives of those who are in the background of the shooting party. Glass, Sir Randolph’s trusted gamekeeper, has the heavy responsibility of ensuring that all goes smoothly over the weekend. He has more than the shoot weighing on his mind, however; Sir Randolph has noticed the intellectual abilities of his young son Dan, and offered to pay the costs of his education. Glass had always thought that Dan would follow in his footsteps as the Nettleby estate’s gamekeeper; he believes it would be best for Dan to stay in his place and not try to elevate himself into an alien world neither of them have any experience of, but some doubt remains in his mind as to the right course of action to take. Young Osbert, Sir Randolph’s grandson, is an introverted child whose sensitive nature worries his parents, who cannot understand his lack of fighting spirit. Rather than enter into the excitement of the shoot like his older brother, he spends the novel searching frantically for his lost pet duck, at risk of being mistakenly shot. Cicely, Osbert’s charmingly naive older sister, is having her first flirtation with a young Hungarian count, a guest of her grandfather; as she grows increasingly intimate with him, she must consider whether she is really ready to leave her childhood behind. Ellen, Cicely’s maid and confidante, enjoys her work, but she is in love with John, one of Sir Randolph’s footmen. With no money to start a life on, what hopes do they have of the glittering future Cicely can look forward to? And what of Cornelius Cardew, a travelling anti-hunting protester, who wanders into the path of the guns holding his placard, and finds himself an unlikely ally in Sir Randolph?

The opening paragraph lets us know that the events of the weekend will end in tragedy; Lord Hartlip and Lionel Stephen’s unsporting rivalry, fuelled by the jealous Aline, will result in a fatal error of judgement that will have significant repercussions for all involved. The world they live in is coming to an end; they don’t know it yet, of course, but the tensions simmering under the surface of their seemingly idyllic, opulent lives are all precursors to the new world that will soon come crashing down upon them. Loveless marriages, meaningless conversations, gratuitous violence and deferent servants; this elaborate charade cannot last. The real tragedy of the shooting party is that none of them knew it would be their last; the next shooting party was in a different country entirely, and would obliterate many of the guests and family members present.

What makes The Shooting Party so unspeakably good is the quality of the writing, and of the characterisation; everyone does come alive off the page. I’m going to quote a little example so that you can see what I mean:

‘Minnie and Aline Hartlip had Harry Stamp sitting between them, but they were old hands at keeping boredom at bay. They had invented an infatuation. Maisie Arlington, they said, adored him. Maisie, the most up-to-date and generally admired of young London hostesses, had stayed a night or two with her husband at Nettleby in September on their way back from London and had been taken by Minnie to see the gardens at Corston.

“She told me about it,” Aline cried, clasping her hands excitedly as if she were recognising the description. “She told me a divine man had shown her round and been too fascinating for words.”

“There you are,” said Minnie. “That’s exactly how it happened. I’ve never seen her so bouleversé. Maisie of all people. It was a coup de foudre.”

“Oh I say – really? Do you mean it?” Harry Stamp turned from one to the other in high excitement. “I must say I did think she was was most charmingly – well, responsive, if you know what I mean -”

“Responsive? She was mad for you, mad for you, Harry,” said Minnie quite throatily.’

This is such a beautiful, brilliant, elegiac novel that effortlessly captures the essence of the splendour and tragedy of the Edwardian period; the desire to leap into the pages and warn the exquisitely dressed, perfectly poised characters of the abyss they are blindly waltzing into is overwhelming. It is heartbreaking to read of Sir Randolph’s lively eldest grandson Marcus and his ambitions for the future; of Lionel Stephen’s dreams of literary fame and his deep desire for Olivia Lilburn; of Dan Glass’ desire to study at university – for we know what lies ahead for these boys and young men, mowed down in their millions for a country that was steeped in Sir Randolph’s simple, innocent, traditional beliefs that foolishly led its future generations to the slaughter.

Oh! It’s just perfection. Apparently Julian Fellowes was influenced by it when writing Downton Abbey – if only his scripts were as well written! – and as it happens I first saw this novel on a stand in Foyle’s that was displaying books that would appeal to fans of the TV series. I’d never heard of The Shooting Party before, and was surprised to see it was a Penguin Modern Classic. I promptly forgot all about it, despite loving the sound of it from the blurb on the back, and was then pleasantly surprised when I found a first edition for a pound on Charing Cross Road a couple of days later. What a coup, as Minnie would say! It’s been the best discovery I’ve made in a very long time and I already can’t wait to re-read it and savour the writing all over again. Please, please, please don’t let this masterpiece pass you by.

