My father used to tell a story about a Frenchman (the dependable butt of Edwardian jokes) being invited to some large estate for a shoot. Seeing a cock pheasant coming into the open and running alongside a wood, he levels his gun to aim at it. At which his English host says, ‘My dear man, you can’t shoot it while it’s running!’ The Frenchman replies, ‘Certainly not, I shall wait until it stops.’ This used to make my father fall about laughing but I could never understand why.
Matters of Edwardian etiquette are central to Isabel Colegate’s novel The Shooting Party (1980). It is set in 1913, a year of agonizing significance, on an 8,000-acre country estate owned by Sir Randolph Nettleby, and the action takes place in the course of a day, the third of a three-day shoot. Various elegant and affluent guests constitute the house party; Minnie, Sir Randolph’s wife, supervises the catering and the entertainment down to the last detail; the household staff ensure everything runs like clockwork; the gamekeeper has planned and brought off a superb three days’ sport – but due to a breach of etiquette the day ends with an obscenely shocking, unforeseen, tragedy.
Etiquette – or the ‘customs of the tribe’, as Colegate refers to it at one point – crops up repeatedly; one of the guests is upset at having the wrong shirt studs with him, and when his wife accuses him of being ridiculous, he replies: ‘It’s all very well. Dismiss these things if you like, but they are the structure of our lives and if we lose respect for them we lose respect for ourselves.’
Etiquette dictates, for the hostess Minnie, that certain guests known to be conducting an extra-marital affair are invited together; etiquette dictates that sport is not a subject for conversation when ladies are present; etiquette dictates that shooting must never be competitive. It also dictates what you can and cannot shoot: while rabbits are described as ‘thoroughly spo
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