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Posy Fallowfield on Isabel Colegate, The Shooting Party, SF Issue 72

Not While It’s Running

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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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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 sporting little beasts’, on no account can you shoot deer. When a terrified roe deer bursts out of the undergrowth in front of the line of guns, Tibor Rakassyi, a Hungarian count not completely at ease among his English hosts (and wearing his new Norfolk jacket ‘perhaps a little more tightly belted than an Englishman would have worn it’), raises his gun but – and here I am reminded of my father – stops himself from firing just in time.
A smile seemed to be passed along the line in the wake of the animal. Tibor accordingly received it from Lionel Stephens and passed it on to Tommy Farmer, rather as if it were an item, a slipper perhaps, in one of those mysterious games which Cicely would insist on playing after dinner.
The roe deer is indulged, while the game birds are slaughtered in their hundreds. But this book is much more than a description of the mores of wealthy Edwardians at play; the other side of the etiquette coin might be said to be duty. Sir Randolph is a landowner of the old school who feels fiercely responsible for his land, his tenants, his estate workers, his servants. He knows them all by name and is acquainted with their various circumstances; he knows when a roof needs mending and the man to do it, congratulating him on a job well done despite being aware that the man poaches regularly on his estate; when the gamekeeper’s son Dan shows an interest in scientific study Sir Randolph offers to pay for his education. Hearing that a neighbouring landowner is thinking of letting out his estate, he fulminates:
‘Of course he can’t keep up with the costs, none of us can keep up with the costs. I’m mortgaged up to the hilt . . . Who’s he found to let it to then? Some damned newspaper proprietor I suppose. Somebody who’ll do nothing but entertain his friends from Town and not give a thought to his obligations. The countryside needs all the help it can get in times like this.’
Sir Randolph senses that he may be one of a dying breed but he worries for the future of the countryside, saying, ‘If the landlord class goes, everything goes. It will be the ruin of rural England.’ He does not (unlike Minnie, who is used to her luxuries) worry for himself, but he does grieve that the politicians are more concerned with urban issues than rural ones and he is well aware that the barbarians – in the shape of ‘striking industrial workers, screaming suffragettes, Irish terrorists, scandals on the Stock Exchange, universal suffrage’ – are at the gate. Of course the reader knows that both the Edwardian code of etiquette and the paternalism of good landlords are about to be blown away in what Colegate bluntly calls ‘a bigger shooting party . . . in Flanders’. We know too that houses with a full complement of servants are about to become a thing of the past. There is a wonderful scene in which Minnie confers with her head gardener while four men and a boy work in a nearby flowerbed; the thought of employing so many gardeners makes one’s eyes water. When the guests stop for lunch on the third day of the shoot, their hosts contrive that they arrive at the boathouse; Minnie has had this converted to a ‘rustic summerhouse’ where the guests can sit down to lunch (beginning with lobster vol-au-vents and champagne) attended by the butler and two footmen, surrounded by comfortable furnishings, warmed by a log fire. And yet at this lunch Sir Randolph says to his neighbour, ‘We are going to have a very different world, a world in which you and I . . . will each of us be dodos.’ There is much talk of change among the other characters, too; while there is affection for the old ways, the country rituals, there is also an undercurrent of questioning. Tom Harker, the poacher, talks of the ‘stranglehold of the rich’ and likes to quote Lloyd George. An anti-bloodsports campaigner appears on the scene and, although a confused and sometimes ludicrous character, does blurt out – at the most inopportune moment – ‘If only I could make you see how utterly absurd you all are!’ The beaters, the loaders, the men in the pub all talk about politics and, while most heartily distrust politicians, everyone seems to be engaged. No one actually knows war is coming but there is a definite sense that society is on the brink of change. In a brilliant use of dramatic irony, Colegate lets us overhear a heart-breaking conversation among some of the boys who are talking excitedly about their futures: one of them says, ‘I may be going into the Army. It might be more fun.’ And one of the more reflective guests compares the shoot to a military manoeuvre: ‘We have bivouacked and are moving off now to the front line. War might be like this, casual, friendly and frightening.’ It is this same guest who then privately wonders, ‘Are we really all so beautiful and brave . . . or do we just think we are?’ Colegate introduces, and then confidently moves among, an array of fully drawn characters. We encounter the house-guests (an assortment of the socially confident and the insecure, the bright and the not-so-bright, the moral and the amoral), Sir Randolph’s daughter-in-law and her four children, John the footman, Ellen the housemaid, Glass the gamekeeper, his son Dan, Harker the poacher and Cardew the campaigner. We are privy to fears, jealousies, ambitions and passions, all explored with careful understanding so that any judgements feel like the reader’s own. The only character for whom the author shows scant sympathy is the one who commits that unforgivable breach of etiquette. And then there is the duck. The duck, an important character in the sub-plot, appears early on in the drawing-room. A pet of Sir Randolph’s grandson Osbert, it wanders in as the guests are having tea, suddenly becoming the centre of attention and providing an opportunity for some of the description at which Colegate excels:
It opened its mouth in a sort of yawn – no sound emerged – it shut it again, shook its feathers slightly, then slowly extended one leg sideways as if in a dance movement. It then stretched one wing along the length of the leg, opening to view a patch of deep bright blue feathers barred with white which had been concealed beneath the speckled brown of its wing.
The fate of Osbert’s duck is yet another source of the tension that builds during the course of this book, a page-turner describing characters you will care about, enacting a drama you will remember, in a glorious setting. It is a book built upon tensions (and not just because of all those loaded guns): not only the evident tensions between rich and poor, luxury and poverty, bloodlust and pacificism, but the tensions within each individual too and the private costs of heroism, altruism and virtue. The Shooting Party is rich in meticulous description and a kaleidoscopic range of characters, but – poised at that moment of history as it is – it also asks big questions. Early on someone queries, ‘Who says it’s the height of heroism to kill? For every hero does there have to be a living sacrifice?’ Gifted with hindsight, the reader can answer that. And, on the subject of society being forced to change, we witness Sir Randolph, many years later, sadly contemplating ‘a sort of mass loss of memory, and the replacement of the common understandings of a civilized society by the destructive egotism of a barbaric one’. Meanwhile, back in 1913 on the Nettleby estate, it is felt ‘something must be going to happen’. Yes indeed.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 72 © Posy Fallowfield 2021


About the contributor

Posy Fallowfield’s father was allowed to go out partridge-shooting with the neighbours (which was when he learnt it was only sporting to shoot a bird that was in flight); but those shoots were simple affairs, lunch being a hard-boiled egg out of his pocket.

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