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The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Hamish Hamilton, 1980; Penguin Classics, 2007

I ordered this modern classic, which I’ve never read, for two reasons: (i) there are an enormous number of mid-late twentieth century female novelists who I’d like to explore properly (EM Delafield, Elizabeth von Arnim, Barbara Comyns, Barbara Pym, Olivia Manning …) and (ii) like many of us, the pandemic has got me thinking about periods of seismic social and cultural change – what triggers them, what changes, and whether those changes stick.

Set in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party is a short, set piece taking place over a couple of days at the last major shoot of the season on the estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby, a genial, big-hearted but decidedly old-school landowner. It was adapted for the screen with an all-star cast in 1985 (available here on YouTube and well worth its 90 minutes), and its tight cast of characters would make for neat stage play.

Like the many other books set in this portentous year, the threat of war hangs over the party, but at Nettleby Park there are signs of other cracks in the “old order” too. Amongst the guests and staff we have a self-made man, a feminist, a decidedly “un-English” European nobleman, a good contender for a new-Labour type intellectual, the game-keeper’s son who intends to pursue a career as a scientist; and a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, who interrupts proceedings with placards and pamphlets.

Books which were written some time ago (this one in 1980) and set in a period some time before that invite a double-layered reading. In this case, the theme of the “old” order is revisited following another pivotal moment of societal change: three decades after World War II during which country houses were demolished en masse, with little interest shown in their heritage. With enough time elapsed, the eighties saw a new-found curiosity for what had gone before. And the depiction of Colegate’s defined set of characters was, of course, only possible in retrospect.

What is brilliant about this novel is that it neither seeks to condemn nor condone a previous age, but instead sees its values and characters as both of their time, and ripe for building on – which, of course, is the nature of progress. Some great lines include young Osbert’s “but who invents the rules of manly behaviour? Who says it’s the height of heroism to kill?” and burgeoning feminist Olivia’s “... I would really like to rebel against the world that men have made, if I knew how to.”

Evolution rather than revolution is key. Ultimately the socialist activist Cornelius Cardew fails to gain traction. Unable to get the rural peasants onside with his cause to turn over the land to “the people” (he finds that on the contrary, they are unexpectedly proud to be part of the old order of things), Cornelius’s only ally turns out to be Sir Randolph himself, who, with his own cause to espouse (the protection of the rural economy and ecosystem in the face of industrialisation), is fascinated by the idea of pamphleteering and asks for a referral to Cornelius’s printer.

Global events such as wars and pandemics accelerate the long path of social and cultural change – changes that were under way regardless, given a turbulent shot and taking us on a rocky ride, but ultimately headed in the right direction and both natural and essential to human progress.

In any period such as that of our own, it’s easy to imagine that cultural wars have never been seen before. This gem of a novel shows us otherwise, and suggests that we might build on rather than eliminate what has gone before when fashioning the next chapter in our journey. And I'll be building on this reading by exploring more of Colegate's work.

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