“Are we really all so beautiful and brave, she thought, or do we just think we are?” – The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate

September 29, 2008 at 10:36 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

Some years ago, I led a discussion of Ordinary Love & Good Will by Jane Smiley. In the course of preparing for that discussion, if memory serves (which, God willing, it will continue to do for a while longer), I came across comment by Smiley in which she explains why she felt compelled to write fiction. She had just finished a novel that had affected her deeply, and one of her thoughts on completing it was:

” I knew this was for me – this creation of worlds.”

Jane Smiley - one of my favorite writers!

Jane Smiley - one of my favorite writers!

I have rarely encountered a fictional world so fully realized as that summoned forth by Isabel Colegate in The Shooting Party. This slender novel – just under 200 pages –  came out in 1980, but it has the feel of a much older work.

It is autumn of the year 1913.  Sir Randolph Nettleby has brought together some of England’s most accomplished sportsmen for a weekend of world class shooting at his country house in Oxfordshire. Some come singly; others are with their wives. (Children are invariably left at home with the nanny.)

On the surface, the mood is festive. But there are undercurrents. A rivalry has sprung up between Lord Gilbert Hartlip and Lionel Stephens. Sir Randolph discourages such competitive tendencies, believing them to be a violation of the unwritten rules of good sportsmanship. And Lionel Stephens has another problem: he has fallen hopelessly in love with the beautiful Olivia Lilburn, a married woman and mother of a son.

Here is part of a letter Lionel writes to Olivia:

“There is a certain smile you have which I cannot meet–not because it dazzles me, though it is dazzling–but because it is so innocent. It’s as if you didn’t know how much I love you, how much–for it must be so–you love me, or are going to love me. It’s not for nothing–how could it be?–that all those ordinary hesitancies which veil people from one another were never there between us. From the first we looked at each other from heart to heart–oh how we looked–‘My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears  And true plain hearts do in the faces rest.’

This letter is never sent, though it is later put to questionable use in another context. (The quote is from the poem “The Good-Morrow” by John Donne.)

Until I read this book, I hadn’t realized what a highly structured event a shooting party was. A veritable army of workers from Lord Randolph’s estate and the nearby village are required to make the necessary preparations. Shooters move from location to location along a prescribed route. Each shooter has a loader behind him, so that he can keep shooting without interruption.

The result of this activity, pursued with zestful energy, is carnage on an incredible scale:

“Glass walked along the line of dead pheasants, crooking two fingers round the neck of every tenth bird and pulling it forward to make re-counting easier.

‘Five hundred and four,’ he reported provisionally to Sir Randolph, before going on to count the hares, rabbits and woodcocks (and the jay shot as vermin by young Marcus).

This was the tally for just one of several “drives” of that day.

Sir Randolph’s response to this accounting, BTW, is “Well done.”

Some guests harbor reservations about the nature of the weekend’s activities. Olivia admits her uneasiness, which is heightened by fears for her son. She allows that she can comprehend “the beauty of a good shoot,” and yet: “…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?” Her anxious speculation foreshadows the horror of the war soon to engulf Europe. No one taking part in this country idyll will escape its devastating effects.

In a recent post,  Six Gifted Englishwomen, I used an article by Jonathan Yardley as a springboard for a discussion of some off my favorite authors. In his piece, Yardley sang the praises of The Shooting Party. I hadn’t read it at that time, but now that I have, I can only express my gratitude for the recommendation. This is not only the best novel I’ve read this year – it is one of the best I’ve ever read. It features compelling characters, prose of luminous beauty, and most of all, an unsentimental and immensely moving valediction for a fast-vanishing world.


  1. nicdafis said,

    The Shooting Party was the first of the books I ordered form eBay after readng your previous post, and I’ve read most of it in one sitting this afternoon and evening. Really, really good. Colegate weaves a good tale, an the lightness of touch impresses on every page. Almost dreading the end of the book. What will happen to Osbert’s poor duck?

    No, don’t answer that. 😉

    Thanks again.

  2. Post Book World (print edition) postmortem « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] As we scroll down, more reviews appear; there is news of the publishing world as well, and also Mary Karr’s highly valued Poet’s Choice. Towards the bottom of the page, there are links to past reviews by Jonathan Yardley, Michael Dirda, Ron Charles, Patrick Anderson, Mary Karr, and Carolyn See, excellent critics all. For those of us who love mystery and suspense, it’s a treat to have ready access to Patrick Anderson’s insightful pieces on our favorite fiction genre. Also I was delighted to see a link to Jonathan Yardley’s occasional column, Second Reading. He it was who put me on to Isabel Colegate’s superb The Shooting Party. […]

  3. The Shooting Party « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] doing in these beautiful surroundings is killing birds at an incredible clip. I gave the numbers in my review of the novel, calling it carnage on an incredible scale. Actually seeing it makes it seem even more brutal. Also […]

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of Marvels – Barry Unsworth The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate The Fall of Troy and The Lambs of London – Peter Ackroyd Arthur & […]

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