'The Shooting Party': Isabel Colegate's Literary Mark

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By Jonathan Yardley
Thursday, August 7, 2008

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

In the two decades between 1912 and 1933, six Englishwomen were born who went on to become exceptionally gifted and accomplished writers of sophisticated, surpassingly civilized novels. Many of their books have been published in this country, but only Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner and Penelope Lively are reasonably well known here, and the others -- Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Isabel Colegate -- never found more than modest American readerships.

The loss is ours, for their novels -- short stories, too -- are distinguished in virtually every regard. Though their styles and subjects vary widely, they have in common keen intelligence and wit, a deep interest in domestic life and matters of social class, an agreeably old-fashioned commitment to the art of storytelling and a preference for the miniature over the grandiose. Though women's lives, opportunities, difficulties and rights are important to all of them, none is reflexively ideological or feminist. They speak their minds, but they decline in all instances to hector the reader, which cannot be said for the most famous British woman writer of their generation, Doris Lessing, who is of course (the world being such as it is), the one to whom a Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded.

Among the many books by these writers that I have read, a particular favorite is Colegate's "The Shooting Party." Published in this country in the spring of 1981, it came to my attention in a most unlikely fashion. For seven years I had been moonlighting from my newspaper jobs (first at the Miami Herald, then at the Washington Star) as a "special contributor" to Sports Illustrated, for which I was, in effect, chief book reviewer. It was (for me at least) a most enjoyable relationship, not least because I made some treasured friendships and was paid exceptionally well by book-reviewing standards, but the choice of books to review was limited and often frustrating.

As a result I was forever on the prowl for books that weren't "sports books" per se but that might be of interest to SI's editors and readers. Five years earlier I had chanced upon "Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay" by a first-time author named William W. Warner: It was about fishing, and fishing is a sport, right? The book went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and to become a regional, if not national, classic. So when I saw the galley proofs of a novel by an English writer about a shooting party -- hunting, I thought at once, and hunting is a sport, right? -- I leaped at it.

Precisely what I said about it in my review I do not recall, as my copy has long since vanished, but I know that I spoke admiringly about its wit and its keen delineation of British class lines. Rereading it now, I remain deeply impressed by those qualities, but also by the way in which Colegate evokes pre-World War I England, teetering at the brink of catastrophe yet utterly unaware of what lay ahead. This period has been the subject of many evocative works of nonfiction -- perhaps the most widely read being Barbara Tuchman's "The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War" (1966) -- but I can think of no work of fiction that brings it to life so fully and subtly as does "The Shooting Party."

It was Colegate's ninth novel -- now 76 years old, she has since published five more -- and it remains her best-known, in part no doubt because a first-rate movie adaptation was released in 1985, with one of those breathtakingly all-star casts that only the Brits can regularly assemble: James Mason, in what turned out to be his last role, as Sir Randolph Nettleby, proprietor of the estate on which the shoot takes places; Dorothy Tutin as his wife, Minnie; Edward Fox as the haughty champion marksman Lord Gilbert Hartlip; and John Gielgud, in yet another of his autumnal cameo star turns as the animal-rights protester Cornelius Cardew. It is one of the few cinematic adaptations of a literary novel that somehow manages to be true to the original without diminishing it.

The novel takes place "in the autumn before the outbreak of what used to be known as the Great War," in Nettleby Park, which "was very large in those days, nearly a thousand acres (an eighth of the whole estate)," all of it the property of Sir Randolph, a gentleman of conservative leanings who laments the coming of a new age of "striking industrial workers, screaming suffragettes, Irish terrorists, scandals on the Stock Exchange, universal suffrage." It outrages him that "the politicians are determined to turn this country into an urban society instead of a rural one" and to "take away the power of the landed proprietor." He may seem at first a caricature of the British upper class, but he is simply a man of another time, a paternalistic patrician who believes it his duty to care for the men and women who work on his farm. His instincts are kind and his sense of humor is fully functional, including when it is directed at himself.

We know almost from the outset that someone will die during the shoot, though who that will be remains the chief matter of suspense as the story unfolds. One likely candidate is a duck rescued by Osbert, Sir Randolph's 10-year-old grandson. A John Bull type named Charles Farquhar, laughing at his own rich humor, tells the duck, "If I see you flying over me I can tell you you haven't a hope. Bang, bang and it will be all over," to which Osbert replies: "If you kill her, I will kill you." The possibility that at least one of these calamities will come to pass is very real, as one of the housemaids understands:

"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."

The guests are a populous and mostly clamorous lot. Gilbert Hartlip is a "superlative sportsman" -- i.e., expert at killing fat pheasants on the fly, if that fits one's definition of sport -- but, in Sir Randolph's judgment, "an odd, cold, proud fish of a fellow." Lionel Stephens is a successful lawyer no doubt on the way to becoming a prominent judge, an open-minded and handsome man who finds himself, to his joy and consternation, falling in love with Olivia Lilburn, the beautiful, intelligent and good-hearted wife of a man who does not deserve her. The sparks that begin to fly between Lionel and Olivia are seen by Minnie Nettleby, who contrives to seat them together as often as possible, because she "loved beauty, and considered the furtherance of romance between the possessors of it the least of the services she could perform for it."

Then there are the people of the lower orders. These include the gamekeeper, Glass, and his bright, ambitious, devoted teenage son, Dan, but most particularly they include Tom Harker, "a thatcher by trade" whom Glass enlists as a beater -- one of the men who rouse the birds from their nests for their flight to death -- when a more reliable man proves unavailable. Tom "was known to do a bit of poaching, [but] he was looked on as a respectable man, a good son to his mother and a man of his word, kind to the children who stole apples from his three prolific old trees and -- had they not all heard him say so a hundred times? -- never in his life the worse for drink." Tom has his full share of class resentment, yet he greatly admires the shooting skill of Gilbert Hartlip: "You wouldn't see better sport anywhere in England, Tom Harker thought, finding no difficulty in accommodating that notion in his mind along with his views about the stranglehold of the rich on the life-blood of the working man."

The tensions of class are very much present in "The Shooting Party," but Colegate never bludgeons the reader with them, nor does she ever get heavy-handed about two other themes -- the situation of women and the rights of animals -- that flow through the novel. These last two are interwoven as Olivia talks quietly with Lionel moments after Osbert's duck has made a surprise appearance in the manor house. She expresses sympathy for Osbert, and goes on:

". . . you can see he has such strong emotions, and he will have to be educated and taught the ways of the world and made to be on the side of the guns and against the ducks. It seems such a pity. . . . Who says it's the height of heroism to kill? For every hero does there have to be a living sacrifice? . . . I am often aware at shooting parties how differently I feel from a man and how, more than that, I really would like to rebel against the world men have made, if I knew how to. I see the beauty of a good shoot of course and the charm of country sports and traditions, but I can't help feeling the added solemnity the whole thing gets from that sacrificial note, the note of death, of blood. Why do we have to have that, to complete our pleasure?"

The question is at the core of the novel, never more so than at the release of the pheasants, "forced to take to the air reluctantly -- 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 same fate, of course, awaits some of the men in the shooting party in the years to come, as Europe collapses into a mad four-year fit of self-destruction. Once again, Colegate declines to beat the reader over the head with the point, but it clearly is there to be contemplated. That she has managed to take on these very large subjects in a book of fewer than 200 pages, and to consider them through a cast of wholly human characters, is a remarkable accomplishment.

"The Shooting Party" is available in a Counterpoint paperback ($14).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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