Monday 11 November 2013

Shooting Pheasants...

Well, despite my best endeavours, I’ve been busy over the last week or so (Oxfam bits and pieces, and an unexpected visit from my Younger Daughter), so I’ve not been looking at anyone else’s posts, or checking my own, and consequently missed seeing that I had been selected by Jane and Briar, over at Fleur in Her World, as a participant in their Who Reads these Books quiz! I was mortified at not spotting it the day it was published, because I love these posts, even though I am so rubbish at guessing. In fact, I have to admit I don’t think I would have realised this was me, because one of ‘my’ books selected by Jane and Briar was well outside my usual enthusiasms!

If you’ve never visited Jane’s blog, and don’t know how the game works, she chooses three bloggers (but doesn’t name them), and posts up pictures of five of their favourite books, and readers have to guess who owns the volumes shown… It was lovely being featured, especially as it came hard on the heels of Simon T’s invitation for me to take part in his latest round of My Life in Books. For those who haven’t seen the first part of Jane’s quiz, you’ll find it here, while a follow-up post, revealing the answers, is here.

Anyway, I feel very guilty at not posting new anything new for more than a week, so anyone dropping by has only been able to look at my old stuff. I will try and do better in future! 
The Shooting Party.
So, an overdue book review! When I wrote about my thoughts on JL Carr’s A Month in the Country, Helen suggested that Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party would  make an interesting comparison, so I added it to my Wish List, and forgot all about it until I realised it was last month’s choice over at Cornflower Book Group. I ordered a second-hand copy online, but it didn’t arrive until the end of the read!

It does make an interesting companion piece to Carr’s book, however I’m not raving about it in quite the same way, although I did enjoy it. It’s a very slender novel which takes place over a very short time period – roughly 24 hours. And it portrays a small, enclosed society, a kind of golden age when everything seems perfect, when everyone knows their place, but there are cracks just below the surface. There’s a feeling that things are changing and will never be the same again. But that sense of loss seems to relate to the world outside the characters, not to the events in the novel or the people themselves. I don’t think they are changed by what happens – in fact some of them end up pursuing a different course in life which turns out to be the right path for them, so the book lacks the feeling of blighted lives and missed opportunities which suffuses Carr’s story. 

The Shooting Party is set in October 1913, October, less than a year before the First World War, as a group of aristocrats gather at Sir Randolph Nettleby’s estate for a shooting party. We know from the outset that someone will lose their life, but who, and how are not revealed until later. And there isn’t really a why… the death is senseless and pointless; coupled with the slaughter of all the game birds (bred just to be shot), it foreshadows the tragedy of the forthcoming war when a generation of young men were killed, just as senselessly, and just as pointlessly. 
A pheasant. I think they are such beautiful, exotic birds.
The scale of the shoot is astounding. On the final day there are just eight men in the party, and well over 40 beaters(all clad in long whitish smocks, so interloping poachers can be identified) to scare the birds into flight and certain death. On gthe final day the bag for the morning (not counting the afternoon duck shoot) totals 504 pheasants, as well as hare, rabbits, and woodcock. All shot by eight men! Whatever did they do with all that meat? I know game has to be well hung and, presumably, each man took his own kill home with him, but there must have been more stuff here than could ever be eaten. But I suppose eating it wasn’t important – it was sport, and showing your skill at shooting, and behaving in the right way that were important.

Colegate’s research is meticulous, and her portrayal of the lifestyle of the upper classes on the eve of the First World War is excellent – food, manners, clothes and relationships all come under her scrutiny. And I was fascinated to see how the behaviour of these wealthy, leisured people is reflected in the attitudes of their servants and lower classes. There’s intense rivalry between the men attending the two best marksmen: they acquire a glory of their own through the achievements of their masters. And the relationship between maid Ellen and footman John echoes the much more idealised love between Lionel Stephenson and beautiful, married Olivia Lilburn. Indeed, John even steals Lionel’s unsent love letter, hankering after noble thoughts about truth and beauty – but in so doing he loses his loses his own true voice.

The only person who seems free from the pressures imposed by society or the need for other people is poacher Tom Harker, who is satisfied with his life and the company of his dog. And yet Tom is the one doomed to lose his life when the man acknowledged by all as the best marksman lets off a careless shot, desperate to retain his reputation and keep the crown he is losing to a younger man.

Even Socialist, vegetarian, animal rights protester Cornelius Cardew aspires to be part of the magical circle he professes to despise. He interrupts the shoot with his ‘Thou shalt not kill banner’ and his views on Universal Kinship – but he dreams of being invited to tea. Actually, he is such a crank that I felt quite angry with Colegate for making him a caricature! Surprisingly, his confrontation with the shooting party gave me much more sympathy with Sir Randolph, who was able to diffuse the situation by agreeing with some of Cardew’s views (everyone else would have run him off the estate). Ironically, it is Sir Randolph the landowner, rather than Cardew the campaigner, who has a clearer grasp of the issues involved, and who cares most passionately about the countryside and the people who live and work in it. He is also the only person who sees that the way of life enjoyed by his class is changing, and can never be recaptured.

But it is Cornelius who sums up my response to the novel. When Tom is killed Cornelius is:

… frozen by his own helplessness and by the curious sensation he had as if he were watching the whole scene reflected in a mirror or through a window he could not open.

There are lots of good things about the novel, but I didn’t quite connect with the characters, and felt as if I were viewing them through a telescope, so they were distant, and rather untouchable.


  1. (The combination of the Persephone Short Stories and Miss Hargreaves gave it away for me!) I think I'm missing the country house loving gene - I still haven't watched Downton Abbey (although I have got as far as buying the first season). I wonder if the knowledge of what is to come with WW1 makes me too impatient with the wastefulness and folly. Hmmm.

    1. I'm impressed - that's very clever of you! I haven't watched Downton either, but I do enjoy that whole country house thing, especially those set in the 1880s and 90s and the period leading up to WW1, and then the years between the wars. But they do have a tendency to bring out my socialist principles!

  2. When a few people were raving about The Shooting Party, I read it, but I'm afraid I liked it even less than you! I found it so very boring, it was a big let-down...

    I was amused by the five books chosen for you by Briar, because four of them are ones I love - and led a few people into guessing me, as I might have done if I hadn't appeared in a previous edition!

    1. I gather lots of people were fooled! I take it as a huge compliment that they thought I was you!