"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there," wrote L.P. Hartley in "The Go-Between." Isabel Colegate conveys this idea throughout her beautifully crafted novel of the English upper-class living the last moments of a way of life in the autumn before the outbreak of World War I. She captures the sense of strangeness and wonder immediately: "You could see it as a drama all played out in a room lit by gas lamps . . . a big Edwardian drawing room . . . tables crowded with knick-knacks and framed photographs, people sitting or standing in groups, conversing." And part of the wonder is that this is not some timeless past, but part of our own 20th-century history, a story of "our parents and grandparents made to seem like beings from a much remoter past" by the tremendous changes that followed. "The Shooting Party" unfolds like an album of sepia photographs, its people recognizable yet muted, formal, set in clothing and poses that bespeak the manners and attitudes of another age.
The novel takes place in 1913 at an Oxfordshire estate where some of Britain's finest sportsmen and their families gather for an elaborately planned shoot of game birds. While the rituals of the shoot and the Edwardian house party progress, shaping the novel's form, the guests and servants engage in their own private thoughts and relationships. Sir Randolph Nettleby, the humane, eccentric host, ponders the decline of rural England; solid, handsome Lord Lilburn worries about maintaining good form; his wife Olivia and Lionel Stephens, both intelligent and sensitive, are falling in love; Lionel and Lord Gilbert Hartlip, once the acknowledged best shot, are prodded into ungentlemanly, dangerous competition by their gun loaders; Osbert, Randolph's grandson, chases after a pet duck who could be killed in the shooting; and several other dramas are played out. The variety of characters and plot is unified by the common background and etiquette of the participants, and by the steady movement toward the climax of an accidental death foretold on the first page. We do not know who will die, but that someone will. As the story proceeds relentlessly, if decorously, to its conclusion, each apprehension, judgment and element of character falls into place.
Colegate's superb descriptions of landscape, weather, light and the movement of birds and animals pace the tension and reinforce the moods of the book. "The Shooting Party" is remarkably visual and evocative. Characters too are caught in stunning images and tableaux that convey the essence of their natures, the sweep of their emotions. Olivia feels the excitement of the shoot, its parallel to war: ". . . it was something to do with the sunlight through the trees, and the groups of men moving through the trees and converging on to the wide green ride by the river, and the whining of Glass' dog . . . even . . . with Aline's hat . . . a dark velvet thing with a sweeping feather." As the story progresses, the light fades, "the gold in the scene . . . lightly sponged away to give a less emphatic tone." The autumnal mood, reflected in the settings, is deepened not only by approaching death, but by the reader's knowledge of the war to begin soon after.
The events and characterizations are both more poignant and more ironic for what the characters cannot see: the impact of history on their lives, the way the future will challenge and diminish "their air of assurance, their common assumptions, their absolute authority," which makes them seem so satisfied, so splendid, "so beautiful and brave." Just as they cannot know or avoid the accident, they cannot judge the enormity of happenings beyond their control. Those like Sir Randolph, who doubt the future, or Olivia, who doubt the absolute rightness of their world, do so mildly. Their uncertainty lends thoughtfulness and intelligence to the novel. Yet even the unorthodox Sir Randolph will not ponder too deeply a painting that fascinates him. "He liked it as he liked certain pieces of music and would have hated to have it moved, cleaned or elucidated."
It is, in fact, their acceptance of a ceremonious, ritualistic, prescribed way of life, depending on "the alternate demands of technique and good manners," which makes these characters so interesting and so vulnerable. For "the shooting party" is a metaphor for the workings of polite society, just as it might serve as a metaphor for the movement of Europe toward war. At each level there are disturbing forces underlying the civilized order; and in each case the participants, like all participants in human life, can only see in hindsight where their assumptions went wrong.