64 comments

  1. I’m so glad you have reviewed this book. It first came to my attention a few months ago after I found out it was on an A Level syllabus, however I have been unable to find it in any of my local book shops. I am going to step up my search, perhaps I’ll treat myself and add it to my Easter holiday reading list.

    1. Lindy, get it on amazon and get reading! I’m glad to hear it’s an A level ext…it’s just the sort I’d love to teach – so much richness you can get into to do with the context. Definitely treat yourself!

  2. I am delighted by how much you loved this book! I read it over and over again as a teenager and it got better every single time. I don’t think I’ve read it in five or six years – an oversight that needs to be remedied!

  3. Oh man, you had me at Downtown Abbey! This is a must-read for me.

    I love what you said about how most of your reviews are positive ones because your books are carefully chosen…I definitely understand that. Who wants to waste time on bad books?

    1. So glad to hear that!! It has definitely got that upstairs-downstairs blend feel to it.

      Exactly! I know some people would say I am not branching out but I say life is too short and why read books I know won’t interest me?!

  4. A first edition for a pound?! What a wonderful find.

    Fantastic review, as always, Rachel. The Shooting Party sounds utterly fascinating. In fact, it reminded me very much of Julian Fellowes’s various screenwriting projects before you mentioned him. It’s on my Wish List. :)

    1. I know, I felt so lucky, Diana! Book serendipity!

      Thank you – I’m sure you would love it and I hope it manages to work its way into your checkout soon!! :)

  5. It is hard to ignore such praise! I have been trying to find reads ‘like Downton’ to share with my mom so I will have to try to get a copy.

    1. Oh if you want something like Downton, this will be totally up your street! Go buy! You and your mum will love it and then you can talk about it afterwards!

  6. I love reading your reviews…..but you know how to hurt a pocketbook! I went straight away and ordered The Shooting Party!

  7. This WAS good. I read it a few years ago and was really surprised at how good it was, and actually I was just at the library on Sunday and got another book by this author. I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high on that.

    1. Now Jenny why didn’t you tell me about this before if you had already read and loved it, hmmmm?!?! Please tell me about the other book – I want to read everything she’s ever written on the strength of this!

  8. Oh, Rachel, you and your enthusiasm! Well, it’s Lent so I can’t buy books, but I have put it on my Amazon wishlist for later… This could be a great way to fill up 1980 on my Century of Books.

      1. “you’re going to wet yourself with joy when you read this”
        :-)

        Now that, dear R, is a literary critical comment I don’t recall ever seeing before.

  9. One of my favourite books ever! My copy was picked up years ago in a secondhand book shop, a tatty dog eared specimen that had been well read, I’ve added to the wear and tear by re reading it. Have you seen the film? Also very good (me thinks Mr Fellows may have watched it before writing Gosford Park)

    1. Yes! I was particularly reminded of Gosford Park before Rachel mentioned Julian Fellowes in her review. I wonder how much the two compare?

      1. I’d be really interested to know that, Diana – Gosford Park is one of my favourite films and I’ve read great reviews of The Shooting Party…I’ll have to add it to my netflix account and find out for myself!

    2. I can’t believe I’d never heard of it before – all you well read people are putting me to shame! I’m so pleased you’ve already discovered it and loved it. No I haven’t seen the film – I can’t wait to now, Gosford Park is one of my favourites so if it’s anywhere near as good as that then I will love it!

  10. Well, now it’s “winging it’s way here,” thanks to you. I was relieved to see that it was also a favorite of Claire’s — NOT that your good opinion alone wouldn’t have sold me, but when the two of you agree, it’s almost certainly going to be an excellent read. :) I went ahead and ordered Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth with it. Thanks to you, I’m looking forward to some excellent reading this weekend. (Gotta love that free 2-day shipping! ;) ) BTW, I have been loving all your posts on your “site-seeing” adventures from home. (It’s taken me a while to figure out how to post again with the wordpress changes). The kids and I have decided that whenever we get to come over there to visit, we might hire you to plan our itinerary so that we can make the most of our time. Have no fear, the trip is only in our dreams at the moment.

    1. Yeah! So glad I managed to persuade you, Susan! I know, Claire’s word is also gospel to me – she’s got me desperate to read so many people! Oooh you’ll love the Brittain as well…you are in for such a treat!

