Exactly one hundred years on from the events of the novel, we look back to the period in which Isabel Colegate's The Shooting Party is set - the Edwardian era immediately before the First World War - with an even greater sense of perspective than that summed up so eloquently in the book's opening passage.
In the light of what we know was to come, the book is a sharply delineated commentary on its time. Its focus is narrow - a small group of guests gathered at Sir Randolph Nettleby's Oxfordshire estate for the most important shooting party of the season, on the last weekend in October 1913 - and yet through that prism it shows much. Historic and impending social and societal change, attitudes, beliefs and mores, all are there in the background, almost as allegorical tapestries adorning a wall, in front of which is played out the central drama, that of a sporting rivalry which leads to a death.
Precise, evocative, economical and controlled, it places vivid pen-portraits of its major characters within the narrative and then balances them in the final few pages with equally brief but nonetheless full and fitting accounts of what was to become of them in the years ahead. There's more to that than just a simple tying up of loose ends, for an important subtext is that of legacy - in the widest sense, what will be left and to whom. Sir Randolph is preoccupied with the decline of the rural way of life and of estates such as his own on which so many people rely for their livelihood; Lionel Stephens, barrister and romantic idealist, looks to war or some other "great trial" as a cleansing force, one that would rid society of its baser habits and make for a better world. Bob Lilburn and Gilbert Hartlip, men of lesser conscience, are more concerned with form and self and reputation; and then there's Tom Harker, poacher turned if not gamekeeper then beater, a fulcrum of sorts for the plot, Cornelius Cardew, the outsider, and his proselytising, Dan Glass and his scholarly ambitions, even young Osbert and his concern for his duck; all, in their way, are spokes in a wheel, even though some question their purpose.
There were some lovely lines such as the Downton-esque, "He is the eldest son, and there is coal beneath the Park," and "... he was a good gardener and good gardeners were known to be on the despotic side", also the references to Olivia's reading, including "frivolous novels" such as the works of E.F. Benson; but one of the most telling, I think, was again to do with Olivia when she and Cicely and Aline are following the guns and she feels an unexpected and unexplained sense of excitement and in noticing every detail of her companions and of their progress "to the front line" wonders, "are we really all so beautiful and brave, or do we just think we are?".
How did you find the book - too slow and studied, or a perfect portrait of a time and place?
Did you feel its prefiguring of the slaughter to come was too obvious, or was that point well-stated?
What of the mix of characters - were any too stereotypical, did you think?
Have you read anything else by Isabel Colegate, and on the basis of The Shooting Party, would you seek out her other novels now?
Any more impressions, thoughts, likes and dislikes?
The 'Books and Cakes' post for The Shooting Party is here.