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.