      Thank you so much! I’m so pleased to hear that! Hehehehe – you can hire me as a tour guide any time! There is so much to see and do here and it makes me sad that most tourists begin and end their trips to England in London. I LOVE London but England has so much more to offer! I hope you will be able to come over and see it all for yourself soon! :)

  11. And there’s also a film of The Shooting Party starring James Mason and Sir John Gielgud…. I was going through an Edwardian period when I first read The Shooting Party, remember following it with The Good Soldier and Parade’s End. Ford Madox Ford is so underappreciated. Give him a chance too!

    1. Yes, I can’t wait to see this film now, Gina!

      I read The Good Soldier a few years ago and was a bit underwhelmed…maybe I should give it another go sometime.

  12. I remember the book and the film. I actually loved them both (though I don’t usually go for films of fave books). All that was long years ago. I’m going to dig it out and re-read – my favourite sort of reading.

    Yes, here it is! I wrote August 1986 inside to remind myself. ‘Now a magnificent film’ on the cover with John G weilding a placard on the back.

    Thanks, Rachel. I’ll start on it this week.

    1. I can’t believe so many of you have loved this book for so long – I feel like I’ve really been missing out!

      I hope you’ll love your re-read just as much as you did the first time – enjoy! :)

  13. It is a fabulous novel isn’t it? Such a lovely review Rachel. I’ve also read ‘A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory’ which is very different but also good (perhaps I didn’t love it quite as much). Although you probably shouldn’t trust anything I recommend since I am afraid I spent the whole novel (and then later the film) fretting so much that the duck would be shot I almost wasn’t bothered about the fates of the humans, which means I must be a total git.

    1. Thanks Helen – yes, it really is a remarkably fabulous book! I’m am intrigued about Colegate’s other books and am wondering whether I’d find them as good – I shall see whether I can find A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory. Hahahaha- don’t worry, me too! I thought Osbert was going to be killed trying to save his duck!

  14. The film was made in the early 80′s, it was James Mason’s last film, it has a host of really good English actors and was filmed at Knebworth Park in Hertforshire, I remember the film as being quite lovely, suffused with tragedy at what is to come for everyone, only they don’t know it. It was marred by one thing, in the final scene the camera pans away from the field and the shooting party the field is covered in tractor and trailer ruts, they would not have been there in 1913, it breaks the atmosphere, but still a very good film.

  15. I hadn’t even finished your review when I opened another tab to put this on hold at the library. Thanks so much, I hadn’t heard of this and I am in serious Downton Abbey withdrawal!!! Just what I needed!

    1. Well I am very glad to hear that, Karen! I hope it doesn’t take to long to come in for you. It will definitely help ease the pain of Downton Abbey withdrawal, I promise! :)

  16. Read all of Colegates novels . I loved them when I read them The Orlando trilogy is great.I can’t find my Shooting Party so I have to oreder it as it is unavailable in cape town – thanks for being so excited about a book it catches on and makes me excited too. I think they made a movie of the book..

    1. You make me feel quite behind the times, Enid – I am really excited about tracking down her other books. They did make a film of this – according to everyone else it’s brilliant so definitely a must-watch!

  17. Right! A page has been whipped out of my Post-It notepad and the title duly noted. I am in Toronto this weekend and no doubt there will be a book scrounge. Don’t you just love the names from this era?

    1. Good – I know you especially will really love this! I hope book serendipity will happen and you’ll find this in the corner of a book shop this weekend! I know – the names are fantastic. I especially like Aline…so elegant!

  18. Thank you for presenting us with such a glowing review of a period of history–pre-World War I–that interests me greatly. I’ll see if the library has the book. If not, I can surely find it on Amazon. Peace.

  19. I hate to admit that I have long owned a copy of this–I first found it on my library’s shelves and liked the sound of it so much had to buy my own copy–I’ve just not managed to squeeze it in with my other reading. I will go pull it off my shelf now….

  20. I had never heard of Isabel Colegate before I read your review. What a great find! Beautifully written. You would never guess form the writing that it is, in fact, a late twentieth century novel. Thanks so much for introducing all these “new” writers. Since I’ve been following “booksnob” there have been lots of new editions to my, already, crammed bookshelves.

    1. Hi Debbie lovely to hear from you!! I’m so pleased you loved The Shooting Party and that I convinced you to pick it up! I’m thrilled to have inspired you to get that bookshelf full to the brim! :)

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